How to Become an Optician
An optician works at the exciting juncture of health and fashion. These skilled professionals, also known as dispensing opticians, prepare prescription eyeglass lenses, help customers choose eyeglass frames and tailor the frames to customers’ unique facial measurements. When customers need contact lenses instead, opticians adjust the fit of the lenses to the eyes.
An important part of an optician’s job is to make sure that customers are comfortable enough with their new eyeglass frames (or contact lenses) to wear them as prescribed. During consultations, an optician considers the type of lenses as well as the context in which a customer will use them (for example at a construction site versus an office cubicle) to make a recommendation well suited to the individual's lifestyle.
In many ways, a dispensing optician's job is analogous to that of a pharmacist who dispenses drugs based on prescriptions written by physicians. Although opticians do not write prescriptions for lenses, they must understand the science and reasoning behind them. (Some opticians are qualified to operate the equipment that grinds lenses, while others send completed work orders to a lab that crafts lenses.) To be an optician is to make life easier, safer and more comfortable for the many people who require prescriptive lenses, from child to new parent to senior citizen.
Most dispensing opticians work for an optometrist, who either has an office practice or works in an eyewear store. Many different types of stores now sell eyeglasses and contact lenses—from specialized shops to department stores—and opticians may work in any of these environments.
Opticians who are employed in eyewear stores and department stores generally work some evenings and weekends. Those employed in optometrists’ or ophthalmologists’ offices will have more regular hours. Most work full time, although some are employed on a part-time basis.
Becoming an optician requires a high school diploma or an approved GED equivalent, followed by formal education and training or an apprenticeship.
Many opticians go to college for a two-year associate’s degree in opticianry, which involves coursework in basic anatomy, eye anatomy, algebra and trigonometry, optical physics and mathematics and administration. They also learn about precision measuring equipment and techniques and optical instrumentation. More advanced studies include classes on fitting contact lens and vision prosthetics.
Whether opticians study at a community college or university, it is recommended that students choose an opticianry program that is accredited by the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation, a nationally recognized professional board.
Prospective opticians who take the apprenticeship path are required to undergo a two- to four-year period of on-the-job training under the supervision of a licensed optician.
Licensing and/or Certification
Licensing and certification requirements for dispensing opticians vary from state to state. State licenses are issued after successful completion of a practical or written examination and some states may require both. State eligibility requirements for sitting for opticianry exams also vary. Some states require applicants to have an associate’s degree or an apprenticeship of two to four years. In addition, opticians can qualify for voluntary certification by two nationally recognized professional organizations:
- American Board of Opticianry (ABO)
- National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE)
Information about certification from both organizations is available on their combined website (ABO/NCLE).
Basic examinations in each area consist of 125 multiple-choice questions. Candidates must be 18 years of age and hold a high school diploma or equivalent GED. Certification must be renewed after three years and opticians are expected to keep up with developments in the field by taking a certain number of approved continuing education courses.
Although this certification is not mandated, some states recognize the certificate, and many employers—and customers—prefer an optician who has ABO and/or NCLE certification.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Opticians work closely with customers of all ages, from young children to senior citizens. Therefore, good people skills are important, especially the ability to make customers feel at ease. Customers who are getting glasses for the first time are often uncertain or uncomfortable and an optician can help ensure that they're prepared for the transition to wearing prescriptive eyewear.
In addition, customizing and adjusting eyeglasses requires patience and attention to detail, and fitting contact lenses demands a steady hand. Opticians write out the work orders that are used by ophthalmic lab technicians, who grind lenses and assemble the components of each pair of eyeglasses. These specifications must be meticulous and accurate.
Opportunities for Advancement
Certification and experience may enable opticians to advance to management positions. These positions are available in workplaces with multiple opticians, such as eye care stores or department stores. In an optometrist’s office or ophthalmologist’s office, certification and experience can trigger an increase in pay.
The average annual wage for an optician is $32,940. However, salaries range from $21,070 to $50,780. Jobs at surgical hospitals pay more than most walk-in eye care stores, and opticians in New Jersey and Connecticut have higher average salaries than those in other parts of the country.
There are many job opportunities for licensed opticians. Employment of opticians is expected to grow by 29 percent from 2010 to 2020, significantly faster than the average for all occupations. These professionals may find employment with optometrists, ophthalmologists, eye care centers or department stores. Keeping up to date with industry changes and new product developments will give opticians an edge in the job market. Certification will also offer an advantage when applying for jobs.