Helping people see better and look good at the same time is the job of a dispensing optician. Dispensing opticians help select and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses for people with eye problems, following prescriptions written by ophthalmologists or optometrists. Dispensing opticians recommend eyeglass frames, lenses, and lens coatings after considering the prescription and the customer's occupation, habits, and facial features. When fitting new eyeglasses, opticians use sophisticated diagnostic instruments to measure various characteristics of a client’s eyes, including the thickness, width, curvature, and surface topography of the cornea. They also obtain a customer's prescription history to re-make eyeglasses or contact lenses, or they may verify a prescription with the examining optometrist or ophthalmologist.
Dispensing opticians prepare work orders that give ophthalmic laboratory technicians the information they need to grind and insert lenses into a frame. The work order includes prescriptions for lenses and information on their size, material, color, and style. Some dispensing opticians grind and insert lenses themselves. They may also apply tint to lenses. After the glasses are made, dispensing opticians verify that the lenses meet the specifications, and then they may reshape or bend the frames with pliers for a custom fit.
Many opticians also spend time fixing and refitting broken frames, as well as instructing clients about wearing or caring for eyeglasses. Additionally, administrative duties have become a major part of their work, including keeping records on customers' prescriptions, work orders, and payments, and tracking inventory and sales.
Some dispensing opticians, after additional education and training, specialize in fitting contacts, artificial eyes, or cosmetic shells to cover blemished eyes. To fit contact lenses, dispensing opticians measure the shape and size of the eye, select the type of contact lens material, and prepare work orders specifying the prescription and lens size. Dispensing opticians observe customers' eyes, corneas, lids, and contact lenses with sophisticated instruments and microscopes. During several followup visits, opticians teach proper insertion, removal, and care of contact lenses.
Opticians held about 69,800 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of opticians were as follows:
- Offices of optometrists - 39%
- Health and personal care stores - 28%
- Offices of physicians - 12%
- Self-employed workers - 2%
Opticians who work as part of a group optometry or medical practice work with optometrists and ophthalmologists to provide eye-related medical care to patients.
Opticians who work in large retail establishments, such as department stores, may have to work evenings and weekends. Most opticians work full time, although part-time opportunities also are available.
Education & Training Required
Although a high school diploma is all that is required to get into this occupation, most workers have completed at least some college courses or a degree. Classes in physics, basic anatomy, algebra, and trigonometry as well as experience with computers are particularly valuable. These classes prepare dispensing opticians to learn job skills, including optical mathematics, optical physics, and the use of precision measuring instruments and other machinery and tools.
Structured apprenticeship programs are more commonly available in States where licensing is not mandatory, and these programs are usually offered by large employers. Apprentices receive technical instruction along with training in office management and sales. Under the supervision of an experienced optician, optometrist, or ophthalmologist, apprentices work directly with patients, fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses.
Formal training in the field is offered in community colleges and in a few 4-year colleges and universities. As of 2008, the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation accredited 22 associate degree programs in 13 states. Graduation from an accredited program in opticianry can be advantageous as it provides a nationally recognized credential.
As of 2009, twenty-two States require dispensing opticians to be licensed. States may require individuals to pass one or more of the following for licensure: a State practical examination, a State written examination, and certification examinations offered by the American Board of Opticianry (ABO) and the National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE). To qualify for the examinations, States often require applicants to complete postsecondary training or work as apprentices for 2 to 4 years.
Some States allow graduates of opticianry programs to take the licensure exam immediately upon graduation; others require a few months to a year of experience. Continuing education is commonly required for licensure renewal. Information about specific licensing requirements is available from the State board of occupational licensing.
Other Skills Required
Any optician can apply to the ABO and the NCLE for certification of their skills. Certification signifies to customers and employers that an optician has a certain level of expertise. Certification must be renewed every 3 years through continuing education. The State of Texas offers voluntary registration for the occupation.
Dispensing opticians deal directly with the public, so they should be tactful, pleasant, and able to communicate well. Fitting contact lenses requires considerable skill, care, and patience, so manual dexterity and the ability to do precision work are essential.
How to Advance
A few experienced dispensing opticians open their own optical stores. Some become managers of optical stores or sales representatives for wholesalers or manufacturers of eyeglasses or lenses.
Employment of opticians is projected to grow 6 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 5,900 openings for opticians are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
The growth in the older population is anticipated to lead to greater demand for eye care services. Because people usually have eye problems more frequently as they age, the need for opticians is likely to grow with the increase in the number of older people.
Increasing rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes also may increase demand for opticianry services because some chronic diseases cause vision problems. Additional opticians will be needed to fill prescriptions for corrective eyewear for individuals with conditions that damage their eyesight.
However, employment growth is expected to be constrained by increases in productivity that will allow a given number of opticians to serve more customers.
The median annual wage for opticians was $37,570 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,910, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $60,280.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for opticians in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Offices of physicians - $44,400
- Health and personal care stores - $39,180
- Offices of optometrists - $36,810
Opticians employed in retail settings may work evenings and weekends. Most opticians work full time, although part-time opportunities also are available.