Optical dispensing is a specialized role within the life and work of the optical practice, and depending on who you are speaking with, that role can be regarded as:

1.    A minor role assisting with some aspects of retail activity, OR

2.    A considerable role, interacting with most customers, complimenting the work of the optometrists, and generating significant practice income, OR

3.    A major, highly valued role, managing the retail and dispensing operations, interacting with almost every customer, working closely with the optometrists, setting the “fashion tone” of the practice and generating the bulk of the practice income.

Of course, the most progressive, successful and industry leading practices and corporations have adopted view number 3!

Therefore it goes without saying that the training of dispensers is a critical issue and concern in the life of our practices and wider industry.

To draw a playful analogy, you might recall a delightful animated movie series in recent years in which a mythical Nordic village lived nearby to a marauding dangerous horde of fire breathing, destruction bringing dragons. One day a young village boy comes into contact with a young dragon, and instead of fighting to the death they befriend each other. But soon the young boy realizes that his new dragon friend has both the potential to be an amazing, powerful soulmate and ally, or conversely an out of control, havoc wreaking threat that could burn you and all around you. Of course the story goes that the dragon responded superbly to the boy’s training and eventually the new duo would become a powerful and respected force together and the envy of all other dragons and villagers.

Keeping this wisdom in mind, could we say then it follows that every time an employer or practice manager takes the interest and time to train their new, budding trainee dispenser well, and should the trainee dispenser respond accordingly, then a friendship and partnership can bloom that knows no optical bounds?

This short article will suggest there are 7 significant stages to complete to ensure the training of your new dispenser progresses as smoothly and successfully as possible, for the benefit of all parties.

1.    Recruitment – the advertisement and the interview

For an ultimately successful training outcome we need to start at the very start – even before the new dispenser begins their first day. And that is the recruitment process, the gathering of the most ideal applicants and the selection of the successful candidate.

In order to attract the right applicants, the position advertisement and the advice given to position enquiries is essential. The message must be unambiguous – this new position has real career potential, it comes packaged with a rigorous full training program of both on the job and enrolment into the recognized and highly regarded Certificate IV in Optical Dispensing, and the expectation that the successful candidate will apply themselves diligently to both their work and study. This carefully crafted advertisement and message will achieve two outcomes – it will not only help to attract the right applicants who are highly responsive to these wonderful but specific opportunities, but will also help to screen out and deter the inappropriate applicants, those who are inappropriate because perhaps they are only seeking short term employment, or are not attracted to study and qualifications at this particular time on their life, or for any other number of reasons.

And when the applicants have been selected for interview, again the interviewer must carefully and skillfully handle the interview in such a manner that the applicant has the opportunity to clearly demonstrate their own fitness for this demanding but rewarding position.

2.    Employee induction

The induction process of any new employee is so important and yet so often poorly conducted. If we can help the new employee to feel welcome and then assist them to become a productive member in some capacity as soon as possible, this will set both the new employee and the company up for a mutual, long term positive experience. We don’t have the space here to list what a comprehensive induction program can look like, but it needs to be prepared thoughtfully and sensitively and will certainly include meeting the team, clear discussion and information regarding company values and history, hours of work, contracts, your work, health and safety policies, reasonable and appropriate performance expectations and accountability for a new dispenser, follow-up and even feedback.

But regarding the “optical” induction of the new dispenser, it is crucial to avoid overwhelming and overloading the new team member. In case you have forgotten your first day of work in optical, it involves an incredibly steep learning curve. Optics is a world of its own with its own complex language, confusing numbers, scientific looking lenses and a vast array of various and colourful spectacle frames that just seem to stare at you from the walls! Remember, it is natural and to be expected that any new appointee will take some time to absorb, settle into and adjust to this new environment and it will not help if there is a perceived expectation and pressure to “come up to speed” at an unreasonable rate. Give the new dispenser the reassurances that you know this settling in period will take a little time, manage their experiences and workload sensitively, and allow them to adjust at a humane rate, and the outcomes will be a more positive, encouraged and well adjusted new dispenser ready and eager for the next step.

3.    First skills and supervision

While we do suggest a controlled and sensitive induction to the position, it is a positive move to introduce the new dispenser to a few basic dispensing practical skills as soon as appropriate, in a positive and supportive manner. Perhaps ask the new dispenser to follow you through a dispense, asking the customer for their permission (which nearly always is forthcoming), discuss a few key tasks as you demonstrate and complete them, and when you feel the time is right allow the new dispenser to participate – perhaps a PD measurement with the pupillometer, perhaps some practise adjustments on older frames that are not for sale and can be used for training, or the operation of the auto-refractor, all under supervision. Over time and with practice your new dispenser will have started the development of their practical skills which will continue for the life of their optical career.

4.    Preparation for and enrolment into the Certificate IV in Optical Dispensing

Your new dispenser has known from the outset that enrolment into the recognized dispensing course was coming and it is helpful for both the trainer and new dispenser to keep that in mind. Student progress records and student feedback through the course indicate that it is preferable to allow a few months of “settling in” to the new job before embarking on this second new world of learning and challenge. Three to six months is normally plenty of time to adjust and then be ready for this next step. However, in order to take advantage of the generous government sponsored traineeship programs that are available for optical dispensing, optical dispensing traineeship regulations stipulate only “new entrant trainees” qualify, which means the new dispenser must be signed on for the traineeship within the first three months of their employment. Therefore we would suggest you ensure this occurs in order to qualify for this generous level of support, and discuss any further questions you may have with your proposed training college and/or an official traineeship/apprenticeship centre.

5.    Ongoing support throughout the course period

Depending on the specifics of the program your employee is enrolled into, they will undergo a course of flexible study from between 6 months and two years or more, in a blended program mixing online learning with face-to-face practical sessions, and will be trained in a variety of relevant subjects including theory of optics and lenses, practical dispensing skills, retail and business skills and people and communication skills. Again, the support of the employer/manager through this period of employee development in crucial.

After more than twenty years teaching this course, it is clear that the attainment of this qualification is a key to the industry and can be a huge moment in the life of the student. For many, this course is their first experience of tertiary education and the opportunity to be part of this wonderful sense of student achievement, growth in personal pride and satisfaction is very precious. And helping to make all this possible is again the support and encouragement of the workplace. Every student needs the opportunity to practise the skills they are learning in their course and to receive some encouraging workplace feedback on their development. Employers need to keep in mind that the course will train the students in a variety of skills and techniques, and some of these may differ to those practised at each individual workplace, and that these differences are to be assessed and appreciated rather than simply dismissed.

And it is realistic and appropriate to add here that while positive and sensitive workplace encouragement is always essential, for some employees a little reminder that accountability and transparency regarding course attendance and progress itself can act as a motivating factor as well!

6.    Course completion celebration

As stated earlier, the successful completion of this course is a praise worthy achievement and deserves to be celebrated accordingly. It is wonderful when employers join this celebration, and they can even contribute towards it and enhance it. One creative and motivating idea used by some employers to great success is to discuss with the employee exactly what level of course support will be offered, and perhaps this could include sponsorship for the graduation event. Perhaps the event fee, travel costs and hotel charges could be offered as further incentive to “stay the course” and complete the qualification. We have had the opportunity to participate in many extremely worthy graduation events over the years and the sight of a table of family and work colleagues celebrating and toasting the success of the new graduate has been an ongoing highlight of our teaching careers.

7.     Continual Professional Development

And everyone knows, and needs to be reminded, that learning does not stop post qualification, and that “life-long learning” is a standard for all professional, dedicated practitioners of any skill, job or career. And so it is for optical dispensers. Your newly qualified dispenser should be encouraged to continue learning and growing through all and any opportunities, including conferences, trade fairs, product launches, CPD events and perhaps further formal studies. This will not only further develop the employee for the benefit of the practice but will help to keep that valuable employee engaged and employed longer, which has been an ongoing issue in parts of our industry.

Summary

Our dispensing employees and practitioners are an essential and highly productive part of our industry and the induction and training of them therefore is obviously an important issue worthy of close consideration, time and resources. However, and disappointingly so, there are parts of our industry where this training has been downgraded or even dismissed, in both independent and corporate sectors. But at the same time, we continue to see progressive, business savvy and conscientious employers who are committed to training excellence, and we hope, believe and expect over time their common sense approach will spread to the wider optical community. Just watch this space!

About the writer:

James Gibbins, along with his business partner and fellow teacher Chedy Kalach, is a trainer and director with ACOD, the Australasian College of Optical Dispensing, and has been a teacher of optical dispensing for 20 years.

E: james.gibbins@acod.edu.au M: +61 425 278 227 W: www.acod.edu.au

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