Opticians have been trying to “fix” their profession for decades now, most falling into the camp of “Mandatory higher education and/or stricter licensing is a sure-fire path to more money and more respect for everyone in the profession.”
Seems legit, right? More education is usually associated with more money and more respect. After all, more education is precisely how the ancient optometrist ascended from the murky depths of opticianry, imbued with the power of Charles Prentice’s, long-lost secret incantation, “A lens is not a pill.” …or at least that’s how the story goes.
Coincidentally, that happens to be the very first reason mandatory education won’t bring opticians the money and respect they desire.
Reason Number 1: Optometrists already did it.
The reality is, with more education, there’s simply no place for opticianry to go. ODs already occupy that space. To quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.” There’s really even nothing in between. All the positions within the context of eyecare have already been accounted for by ODs, contact lens specialists, and optometric technicians.
Reason Number 2: “Build it and they will come” is not a viable marketing strategy.
You can’t diamond encrust the frames hanging on the board and expect they’ll make you millions because, “now, they’re better.” Unfortunately, there is precious little demand for that kind of bling, which is also true of highly-educated opticians in eyecare. Believe it or not, the highly-educated, highly-qualified opticians already exist in the marketplace and they don’t get paid much more than anyone else. What’s more, as little as a typical optician does make, we still see managers regularly opting to hire lower-wage frame stylists and sales associates in their place.
Reason Number 3: It’s all about the Benjamins.
One of the primary factors in wage determination is the value of the product being sold and margins aren’t what they used to be. We’ve done such a good job of presenting eyewear as a commodity—or even an entitlement—by presenting it as a “medical device”, it has worked against our own best interests. Given a choice between spending money on a medical device or something enjoyable (lattes, iPhones, etc.), which do you think most people would choose? It makes perfect sense that people want to spend as little as possible on their eyeglasses. Combine that with other downward pricing pressures resulting from new technology, internet transparency, online sales, vision discount plans, and corporate consolidation, it starts to become a challenge to sell an average pair of eyeglasses at a profit. As prices continue to be lowered by retailers in order to compete (a flawed strategy to be sure) and the optical market continues to get squeezed, most ODs—particularly those focused on their medical practice—will be hard-pressed to invest more money in highly-educated opticians.
Reason Number 4: ODs don’t have to hire opticians.
To me, this alone should be enough to put the whole idea of higher-level mandatory credentialing to bed. In states with license requirements, ODs can hire the much-maligned burger flipper as an optician, as long as a “supervising” optometrist is on staff. Therefore, if opticians get too expensive, they simply don’t have to be hired. Look around, it’s already a point of frustration among opticians today. Raise the salaries of opticians without providing demonstrably more value, what do you think will happen?
Reason Number 5 : Where’s the beef?
While it is true that a qualified optician is more valuable to an optical shop than an unqualified one, credentialing only gets us halfway there in terms of “elevating” opticianry. It creates a higher minimum standard, but doesn’t raise the profession as a whole. What I mean by that is, the most qualified optician in the world, let’s say a doctor of opticianry, can only provide so much value because she still fills the role of an optician. She can only sell, fit and fill so many prescriptions in a day. Like it or not, the market has already decided what that function is worth.
Reason Number 6: The robots are coming.
As we move ever-faster toward telemedicine, AI, machine learning, and robotics—thanks in no small part to the pandemic—what does the future hold for opticianry and even optometry? Now that we can design an artificial intelligence to drive a car through crowded streets or fly an F-16 well enough to out-perform fighter pilots, is there any reason to believe that a far simpler technology can’t be used to help a customer choose her own frame/lens combination better than most opticians? Would it surprise you to learn that technology is already being developed and implemented? Admittedly, we (the optical industry) tend to be slow adopters, but it’s certainly worth considering that there will be opportunities down the road for docs and chains to save money by having technology do more of the work.
Reason Number 7: It’s a pipe dream.
Optician apathy and decades of inability to form a coherent vision aside, most opticians don’t make enough to consider contributions to state and national organizations a worthy expense. Even if they did, I can’t possibly imagine it would be enough to take on the OD and corporate funds standing in opposition.
Reason Number 8: Opticians in states requiring licensure actually make LESS.
Contrary to what you may have heard, on average, opticians take home less money in states that require licensing than in states that do not. Technically, adjusting for cost of living, licensed opticians get paid on average nine dollars per year more. But, if you throw in the time and cost involved in obtaining and maintaining the license, well, there go the nine dollars.
Reason Number 9: Opticians will always be the Rodney Dangerfield of eyecare.
Snap your fingers and make the credentialing plan of your dreams a reality tomorrow and opticians will still be less educated than their optometrist overlords (no offense) and their customers still won’t care either way. No respect, I tell ya.
Reason Number 10: The power and meaning of “A lens is not a pill.” has long been forgotten.
There’s little more to be said about a phrase powerful enough to have launched a profession, now having absolutely no meaning amongst its practitioners, other than it’s power has not been diminished, simply buried and hidden.
To be clear, it’s not that education isn’t needed and doesn’t matter. In fact, there’s little doubt the consumer would benefit from better-qualified opticians. It’s just that legislated mandates are clearly not the path forward as employers simply won’t be interested in or able to foot the bill for a more qualified brand of optician to perform the very same tasks opticians are performing today.
There is an achievable path forward. Unfortunately, I fear, it’s not a path that most opticians are willing to take, because it involves thinking differently about the profession and going against the predominant way of doing business, perhaps even setting the ego aside. It requires learning more and doing more than what is expected. And it involves taking action and personal responsibility instead of waiting for a large enough group of like-minded individuals to coalesce or someone in “leadership” to make things happen.
The only way to increase the value of a qualified optician is to do more than what is expected today. That “more” does not involve CLs, refraction, or anything “medical.” None of these add value to an optical shop because the ODs, contact lens specialists and optometric techs already have them covered nicely, thank you.
Remember “Reason Number 3: It’s all about the Benjamins?”
To improve salaries and respect for opticians, the value added has to affect the bottom line of the business and it has to be demonstrable to employers and customers alike.
So, if you look back at the 10 items listed above, you may notice they all have something in common.
They all happen to be reasons opticians aren’t able to progress within the context of eye-care.
They do not actually apply to the business of eye-wear.
Think about that for a minute.
As desperately as opticians cling to the idea of being “medical professionals” as a source of pride and respect, it’s the very thing that keeps them underpaid and disrespected. It is also what keeps most practices from reaching their income potential.
Optical retail as an industry brings in more revenue every year than eyecare. Yet many opticians barely make a living wage. As, I’ve written before, it’s all because opticians are playing in the wrong sandbox.
Opticians are not at the bottom because they lack licensing or college degrees.
Opticians are at the bottom because they would rather wear scrubs and be called “medical professionals” than be the craftspeople, artists, customer experience designers, and revenue engines that drive the eyewear industry forward.
Ask yourself, how many pairs of shoes would Nike sell if they required an appointment and a prescription from a podiatrist? And then you could only purchase them in doctor’s offices? How excited can a person get about buying medical footwear? Who wants to go the doctor?
Just do… what!?
The only thing the “medical” identity does for the optician (besides being an understandable, yet misplaced source of pride), is firmly plant the profession at the bottom of the totem pole, where low wages and lack of respect are the rule and where consumer demand and technology will ultimately bury it.
To change the opticians’ fate, give brick and mortar optical a future, and make opticianry more profitable for both opticians and the docs that employ them we have to get opticians off the pole.
No, not that pole! The totem pole of the O’s.
To be continued…