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Dispensing Opticians

Work Description

Dispensing opticians fit eyeglasses and contact lenses, following prescriptions written by ophthalmologists or optometrists.

Dispensing opticians look at written prescriptions to decide which type of lenses will work the best. They recommend eyeglass frames, lenses and lens coatings after considering the prescription and the customer's occupation, habits and facial features. Dispensing opticians measure clients' eyes, including the distance between the center of the pupils (pupillary distance) and the distance between the eye surface and the lens (vertex distance). For customers without prescriptions, dispensing opticians may use a lensometer - an instrument that looks much like a microscope - to record the present eyeglass prescription. This is called "neutralizing" a lens. They also may obtain a customer's previous record, or verify a prescription with the examining optometrist or ophthalmologist.

Dispensing opticians prepare work orders that give ophthalmic laboratory technicians information needed to grind and insert lenses into a frame. The work order includes lens prescriptions and information on lens size, material, color, and style. Some dispensing opticians grind and insert lenses themselves. After the lenses are made, dispensing opticians make sure the lenses have been made correctly. Then they may reshape or bend the frame, by hand or using special tools, so that the eyeglasses fit the customer properly and comfortably. Some also fix, adjust, and repair broken frames. They teach clients about how to adjust to their new prescription and how to wear and care for their new eyeglasses.

Some dispensing opticians specialize in fitting contacts, artificial eyes, or cosmetic shells to cover blind or damaged eyes. To fit contact lenses, dispensing opticians measure eye shape and size, choose the type of contact lens material, and prepare work orders giving the prescription and lens size. Fitting contact lenses requires a lot of skill, care, and patience. Dispensing opticians look at the customers' eyes, corneas, eyelids, and contact lenses with special instruments and microscopes. During several visits, opticians show customers how to put on, take off and care for their contacts, and make sure the contacts fit correctly. Note, in Kansas, a contact lens fitting is strictly done by the eye Doctor.

Dispensing opticians keep records on customer prescriptions, work orders, and payments; track inventory and sales; and perform other administrative duties.

Working Conditions

Dispensing opticians work indoors in attractive, well-lighted, and well-ventilated surroundings. They may work in medical offices or small stores where customers are served one at a time, or in large stores where several dispensing opticians serve a number of customers at once. Opticians spend a lot of time on their feet. If they cut the lenses to fit the frames, they need to be careful with glass, some chemicals, and machinery.

Most dispensing opticians work a 40-hour week, although some work longer hours. Those in retail stores may work evenings and weekends. Some work only part time.


Dispensing opticians held about 71,000 jobs in 1998. About 50 percent worked for ophthalmologists or optometrists who sell glasses directly to patients. Many also work in retail optical stores that are much like a pharmacy in that they fill the customers' prescription for their new glasses or they work in retail stores that offer one-stop shopping. In this type of store, the customer can have their eyes examined, choose frames, and have glasses made on the spot. Some work in optical departments of drug and department stores.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Employers usually hire people with no background in opticianry or those who have worked as ophthalmic laboratory technicians and then provide the needed training. Training may be informal, on-the-job or a formal apprenticeship. An apprenticeship is a legal agreement to work for a certain length of time for an experienced optician in return for training and a salary. Usually the salary is small until the person completes their training. Some employers, however, look for people with a degree from a trade school, community college or full four-year college.

Knowledge of physics, basic anatomy, algebra, geometry, and mechanical drawing is very valuable because training usually includes instruction in optical mathematics, optical physics, and the use of precision measuring instruments and other machinery and tools. Dispensing opticians deal directly with the public so they should have good manners, be pleasant and out-going and communicate well. An ability to use your hands well (manual dexterity) and to do precision work is very important.

Large employers usually offer structured apprenticeship programs, and small employers provide more informal on-the-job training. In the 21 states that offer a license to dispensing opticians, people without trade school or college training work from 2 to 4 years as apprentices. Apprenticeship or formal training is offered in most States as well.

Apprentices receive technical training and learn office management and sales. Under the supervision of an experienced optician, optometrist, or ophthalmologist, apprentices work directly with patients, fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses. In the 21 states requiring a license, information about apprenticeships and licensing procedures is available from the State board of occupational licensing.

Formal opticianry training is offered in community colleges and a few colleges and universities. In 1999, there were 25 programs accredited by the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation that awarded 2-year associate degrees in ophthalmic dispensing or optometric technology. There are also shorter programs of one year or less. Some States that offer a license to dispensing opticians allow graduates to take the licensure exam immediately upon graduation; others require a few months to a year of experience. 

Many experienced dispensing opticians open their own optical stores. Others become managers of optical stores or sales representatives for wholesalers or manufacturers of eyeglass frames or lenses.  

Job Outlook

Employment in this occupation is expected to increase as fast as the average for all occupations through 2008 as demand grows for corrective lenses. The number of middle-aged and elderly persons is projected to increase rapidly. Middle age is a time when many individuals use corrective lenses for the first time, an elderly person require more vision care, on the whole, than others.

Fashion, too, influences demand. Frames come in a growing variety of styles and colors - encouraging people to buy more than one pair. Demand is also expected to grow in response to the availability of new technologies that improve the quality and look of corrective lenses, such as anti-reflective coatings and bifocal lenses without the line visible in old-style bifocals. Improvements in bifocal, extended wear, and disposable contact lenses will also increase demand.

The need to replace those who leave the occupation will result in job openings. Nevertheless, the total number of job openings will be relatively small because the occupation is small. This occupation is vulnerable to changes in the business cycle because eyewear purchases can often be put off for a time. Employment of opticians can fall somewhat during economic downturns.  
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