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Supply debate reignites as optometry boasts strong employment rate

New figures have revealed that optometry graduates have among the highest rates of full-time employment compared with other sectors, sparking debate over future workforce supply that will increase significantly once the first set of graduates emerge from optometry schools in Western Australia and Canberra.

According to Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) – which conducts the Australian Government-funded annual Graduates Outcomes Survey (GOS) – in 2020 around 95% of optometry graduates were employed in full-time work (over 35 hours per week), with a median salary ranging between $80,000 to $85,000.

With most new optometrists completing post-graduate courses, the full-time employment rate is one of the highest among all sectors, with only medicine ranking higher (97%) among post-graduates. Nursing (92%), pharmacy (96%), and dentistry and business management (91%) and occupational therapy (90%) all demonstrated comparable rates.

The QILT figures have been taken from a sample of survey respondents who completed their courses from March 2019 until February 2020 and could theoretically represent some 15 graduates without a job, however the reasons for this were not contained in the data.

Universities and major industry employers have told Insight employment rates have remained high in the latest cohort who completed their courses towards the end of 2020 and have sought jobs in 2021.

Four out of the five universities that currently supply the graduate market anecdotally confirmed most, if not all, graduates have secured jobs in 2021, with the remaining institution unable to provide the information until they complete a graduate survey.

Figures provided by Specsavers show that since 2018/19, combined final year cohorts from Deakin, Flinders University, University of Melbourne, UNSW and Queensland University of Technology have increased by 31 students to reach 321 in 2020/21.

Optometry graduate numbers are set to increase further soon as cohorts from new optometry schools at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and the University of Canberra (UC) enter the workforce. UWA’s program has enrolled 50 students in its inaugural cohort this year who will graduate in 2023. UC’s first cohort of nine master’s students are expected to graduate in 2022.

Charles Hornor.

Increased supply is a contentious issue for the sector, with Optometry Australia (OA) and major employers like Specsavers in disagreement over modelling and the number of graduates necessary for sustainable future. Specsavers had modelling conducted by Deloitte Access Economics (DAE) in 2018 that showed despite the onset of new optometry courses, by 2037 Australia will be more than 1,188 full-time equivalent optometrists short of meeting the nation’s requirements.

In the first of its two annual intakes, in February 2021, the optical franchise recruited 120 graduates across Australia and New Zealand.

“We know there are more jobs available than graduates and we would have liked to secure an additional 75 graduates had they been available. However, the reality is that we’re all seeing a highly competitive market for graduates in both metro and regional locations, which reiterates our message that we need more optometry students coming through the system to support the industry’s recruitment needs,” communications director Mr Charles Hornor said.

“It also goes to show the need to get behind the new courses at the UWA in Perth and the University of Canberra.”

Optometry numbers continue to climb 

Meanwhile, information OA has received paints a different picture.

“Notably our information is anecdotal only, however our perception is that most practices looking to recruit graduates have been able to do so quite readily. Our perception is that there may be some slight easing in demand for graduates,” CEO Ms Lyn Brodie said.

Lyn Brodie.

She said it’s positive that, at present, the vast majority of new graduates can secure employment, and it’s something the association wished to retain. However, OA is concerned the ongoing supply of graduates will soon outstrip demand.

“We continue to see more optometrists entering, than retiring from, the profession each year, and over the last five years there has been rapid growth in the size of the optometry workforce. Whilst it’s important to seek to match university graduation numbers to community need, there is also opportunity to be looking at how we make most effective use of our skilled workforce to meet community need in new and innovative ways.”

When newer schools begin to graduate students, Brodie said it may contribute to a tipping in the supply/demand balance: “Both of the newer schools are well positioned to support graduate supply to geographic areas where there may be undersupply currently, however, it seems likely these supply needs will be readily met by the first or second cohort of graduates.”

The Optometry Board of Australia’s latest figures show since 2015, registered optometrist numbers have risen from 5,114 to 6,175 today – a difference of 1,061.

Citing the DAE report, Specsavers noted on its HealthHub website that while full-time optometrists were expected to increase by more than 3,500 by 2037, the nation was still headed for an undersupply.

In Tasmania, WA and Northern Territory, as well as regional and remote locations, there was already a shortage, while NSW and Victoria would likely be unable to meet their service requirements within the next 20 years. In response to maldistribution, the company has been intentional in its placement of new graduates. While there’s less appetite to be placed in CBD locations due to COVID-19, graduate placements into regional and rural locations has more than doubled since 2018.

Employers conflicted over debate 

EyeQ Optometrists chief business development officer Ms Lily Wegrzynowski said the network welcomed five graduates this year.

“Discussions with graduates suggested a greater interest in seeking out regional and independent practices in 2021. This may be a good sign of a future trend that graduates are weighing many criteria when making the decision of where to start their career,” she said.

“It is pleasing to hear that the 2020 cohorts are all employed and there are still employment opportunities that exist around the country. A number of the profession are nearing their retirement from the years of large optometry intakes in the late ‘70s and a big proportion are practice owners. This represents further opportunities for the graduates.”

Ms Robyn Weinberg, group manager of human resources and training at The Optical Company, said the ageing population, chronic diseases and increase of childhood myopia will increase the need for optometry.

“This increased need is likely to be supported with evolving scope of practice into the future. Added to this is the opening of programs in ACT and WA, increasing the supply to demand ratio,” she said.

“However, optometrists are also working longer and retirement in many instances is being delayed. Many people have also shifted expectations around work and family balance as a result of COVID-19 combined with planned parental leave and flexibility an increasing consideration for all industries. Overall given current factors, we are of the opinion there will be suitable levels of graduates to meet, if not exceed future demand.”

George & Matilda CEO Mr Chris Beer said the company had an extensive mentoring program and combined with the growing ageing population, the market is growing.

“We see the shortage of optometrist graduates going into the future for some time,” he said.

More reading

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New WA optometry school enrolments surpass expectations