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Workforce squeeze: solving the front-of-house optical staffing shortage

Attracting and retaining optical dispensers and other front-of-house staff has become increasingly difficult in 2022. Insight spoke to several industry figures to understand the problem and what employers can do to stand out.

In conversations with optical industry figures in recent months, there’s an issue on everyone’s lips: a major shortage of front-of-house staff. Practice managers, receptionists, retail staff, and especially qualified optical dispensers are in short supply, and employers are now being urged to make the industry a more attractive option.

April Petrusma.

According to Ms April Petrusma, CEO of the new professional organisation Optical Dispensers Australia (ODA), no single factor is contributing to the shortage, instead it’s a perfect storm and culmination of some longstanding issues.

“From what I am seeing and hearing, I believe we are experiencing the largest number of job vacancies that our profession in Australia has ever seen,” she tells Insight.

“With a number of industrial factors already at play, the very unwelcome arrival of COVID was the icing on the cake.”

Firstly, Petrusma says there are more optometry practices than before, requiring more front-of-house staff from a limited pool. Secondly, the high level and multifaceted skills required by an optical dispenser are not always reflected in their wages.

“This is damaging to the overall profession and over time, has consequently landed optical dispensing as an unattractive choice to career seekers,” she says.

“As a non-regulated profession, our hiring pool often relies on the same candidates as the likes of hospitality and retail. With a lack of backpackers, students and visa holders available to fill the gaps in hospitality due to lengthy border closures – we are all competing for the same staff from a significantly reduced pool.

“During Australia’s multiple COVID lockdowns, many practices had to reduce their hours, reduce their staff or for a period of time simply closed their doors altogether. This resulted in skilled staff turning to industries where they can work from home which isn’t possible for most optical related jobs.”

Some may be questioning why there is a shortage after a major surge of more than 1,200 people training to become dispensers thanks to the Federal Government’s Boosting Apprenticeships Scheme (BAC) offering wage subsidies for practices that put unqualified staff through a Certificate IV in Optical Dispensing.

Petrusma points out that BAC captured people already in the industry that have been doing the job for decades with either no qualification or an outdated qualification. Therefore, the majority of students are existing worker trainees looking to improve their skills rather than new entrant industry trainees.

Optometry associations are also acutely aware of the optical dispensing shortage. They say it’s also impacting optometry, but to a lesser degree.

Optometry Victoria South Australia (OV/SA) was alerted to this issue after recently receiving a phone call from a concerned member having trouble recruiting front-of-house staff.

The organisation was keen to investigate whether this was a widespread problem and whether it could better support optometrists. It raised the matter in an April 2022 survey that garnered 149 responses.

Ilsa Hampton.

“Difficulty recruiting front-of-house staff seems to be affecting metropolitan practices more than those in regional areas,” OV/SA CEO Ms Ilsa Hampton says.

“We were encouraged to see that 80% of members who responded have not had more difficulty recruiting optometrists in the past six months. However, we were concerned by the results which showed that 58% were having difficulty recruiting non-optometry practice staff.

“This is mostly affecting practice owners in inner Melbourne (40%) followed by outer Melbourne (28%). A small number of practice owners in regional Victoria and metropolitan and regional SA were also having difficulty. Since conducting the survey, we have been visiting practices in both states, including some regional areas. We tested out the results in conversation and found some regional areas have indeed had difficulty recruiting optometrists, or in getting them to stay beyond two years.”

Hampton says the main reasons cited in the OV/SA survey for the shortage in front-of-house staff is an insufficient pool of suitable workers. It was also mentioned that the pandemic had changed how people feel about public-facing work. For the small amount having difficulty recruiting optometrists, the impact of COVID-19 and general challenges of recruitment in regional and rural areas were cited.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted how the detrimental effect of continuing lockdowns and people’s discomfort with public- facing work, would have presented. The national workforce shortage across multiple industries, of course, means that people who might be interested in this type of work now have more options.”

How is it impacting businesses on the ground?

At the coalface, staffing shortages are biting businesses, with optometrists often needing to perform duties they wouldn’t normally.

Petrusma says she is receiving emails, phone calls and direct messages weekly from employers asking if she can recommend someone for a job vacancy they have.

“I had a conversation at OSHOW with an optometrist that explained that they have had to start doing the dispensing themselves because they couldn’t hire anyone and they have never had any dispensing training,” she says.

“Whilst some practices choose to trade this way, with the optometrist dispensing the optical appliances, this was not the norm for this optometrist and has led to a reduction in test availability.”

Petrusma says traditional methods like SEEK are no longer effective, with some employers reporting they have had zero applicants from an ad that was very similar to one they used in the past which had garnered a large response.

“I have had current dispensers tell me that they are also feeling the pressure, in some cases having to work longer hours and extra days to cover staff shortages in their practices,” she adds.

Hampton, of OV/SA, says staff shortages are presenting themselves in several ways. Not only does a shortage of front-of-house staff mean a reduction in the ability to dispense glasses to patients, and to manage practices, but it is increasing the workload of optometrists who are already experiencing overload in many contexts.

“On top of that, as with many other industries, practices are contending with staff continually having to isolate due to COVID-19 or other illnesses. It’s safe to say that these issues combined are causing stress and limiting the numbers of patients who can be seen,” she explains.

For George & Matilda (G&M) Eyecare, it has found that it is particularly challenging to find candidates for optical dispensing and practice manager roles in metro areas, while regionally it tends to flip with optometry roles harder to fill.

Optical dispensers are key to the day-to-day operations of optometry practices.

“These challenges mean that it is taking longer to recruit replacement roles, putting pressure on the rest of the team who remain with shortages in their team,” G&M’s general manager of human resources Ms Heather Campbell says.

“Where we are recruiting non-optical team members, there is then pressure on the existing team to ensure they are trained and brought up to speed quickly. Outside recruitment shortages, there is excessive personal leave being taken due to COVID/flu at the moment, which is impacting the team in finding staff to backfill.”

Solutions to stand out as an employer of choice 

It’s clear the dynamics have changed. Petrusma says it is no longer a case of the employee being lucky to have a job, but, in fact, employers being fortunate to have good staff. This is placing power in the hands of potential candidates, and practices need to think about how they adapt.

While there are several policy-level measures that can be undertaken longer term, there are some practical approaches for savvy optical business owners to attract quality candidates.

“If your approach doesn’t change, you can’t expect the outcome to. The employer should be adopting a more creative approach,” Petrusma adds, providing the below tips:

  • Offer a career not just a job. This means demonstrating that you’re willing to invest in a candidate’s career by offering professional development opportunities.
  • Sell the benefits not the ‘must haves’. Think about why someone would want to work for you rather than the practice next door and promote it. Rather than demands like: “Must be available Saturdays” – make it sound positive instead: “Great work life balance with no Sunday’s required.”
  • Carefully consider the salary on offer. Is the amount you are offering consistent with someone that is searching for a long-term role that will grow with you and stick around for five to 10 years? Or is the wage symbolic of a stop gap job to pay the bills and nothing more?
  • Think outside the square beyond the mainstream job advertising platforms – in addition to SEEK and INDEED, businesses can advertise on their own social media accounts, on industry forums, on industry specific jobs boards and through industry specific recruitment specialists.
  • Don’t be afraid to spend money during the recruitment process. A small cost incurred for placement of a job ad or enlisting the services of a recruitment specialist will be returned in buckets if the right employee is found. Doing nothing for fear of spending money will only hinder the outcome.

Eyecare Plus national business development manager Mr Philip Rose says the industry saw “the writing on the wall” with front-of-house staffing shortages, but little could be done due to limited representation and advocacy for optical dispensing. He believes that is about to change with ODA launching this year, which he believes will raise the profile of the profession and bring greater public awareness.

Philip Rose.

“It’s high time the public is made more aware of the opportunities in dispensing. There are many retail outlet managers who I think would love the opportunity to take their career and salary to the next level,” he says.

“A qualified dispenser can often earn more than a retail worker and a qualified dispenser practice manager can earn more than a retail manager. Many experienced retail workers understand fashion and can talk to all sorts of people. That’s one of the fundamental skills of a dispenser.”

Rose says retention of staff is more important than ever – and employers should be thinking about ways to offer opportunities such as upskilling staff through in-house training or enrolling them in courses to become qualified dispensers. Practices could also offer to cover the cost of membership fees to bodies like ODA that offer CPD.

In other industries, businesses are offering entitlements or incentives such as extra annual leave, paid parental leave and birthday leave, however such measures may not be possible everywhere.

Rose says practices may do better offering performance bonuses for teams and/or individuals.

“Employers need to be prioritising staff retention, especially high performing employees because once they leave it is very challenging to find a replacement,” he says.

“It doesn’t just apply to dispensing – this applies to almost every area, optometrists included. They need to be asking: are my employees happy to work here? Are they happy and feeling rewarded and acknowledged? And do they have the opportunity to learn more?”

Hampton says OV/SA has discussed the issue with ODA and is working through ideas to help optometry practice owners attract the right type of people to front-of-house roles.

She says working in an optometry practice is much more than sales, and is a great job for someone who is looking for more complexity in their day-to-day than hospitality or retail and more meaningful work that contributes to quality-of-life for thousands of people.

“We are thinking about potential collaborators to help our members at the local level. We are also considering what kinds of initiatives we can take to the state governments, who should be partners in the solution, given the importance of optometry for our communities,” Hampton explains.

In terms of what business owners could be doing differently to attract and retain staff, she is encouraging practice owners in metropolitan areas to use opportunities to showcase positions and to think about how they are explaining the importance of the work.

“We know a number of successful practices who also focus more on getting the right type of person then training them. This is a great opportunity for personal and professional development that so many people would not be aware of,” Hampton says.

“Practices could look at their local area and ask themselves where potential staff might be – for today and the future – then find a way to get the message to them. It’s also a good idea to ensure your business is COVID-Safe and that any potential recruits understand what you are doing in the space to ensure their safety, as well as that of patients.”

At G&M, Campbell says the company has been using the recent government BAC wage subsidy to fund and support its team to be Cert IV-trained in dispensing, however this was scheduled to end prior to this issue going to print.

“We’re also encouraging our team to share across the G&M community to move team members around and support. Longer term, we are building more flexibility into our workforce,” she says.

“So much comes down to engagement, and culture – what is it about your business that entices people to want to work there?”

Even though power is now in the hands of employees, Petrusma has some sage advice for those seeking to capitalise on multiple job offers.

“Don’t make unreasonable demands and don’t make your decision purely based on renumeration,” she says.

“Think about your short and long term career goals and discuss these with any future employers. Make your decision based on the potential each role has to meet your goals and where you will achieve the best work-life balance for your situation.”

More reading

Insight – online classifieds 

Training surge – a ray of light for optical dispensing

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