These seven steps to training your new dispenser could make all the difference to your practice and your dispenser’s job satisfaction.
Optical dispensing is a specialised role within the optometry practice, and depending on who you are speaking with, that role can be regarded as:
- A minor role assisting with some aspects of retail activity;
- A considerable role, interacting with most customers, complimenting the work of the optometrists, and generating significant practice income; or
- 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 three!
Therefore it goes without saying that the training of dispensers is a critical concern in the life of our practices and the wider industry.
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 was located near a marauding dangerous horde of fire-breathing, destruction-bringing dragons. One day a young village boy came into contact with a young dragon, and instead of fighting to the death they befriended each other. But soon the young boy realised that his new dragon friend had both the potential to be an amazing, powerful soulmate and ally, or conversely an out of control, havoc wreaking threat that could burn him and his surroundings. Of course the story goes that the dragon responded superbly to the boy’s training and eventually the new duo became a powerful and respected force together… and the envy of all other dragons and villagers.
Keeping this wisdom in mind, could we say it follows that every time an employer or practice manager takes the time to train their new, budding trainee dispenser well, and should the trainee dispenser respond accordingly, a friendship and partnership can bloom that knows no optical bounds?
The Seven Stages
There are seven significant stages to ensure your new dispenser’s training progresses as smoothly and successfully as possible, for the benefit of all parties.
1. Recruitment – Advertising and Interviews
For an ultimately successful training outcome we need to start with the recruitment process – the gathering of the most ideal applicants and selection of the successful candidate.
In order to attract the right applicants, the position advertisement and 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, both on the job and via the recognised 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 help attract the right applicants who are highly responsive to the opportunities, and help screen out and deter those who are inappropriate because perhaps they are only seeking short term employment, or are not attracted to study and qualifications at this time.
Once the successful applicants have been selected, the interviewer must carefully and skilfully handle the interview to enable the applicant the opportunity to clearly demonstrate their own fitness for the position.
2. Employee Induction
The induction process of any new employee is vitally important, yet often poorly conducted. If we help the new employee feel welcome, then assist them to become a productive member as soon as possible, both the new employee and the company will be set up for a mutual, long term positive experience. We don’t have the space here to describe a comprehensive induction program, but it needs to be thoughtfully prepared and will certainly include meeting the team, a clear discussion and provision of information regarding company values and history, hours of work, contracts, your workplace health and safety policies, reasonable and appropriate performance expectations and accountability for a new dispenser, follow-up and even feedback.
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 a complex language, confusing numbers, scientific looking lenses and a vast array of colourful spectacle frames that just seem to stare at you from the walls! Remember, it is 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. Reassure the dispenser that you know settling in will take a little time, manage their experiences and workload sensitively, and allow them to adjust at a humane rate… the outcome will be a more positive, encouraged and well-adjusted new dispenser, who is 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 positive to introduce the new dispenser to a few basic, practical dispensing 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 practise, your new dispenser will have started to develop practical skills which will continue for the life of their optical career.
4. Preparation For and Enrolment in the Certificate IV in Optical Dispensing
Your new dispenser has known from the outset that enrolment into a dispensing course was coming and it is helpful for both parties to keep this in mind. Student progress records and feedback indicate it is preferable to allow a few months of ‘settling in’ to the new job before embarking on this next 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 available, 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 suggest you ensure this occurs in order to qualify for the available support, and discuss any further questions with your proposed training college and/or an official traineeship/apprenticeship centre.
5. Ongoing Support
Depending on the specifics of the program, your employee will undergo a course of flexible study from between six months and two years or more, in a blended program mixing online learning with face-to-face practical sessions. They 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 is 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, it is their first experience of tertiary education, and an opportunity to gain a wonderful sense of achievement, growth in personal pride and satisfaction. The support and encouragement of the workplace helps make all this possible. Every student needs the opportunity to practise the skills they are learning in their course and receive encouraging workplace feedback on their development. Employers need to keep in mind that students will learn a variety of skills and techniques, and some of these may differ to those practised in the workplace. These differences are to be assessed and appreciated rather than simply dismissed.
It is 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 motivating idea used by some employers to great success is to discuss with the employee exactly what level of course support will be offered, which could include sponsorship for the graduation event. Perhaps the event fee, travel costs and hotel charges could be offered as further incentive to 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
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 regardless of 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 available opportunities, including conferences, trade fairs, product launches, CPD events and perhaps further formal studies. This will further develop the employee for the benefit of the practice, and motivate them to remain engaged and employed longer, which has been an ongoing issue in parts of our industry.
Our dispensing employees and practitioners are an essential and highly productive part of our industry and their induction and training is an important issue worthy of close consideration, time and resources. Although this training has been downgraded or even dismissed by some within the independent and corporate sectors, other progressive, business savvy and conscientious employers are committed to training excellence. We hope, believe and expect over time their common sense approach will spread to the wider optical community. Just watch this space!
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.