UPDATED FOR ACCURACY ON JULY 21, 2022 AT 9:05 P.M. GMT
After two years of education, the first cohort of SAIT optician students prepare to enter the industry, which will help overcome a labour shortage that has burdened Alberta’s optical industry for over 15 years.
A survey report issued by the College of Opticians of Alberta (COA) outlines the imbalance between new single and dual license practitioners, but not when compared to the high amount of retirees.
In Alberta, 11 per cent of registered opticians, including the age group of 61-70 and above 71 , are considering retirement within five years. Another 24 per cent, ages 51 to 60, are likely to start planning their retirement.
Among all of the registered opticians, 27 per cent were registered contact lens practitioners, who are trained to fit, modify, and provide advice for patients with contact lenses.
“Even though SAIT is passing 32 students a year, if they all stay here in Alberta, we would still need them for the next 10 years to fill the void that’s going to be created. Also, the void that has historically been here,” said Dean Thompson, Chair of the Association of Opticians of Alberta.
Once the students pass the National Alliance of Canadian Optician Regulators (NACOR) exam, they will attain a dual license.
This allows them to be both a dispensing optician and a Registered Contact Lens Practitioner. The large shortages plaguing the two occupations could be narrowed significantly.
Eyes filled with purpose
Through the learning process, students have learned how to fit eyeglasses and provide contact lens prescriptions to fit their clients’ needs.
Students will rotate through clinical or retail practicums to adjust to different working environments, apply collaboration skills, and provide eye-care knowledge.
“For me, practicum was amazing. I learned so much and got a taste of a real-life experience,” said Kai Liu, who is part of the first batch of optician students.
Also, Liu has been working in the optical department at a retail store for one year.
In addition to the current curriculum and practicums, the program may allow students and faculty a chance for refraction or contact lens fitting.
Students may even have an opportunity to practice eye-care service for the general public.
“We might also be able to set up some interesting things in the optical industry like a mobile clinic, where everything, all the instruments, are in the clinic, and [we] take it around to different areas of the city,” said Academic Chair of Vision Care Sciences Larisia Hladun.
“There may be some opportunity for students to volunteer in that kind of site. It’s a totally different experience than a clinic, but that could be something where students will gain some experiences.”
Learning and practicing safely
The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the newly established program. Students and facilities shifted back and forth between online and in-person.
However, all the faculties strove to maintain optimal learning quality by ensuring all the lab courses are in-person. This allows students have chances to practice skills with classmates.
“Due to COVID, we had to have lots of personal protective equipment for our first labs coming in January 2021,” said Jennifer Hussein, a SAIT vision care science instructor.
“We had face masks, face shields, we had the gloves, we had everything to make sure everybody was safe coming on campus because we were one of the very few programs that were allowed to be on campus.”
SAIT, along with other post-secondary schools in Alberta, had to close or continue classes with social distancing and minimal class sizes back in May 2020.
In addition, SAIT remained closed up until Feb. 28, 2022 while Alberta was loosening restrictions.
There has been a recent and abrupt boom in e-commerce in recent years. This has prompted many consumers to purchase their glasses and contact lenses online.
This can bring health risks to the patients. Without an optician’s recommendation, people may buy glasses that have an inaccurate prescription or are not suitable for their face.
“Although purchasing glasses or contacts lenses online is convenient and may be more affordable, e-commerce lacks the opportunity to provide patients with good service and knowledge,” said Liu.
“Ultimately, customers who purchase glasses online will have to return to an optician for troubleshooting.”
To confront the e-commerce trend, the optician program has arranged marketing courses and brick-and-mortar practicums for students.
Completing four months of clinical practicums in two years gives students an opportunity to start as entry-level workers in the optician industry.
“We are hoping that if there is not a shortage of contact lenses fitters, then maybe less and less people will buy their contact lenses online,” said Hussein.
“More people will have safe contact lenses and safe practices for their purchases.”