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This Oregon Optical Owner Took Matters Into His Own Hands

He teamed up with a local college and developed an ABO certification course.

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SINCE JAMES AND Dr. Laura Armstrong (pictured) opened Alberta Eye Care in Portland, OR, almost seven years ago, their main challenge has been finding and retaining qualified opticians. In 2016, James decided to see if he could do something to fix the problem. He reached out to Portland Community College, and pitched the formation of an ABO training program. The idea was met with enthusiasm, but it took several years before the pieces fell into place; the Optician ABO Prep at PCC launched this year, accepting its first students for January 2020.

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THE IDEA

There have always been optician training programs, but the industry as a whole struggles to find enough new talent to fill the demand. “That is the difference in the community college approach,” Armstrong says. “Over time, I hope the recruiting power of the college will allow us to introduce … opticianry to graduating high school students that wouldn’t otherwise have considered it.”

As Oregon is not a certification state, the Optician ABO Prep course is designed to get students past the ABO exam. “In our market, having that level of training makes you an extremely attractive candidate,” Armstrong says.

THE EXECUTION

James and Dr. Laura Armstrong

James and Dr. Laura Armstrong

The process started with a soft introduction to Sheila Meserschmidt, the director of PCC’s Institute for Health Professionals, via a colleague. “We met a few times over the next couple years, brainstorming who we could find to lead the program.” Armstrong and Meserschmidt eventually found the ideal instructor in Andrew Bruce, LDO, ABOM, a master optician with decades of experience in optical management who was then working as an instructor at another institution.

“Once we found Andrew, the challenge turned out to be the college’s current relationship with large medical eye offices in our region. The college has an ophthalmic technician program that is very successful. The concern from their board was that our program might ‘steal’ [their] candidates.” After a few months, Armstrong was able to convince the college the programs could co-exist.

According to Bruce, “Business owners such as James rarely have the time to provide new staff with a solid foundation of knowledge and training. I put together this course to help not only provide opportunities to anyone wanting to pursue a new career, but also for high school graduates who may be unsure of their path. The 10-week hybrid course, online and in-person, is designed to prepare an individual with the knowledge and skillset required to obtain an entry-level position in an eyecare office.”

Unfortunately, the campus shut down for COVID the very weekend in March that the first group of students were scheduled to have their on-campus session, and PCC eventually canceled the spring, summer and fall sessions. Things will be back on track for the winter term, with classes scheduled to resume in January. The cost of the program is $1,200 plus books. It is mostly online, with two weekend sessions in Portland for hands-on training.

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THE REWARDS

There were only two students in the first class, but Armstrong is satisfied with that considering there was almost no marketing—not to mention COVID. “We got the hard part done; the course exists and has had a soft opening for its first term. Now we need to re-focus on the marketing aspect and try to get more students involved.”

Bruce says he hopes the course helps increase the awareness of who an optician is and the services they provide. “I also hope my course helps raise the standard of care to patients… draws newcomers into the profession, and provides the opportunity for business owners, such as James, to enroll their current staff, if necessary, to also expand their level of skill and training.”

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at [email protected]

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