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Opticianry program grads finding work quickly
Dec. 18, 2015
In an economy where many skilled workers still struggle to find open positions, there’s one field where new trainees are more than welcome. In fact, said Mike King, a Warwick-based optician and program director for the Community College of Rhode Island’s Opticianry program, he and his colleagues have more openings than they can fill.
“The starting pay for these positions is $20 to $25 an hour with a license. And in Rhode Island, you need an associate degree to get that license,” said King.
CCRI’s program prepares graduates to become professional dispensing opticians, as well as to take the national practical and written exam for their licensure, said King. Topics covered include optical theory, dispensing and hands-on practical experience that students gain through field placements King and the other faculty members coordinate.
“There’s also a huge demand for optical managers across the country right now,” said King. Now that group practices are the new normal in several medical fields, he said those with optical knowledge are prime candidates to become managers of larger optometric groups.
To qualify for the program, students must place into college-level English and reading comprehension and have completed an algebra course.
The program is unique in another respect, King said: It’s a hybrid traditional and online classroom model over the course of the two years, meaning that the program is ideal for students who are working, parenting or both.
The high wage, demand for jobs and flexibility of the program are key selling points, King said, but more than that, working as an optician has another perk – a challenging, rewarding career environment that graduates can thrive in for their whole lives.
King knows this from personal experience; he has been in the field for more than 30 years, much of that time owning his own business. “Every day, I encounter a different type of problem. I enjoy solving problems. And I also enjoy interacting with the patients. After 30 years, I still look forward to coming to work every day,” he said.
Todd Jerdee, of Warwick, has a similar mindset; Jerdee has one semester to go in the program. “It’s great when you see someone come in with a problem and you’re able to correct it. When they leave, they know that you took the time to listen and correct their issue. … It’s very rewarding,” he said of his new career.
A former Blackhawk helicopter mechanic crew chief and a 24-year veteran of the Army, Jerdee has always been fascinated by the intricacies of problems. Not long after he retired from the Army, he became a Harley-Davidson mechanic, riding his own motorcycle in his downtime.
A devastating accident left him in the hospital for months with 30 titanium plates in his face and a long road to rehabilitation in front of him, ending his short-lived second career as a motorcycle mechanic. And that’s when he quickly found that the opticianry field was an ideal place to channel his energies.
In 2013, he began working as a lab technician at Bling Eyewear in Cranston, inspecting glasses and prescriptions, tracking insurance paperwork and the like.
A quick study, Jerdee wanted to take on more responsibilities in the shop and enrolled in CCRI’s Opticianry degree program. He has been supplementing his hands-on experience at Bling with the textbook knowledge that he will need to pass his licensure exam; eventually, he said, he hopes to be able to give his boss an easier workload, maybe taking over pieces of the practice as it expands.
“The program covers everything you will need to be successful in the field,” he said. “It will give you all the basic tools to be competitive and to be a good choice to be hired.”
A recent graduate of the program, Crystal Drake of Woonsocket, stands as testament to the ease with which qualified candidates can land jobs in their field after completing the program. Drake, who graduated in May, had been a certified nursing assistant and said her career change has been a personally fulfilling move as well as a force for financial stabilization.
“I have a daughter; she’s 11 now,” said Drake. “And I really enjoyed working as a CNA, but you just don’t make enough money. … I’m glad I went this way.”
Drake said she loved the “really great foundation” that the program gave her. “I feel that CCRI gave me the foundation and basics to start my career in the optical field,” she said. “As far as the clinical rotations, you receive hands-on experience that reinforces what you learn in school.”
Drake found herself to be so marketable that she had a job lined up with Vision Associates a few months before graduation. She works out of the company’s three locations, and she received a raise when she obtained her license.
“I’m doing more than just being an optician here now,” she said of her work. “I’m working on the front desk in the new office, too.”
Drake and Jerdee both commented on the rewards of helping customers solve problems, make adjustments and ultimately get the perfect prescription in the frame they desire.
Jerdee also completed an Honors Program project during his time in the program researching and writing a paper on so-called “blue light,” also known as high-energy visible light, which is found naturally in the environment. Exposure to blue light is also on the rise with the amount of time that people spend using televisions, smartphones, tablets and other technology, causing eye damage and other health issues. Jerdee’s research gave readers suggestions on tips to minimize exposure to blue light.
There was one valuable part of Jerdee’s experience in the program, however, that took place outside of the classroom on a different sort of field – at the 2015 Rhode Island Special Olympic Games.
There, he volunteered with other opticians and doctors to perform free vision checks on athletes as they cycled through the games, fitting them with free glasses when they were needed.
“It was a blast,” he said. “It was a very rewarding experience being able to see the smiles on their faces and know that I was a part of that. I’m looking forward to doing that again next year.”