A perfect storm

Optometry is facing a post-pandemic recruitment crisis. What can be done? 

Getty/Matt Jeacock / EyeEm

Once upon a time, finding a job – even a temporary one, designed to keep you gainfully occupied until the school term started again – was a daunting task.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget politely asking when I could expect to hear back about a job on the till at Woolworths the summer after my GCSEs, only to be told that they’d had 995 applications for five roles and had consequently drawn a random 20 to interview. And that was pre-2008.

Graduating off the back of a recession five years later, with a humanities degree and classmates signing on, or practically fighting each other for retail and admin jobs in their hometowns while they worked out how they could possibly approach the question of career, the reality of there being too few jobs to go around felt more true than ever.

A decade on, though, with most of those once job-hungry classmates firmly ensconced in various professional sectors, something strange seems to be happening.

It appears that, across the country and across multiple industries, the job situation has entirely flipped. For the first time in my memory there are, conversely, more roles than there are people to fill them. In all quarters, recruitment is stalling, applications are a dribble rather than a wave, and sectors from hospitality to PR simply can’t get the staff (Woolworths, sadly, did not live to see the moment where it could no longer guarantee 1000 applications for a minimum wage role).

In the world of optics, it’s true that certain pockets of the UK have always had recruitment issues: rural areas, those miles from the universities offering optometry courses, the Scottish Highlands, where locums are few and far between. For practice owners in these areas, this is not new news.

Recently, though, the situation seems to have worsened in these areas, as well as spreading to others. OT has heard reports from various urban centres, which potentially might not have experienced a staffing crisis before, where optometrists are run off their feet and finding it impossible to source extra staff to ease the ever-increasing workload.

With the College of Optometrists’ Green phase now in place, but with a recruitment staffing issue and the much-discussed patient backlog a stark reality, it seems that, after two years of intense change, optometry unfortunately can’t yet pause and take a breath.

Why is this? The answer, it appears, is many-fold.

Speaking to practitioners has suggested everything from people choosing to work less and focus on balance and family life post-pandemic, to the changing demographic of the profession meaning that younger optometrists are now more likely than ever to be based in cities (33% of optometrists and dispensing opticians in the UK are Asian or British Asian, according to the GOC’s 2021 Equality and Diversity Data Monitoring report; this is a demographic that has traditionally lived and worked in more urbanised areas than rural ones). An aging population, with increasingly complex eye care needs, and a general lack of confidence in seeking out new roles in an uncertain economic climate are also factors at play.

Opening optometry courses in areas that have previously suffered from recruitment issues, for example in the south west, may not prove the solution either, if graduates remain keen to move closer to home for their pre-reg years and first jobs. And with the cost of living crisis likely to hit those on low incomes hard in the coming months, who could blame the graduates of 2022 for heading home?

While the issue is happening across the country, it’s also a reality across multiple industries, with friends in areas as diverse as publishing and market research also feeling the pinch of declined offers and candidate no-shows.

The question of how this is solved is a complex one, with no short-term fixes likely to present themselves.

Creative solutions might be required, but the question remains about who is responsible for coming up with them. Within optics, does the responsibility fall on industry bodies, employers, or universities?

The answer might be a concerted effort from everyone, although while practices are firefighting to see patients in a timely way, putting time aside to come up with solutions to a national problem might seem a tad unrealistic.

Maybe the solution is first discussing the situation. Conversations about novel ways to solve the staffing crisis won’t come if practices continue to struggle alone. Speaking to your Local Optical Committee, the AOP or OT might be the first step, so feel free to get in touch if you want to share your experiences in this area. OT will be doing whatever it can, in the coming weeks and months, to highlight the solutions that the profession puts forward.

OT  asks...

Are you experiencing an issue finding staff (either locums or residents) in your area?
  • Yes

    127 35%
  • No

    201 55%
  • I’m not looking for staff at the moment

    31 8%