A shortage of optical professionals in this region of England means that there are great career opportunities with good salaries on offer, writes Saul Sebag
Many parts of County Durham, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, down into the Tees Valley have never fully recovered from the recession induced by the financial crisis of 2008. However, there has been enough prosperity to see the demand for eye care rise steadily, according to practitioners working in the area. And this in turn has increased the demand for optical professionals, as can be seen in the table (below) of regional demand. The North East suffers from chronic under supply.
As a result, Flame Health, which recruits professionals, indicate that optometrists in the North East can earn between £45,000 – £55,000 per annum, and dispensers can harvest £20,000 – £30,000.
The region’s population mostly live in the rural towns that surround large urban centres – the biggest being Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland.
Optical workplace survey data collected in 2015 by recruitment firm Prospect Health found the region to have one practitioner for every 3,750 patients. This was the highest practitioner-to-patient ratio to have been recorded in the UK. While the North West was found to have 2,733 GOC registered practitioners, the North East again had the lowest number with only 699 GOC registered practitioners.
Vacancies advertised on Prospect Health’s website between July and September showed that 94.3% of jobs advertised in north-east England were from the big companies: Specsavers, Vision Express, Boots and Asda.
In last week’s Optician, John Prouse optician and owner of Loftus Optical in Loftus town said: ‘There are relatively few independents in our area due to the fear of launching a practice in quiet, non-affluent north-east towns.’
Moreover, David Thomas, director of optometry recruitment at Prospect Health stated: ‘As we recruit all across the UK, we’ve definitely found that optometrists are harder to come by in some regions, certainly the North East.’
Chris Goodrich, divisional partner at recruitment company, Flame Health, gave the example of his experience recruiting in Whitby. He said: ‘I find that within hard to fill locations, like Whitby, the personalities of our clients are friendly, warm and engaging. There certainly appears to be a sense of development in the town and it seems to be a buoyant place for an optical business. I believe the shortage of professional staff in the area would be a consideration for any practitioner looking to set up on their own but with the right approach it could be a positive venture. Optometry is going through an exciting period of opportunity and as such we are seeing an increase in entrepreneurial professionals looking for interesting and challenging opportunities within the sector.’
Meanwhile affordable property prices in the locale (see average property prices and salary benchmarks, below) make the possibility of acquiring premises more realistic to those on a budget. It also makes the area a good option for those starting a career in optics following study. Despite there being no optometry school set up in the area, multiple practices have been keen to develop apprenticeship programmes with subsequent career support in the local community.
One of the major pre-reg graduate schemes looking to bring talented staff into the region is led by Guy Kidd, a national apprenticeships manager for Specsavers UK.
The chain has 40 apprentice optometrists and dispensers working in practices in the North East. He said: ‘On completion of their apprenticeship, most of the trainees remain in their original store and go on to further qualifications and training to develop their career further. Many pre-registration students identify the opportunities that apprenticeships bring to them in the local area, where they can undertake local vocational training, in roles that offer greater future career opportunities.’
Specsavers says there are 20 more pre-reg apprentices due to start training programmes in the North East this year. Lyndsay Bamber, graduate recruitment manager for the Specsavers apprentice scheme added that support is in place to help student practitioners from other parts of the country make the leap.
‘Many stores offer enhanced packages to accommodate students who may need to relocate to the area to take advantage of the opportunities. There are opportunities in this area to become a clinical specialist through further study. Job security is good in the region. Lots of the students that trained with us relocate to the North East together which is something that the region can accommodate. This means that what can be a daunting experience moving away from home and family and friends is lessened when they can go with one to three friends from their university course.’
Eddie O’Gara, one of the graduates from this scheme went on to become a director based in Specsavers’ North Shields store. ‘I moved to the North East from Northern Ireland to do my pre-reg 11 years ago. At the time I didn’t have any contacts in Newcastle but its a sociable place and it quickly became home.
‘I stayed on as a newly qualified because the salary packages offered surpassed what my university classmates were getting elsewhere in the country. I now work as a store director and looking at it as an employer I don’t understand why more people don’t jump at the chance to work in the North East.’
Optometrist Karen Sloan decided to establish her career in the region after graduating from the optometry course at Ulster University and completing pre-registration in a practice based in Stockton-on-Tees. Now working in a practice in Morpeth, she said: ‘I found the changing demographic refreshing and allowed me to develop my skills and confidence as an autonomous optometrist. If you wanted a busy town centre practice there’s Newcastle or Sunderland. I found Stockton a big enough place for me initially, having lived in the countryside all my life.
‘For a quieter, perhaps more personal clinical experience there are smaller towns and villages like Morpeth or Yarm – typical quaint English towns which are very picturesque. We do get tourists in Morpeth, due to Northumberland having a lot of areas of outstanding natural beauty, along with neighbouring Alnwick with its castle and gardens.’
Sloan said the system of referrals is modern and effective in the area. She added: ‘I find the referral pathways here very useful and up-to-date. We currently run IOP referral refinement, cycloplegic refraction services, fast track AMD forms as well as DVLA tests and will soon be doing diabetic screening. Other areas of the North East have direct cataract referral, direct Retinal Vein Occlusion referral forms and Low Vision referrals/services. Which all reduces the amount of unnecessary referrals to the hospital. CET events are regularly held and very useful, especially the peer reviews.
‘Working as a paediatric optometrist in Darlington Memorial Hospital perhaps makes me biased towards the standard of children’s eyecare in the North East but I feel it is particularly good. School screening is widely available and vital in catching early visual problems.’
Sloan concluded: ‘It would be difficult to say where would be the best place to work for someone else; it all depends on what you’re looking for. The North East reminds me of home – friendly people and a lot of greenery.’
According to Flame Health recruitment, it provides jobs in communities in the North East with ballpark average salaries of:
- Optometrist jobs: £45,000 – £55,000
- Dispensers: £20,000 – £30,000
- Assistants: £14,000 – £16,000
- Receptionists: £14,000 – £16,000
View from Fodo
A spokesperson for Fodo said: ‘Eye health is undergoing massive change at the moment throughout the whole country. There is a need for a wide expansion of services in the community, to meet growing need, eg for Mecs, and to ease capacity pressures in the hospital sector. There are tremendous opportunities for optometrists and opticians in the North East both in clinical work, in management and in regional management. There is also the prospect that the devolution model might bring greater opportunities, as it has in Manchester, and there are many innovative Locsu pathways being implemented in the area.’
View from the College of Optometrists
Mike Bowen, director of research for the College of Optometrists
‘The Optical Workforce Survey (OWS) revealed the North East to have one of the highest numbers of people per both optometrist and dispensing optician in the UK. This made it one of the few regions in which the figure for both professions was high, as other UK regions with more DOs tended to have less optometrists and vice versa. The interviews undertaken as part of the project also suggested a perception of undersupply in the North East.
‘This could suggest that there are opportunities in the North East although, as the OWS report makes clear, there is no real consensus about what the “right” number is for a given region, and it is quite possible that each region’s needs may require a different ratio in order to meet current and future demand. As such, while it seems clear that currently the North East presents a number of good career opportunities, the ratios alone do not tell the whole story.’