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Friday / October 18.
HomemifeatureGraduate Optometrists Attracting the Lifeblood

Graduate Optometrists Attracting the Lifeblood

This year, aver 350 optometry graduates will emerge fresh from universities around Australia and New Zealand. Described as the ‘lifeblood’ of the profession, they will be more confident, tech-savvy, and commercially minded than ever before.

Competition to attract the best talent is fierce. So how can you make your practice the most attractive proposition, and what do you need to do to keep your graduates engaged?

Optometry graduates enable the profession to grow and prosper. They bring new ideas, challenge the old, and bring vibrancy to existing businesses. They help share the workload and they provide the pathway for more mature practice owners to slow down and eventually exit their business. Importantly for regional Australia, graduates who are receptive to working away from home fill critical gaps in service supply.

I suggest that regional practice owners think about what their region is known for… and try to attract graduates on that basis

It stands to reason that most graduates are snapped up every year by the corporates. With its vast network of 385 stores, Specsavers is by far the largest employer of optometry graduates in Australia and New Zealand. In the past 12 months, Specsavers has employed more than 150 graduates, and according to Adam Buxton, head of graduate recruitment and development for the Australian and New Zealand operation, another 70 could have been employed, had they been available.

OPSM and Laubman & Pank stores traditionally take on 60 graduates at the beginning of each year with another 20 Deakin University graduates employed by the organisation mid-year.

ProVision is also a relatively significant employer of graduates with around 20 places filled annually. Eyecare Plus, EyeQ, George & Matilda, The Optical Company and Bailey Nelson each take a small number of graduates, according to needs.

All agree that due to the high ATARs required to study optometry, and with the universities producing such a high caliber of graduates, the key to acquiring the talent with the best potential is to find the ideal fit for the organisation’s culture.

“To be a good fit for our store we need graduates who are confident, personable, and have good communication skills – they need to be able to talk to a patient one on one,” said Peter Murphy, Luxottica’s Director of Eyecare and Community for Australia and New Zealand. “They also need to be flexible, open to change in terms of their workplace, they need to have career motivation, and ultimately to be a good team player – the dynamics of the store’s teams are so important.”

the key to acquiring the talent with the best potential is to find the ideal fit for the organisation’s culture

Specsavers emphasises the need for curiosity. “We look for curious and capable graduates who are able to communicate effectively and who are enthusiastic about making a genuine impact on eye health across Australia and New Zealand. These individuals embrace the opportunity to reflect on their clinical practice and develop themselves professionally, not only to extend themselves as optometrists, but also because they want to ensure their patients are receiving the very best eye care,” said Mr Buxton.

Optometrist Dale Rolfe, who started with Eyecare Plus as a graduate and now owns 15 Eyecare Plus practices, also stresses the importance of a desire for professional development. “The personal and professional qualities I look for in graduates are the ability and desire to learn, a good work ethic, and the enthusiasm to make full scope optometry a goal in their professional life,” he said.

The motivation to manage or own a store was cited as being desirable by many organisations, among them EyeQ Optometrists.

“We can’t take every graduate – but we really hope that the ones we do take will have their own practice one day – whether under EyeQ, on their own, or another banner because that will keep the independent profession alive,” said Lily Wegrzynowski, Chief Business Development Officer at EyeQ Optometrists, which employs just a few graduates each year. “All graduates have sound clinical skills so we look for optometrists who want to learn the essence of optometry – about how to interact with patients, other staff, and suppliers – and optometrists who are attracted to learning about running a successful business.”

ATTRACTING GRADUATES TO REGIONAL AREAS

Enticing graduates out of metro areas is one of the greatest challenges for regional practice owners, which places those who are open to new experiences at a distinct advantage.

Jeremy Cutting and Matt Pease, directors at Skilled Locums, say there are various ways to attract graduates to regional Australia. “We have found practices that offer assistance with CPD courses, Optometry Australia membership, insurance fees, etc. to be helpful. Even accommodation during relocation and a relocation allowance is enticing to a new grad contemplating a job in a regional location.”

Bigger organisations like OPSM/Laubman & Pank are able to offer graduates a taste of regional life with placements. This is done through programs such as the 12 month Eyecare Country Connect program (which guarantees optometrists a position back in their home town following a 12 month placement), and the national relief team which enables employees to move around Australia and New Zealand filling in for optometrists for weeks at a time in different locations. The hope is that, as a result of the experience, some young optometrists will choose to move into regional areas of Australia or New Zealand more permanently.

At Specsavers, graduates are encouraged into regional areas with financial incentives – the base offer paid varies according to the location of the employing store and the challenges faced in sourcing optometrists for the region. Additional incentives are also in place to reflect this.

We don’t have a formal path or program for our graduates, we pride ourselves on not having a cookie cutter approach

When appropriate, ProVision practices get in early, offering cadetships of up to AU$10,000, paid in the final two years of the student’s study on the proviso that the graduate commits to a further two years with the practice.

At EyeQ, Ms Wegrzynowski says another option is to take a more lateral approach – one that attracts and truly excites the most suitable candidates.

“It’s tough attracting graduates to regions – some locations shine more easily than others. I suggest that regional practice owners think about what their region is known for – what is happening in a social, sports or cultural sense – and try to attract graduates on that basis. Perhaps your area is known for viticulture or art, rock climbing, or sailing for instance. Promote these regional strengths and you will attract young optometrists with an interest in them to move to your area. While you won’t attract everyone, you will get someone who wants to be there. And they will have the unique opportunity to pursue their personal interests while acquiring important clinical skills…”

Ms Wegrzynowski said ensuring graduates are happy to stay on in regional areas is all about encouraging their immersion in the community. “Many graduates are prepared to move out of metro areas, but still want to be within an hour or two of their home so they can get back every weekend.

“But graduates need to be reminded that their first job isn’t necessarily their forever job, and they should make the most of their regional experience. I encourage them to immerse themselves in the community, to get involved in professional and sports groups, volunteer, and take up social invitations from team members. Eventually, when they do move on, they will return home more confident, worldly and ready to take on new opportunities.”

MENTORING, DEVELOPMENT AND RETENTION

Matt Pease says the importance of early career clinical mentoring is a unique feature in recruiting new graduates and this is best coming from either the practice owner optometrist or the corporate management team.

“Successful retention of new graduates involves a combination of ongoing professional development, mentorship, providing up to date diagnostic equipment, and support with leave/travel (especially if it is a regional practice),” he said.

Across the different eye care organisations, mivision spoke to, there were various approaches to mentoring and graduate development, ranging from formal to informal programs. Regardless, all agreed that professional development and mentoring young graduates is critical to their success.

George & Matilda, which took on five graduates in 2018 and expects to take on many more this year due to expansion, customises its mentoring program.

“Our graduates learn from the best of the best: independent optometrists who have 20 or 30 years’ experience in the industry,” said Chris Beer, CEO of George & Matilda. “As independent practitioners, they can offer more holistic mentoring, not just in clinical skills but in the intricacies of running a business.

“We don’t have a formal path or program for our graduates, we pride ourselves on not having a cookie cutter approach – we understand the strengths and opportunities of the graduate and work with our partners, their mentor and our professional services manager to create a development plan suited to each individual.”

Mr Beer said George & Matilda has also established a young optometrists networking group, which offers peer support and opportunities to become involved in “very interesting projects pushing the future of optometry”.

Bailey Nelson has a structured development program for all optometrists, which includes quarterly development sessions, six monthly reviews, peer feedback, an annual leadership conference and the ability to participate in one year coaching or operational roles that add variety to day to day life.

The organisation took on its first graduate optometrist last year and CEO Peter Winkle said a tailored support program was specifically designed to support her level of experience.

“Our clinical support team is currently working on extending the graduate program to cover more areas. It will be modified to match each graduate’s level of experience,” said Mr Winkle.

“Once we have a sense of where optometrists need support, our clinical coach team is in place to support them using the resources within the graduate support program. The level of support ranges from simple clinical tips and tricks to more involved guidance such as sitting in with the graduate during examinations. We also offer graduates the opportunity to sit in with more experienced optometrists to expose them to different clinical approaches.”

A customised mentoring program at The Optical Company (TOC) ensures graduates are trained in all aspects of the business including optometry and retail, with oversight from TOC’s professional services manager.

“The graduates work very closely with an experienced optometrist and store staff and are carefully introduced into the business, ensuring they are fully aligned with TOC processes,” said Colin Kangisser, owner of TOC. “They have direct lines of communication to our support office including regional, people and culture, and professional services managers to develop and enhance their professional interests in optometry specialties including dry eye, ortho-k, behavioral optometry etc. This is supported by access to state of the art optometry equipment.”

EyeQ also believes a personalised mentoring program is most effective.

“We have a mentor program within a framework, but it’s individualised – the mentor and graduate work together to adapt and adjust the program to suit both of them,” said Ms Wegrzynowski. “Graduates appreciate this bespoke approach.

“The mentoring program can continue over several years but it is most important in the first year because it ensures graduates have someone there to engage with, learn from, and share experiences and case reports with. Our graduates can reach out to other young colleagues and they can also speak to Mark Koszek, our professional education officer.”

As you’d expect, the larger organisations have a more formal approach to mentoring.

OPSM and Laubman & Pank for instance, have layers of mentors. “Professional services managers facilitate mentoring across Australia and New Zealand, and beneath them are area eye care managers who consult as optometrists three days a week and provide instore coaching two days a week,” explained Mr Murphy. “Then, there are the store managers and colleagues. Our stores are built on a ‘hub and spoke model’, with the busiest stores running four or five consulting rooms. That means there’s a team of optometrists within each store with different interests, skills and aptitudes who can mentor graduates accordingly.

“Over the first 12 months of a graduate’s career they receive support for aspects of practice like managing appointment times, in store technology, and they are expected to achieve specific milestones.”

Specsavers Graduate Program is a structured, two year development program designed to support professional and personal development. Mentoring predominantly takes place in store, with each graduate assigned a lead mentor who takes responsibility for the graduate’s ongoing professional development, along with their general wellbeing.

“Through a combination of professional events, workshops, and in store experiences, the Graduate Program leverages the collective knowledge and experience of both in-store optometry partners and the professional teams at the Specsavers support office to enable and empower our graduates to achieve their career goals.

“Importantly, as part of their professional development, our graduates receive information on their clinical interventions so they can understand how they are positively impacting patient eye health outcomes and where there may be opportunities for further development,” said Mr Buxton.

INTERVIEWING AND ASSESSMENT

Organisations like Specsavers, Luxottica, EyeQ, and ProVision have in-house experts who can attract, interview, and assess candidates for graduate positions, work with the practices to finalise placements, and then arrange on-boarding.

For independent practices without a support network, recruiting a young optometrist is a different story. However, Jeremy Cutting and Matt Pease say it should not be daunting.

“The optometry landscape is changing rapidly, and it is often hard for a student or new graduate optometrist to know which direction they should take with their new career,” said Mr Cutting. “Before graduating, we would hope they have had ample exposure to both independent and corporate clinics, either through clinical placements or part time dispenser roles. Through this experience, they should have developed a preference. Some graduate optometrists will also have had a chance to develop interest in specialties (rigid contacts lenses, paediatrics etc.), and this often makes them better suited to specific independent practices.

“Using an optometry-specific recruitment company takes a lot of the hard work out of sourcing the right graduate. We conduct the initial interviews and background checks in addition to providing support after placement. We aim to verify the attitude, and not just aptitude of the graduate to decide the position of best fit.

“We also work with graduates to prepare them for interviews and to help ease their way into practice. It’s important that they know what to expect and what will be expected of them. Overwhelmingly, we feel that new grad optometrists should cherish their starting years in practice as they finally put all their clinical skills to use. It’s an exciting time of learning and relationship building.”

Make or Break Contract Preparation

Pete Haydon

An important part of the employment process is the preparation, review, and completion of a contract. Both employers and employees must have a clear understanding of what to expect from this document.

Over the last few years I’ve reviewed a couple of hundred employment contracts for optometrists. I’ve seen the whole bell curve, from a one page document with a couple of nebulous bullet points, all the way through to 25 indecipherable pages of legalese that only an optometrist with a sideline as a Queens Counsel could work through. Neither of these extremes are good for the employer or the employee.

What I generally like is something that’s clear, both in terms of its writing, but equally in terms of what it asks the employee to do.

To my mind, it’s three separate documents that make up the agreement. The first is the contract, or ‘workplace agreement’ that at a minimum, needs to talk to the terms and conditions – the hours, remuneration, leave entitlements, obligations, and OH&S and workplace arrangements such as termination, redundancy, non-compete and non-solicitation clauses, confidentiality, property, and restraint.

The contract should refer to two ‘schedules’. Schedule A is usually a short document that outlines the specifics of the contract – how much money, what specific hours, what specific leave, and any other additions such as Optometry Australia membership or CPD allowances.

Schedule B is the position description – the specifics of what the worker is meant to do – and in many cases, I’ve found this to be entirely absent from workplace agreements. This should absolutely include conversion and sales targets if these are in place at the business. As well as these descriptions, Schedule B should include specific performance indicators that the employee can be measured against at the end of their probation, and beyond.

By bringing these three documents together the employee will be very clear on their rights and their responsibilities. It’s great to have a two-way employer/employee conversation about these documents – it shows a desire on the part of the boss to be transparent, and respects the professionalism and willingness of the worker to help the business thrive.

Note: further information about contracts of employment, with advice for prospective employees, can be found at mivision.com. au/2019/06/graduate-recruitment

Pete Haydon is the Chief Executive Officer of Optometry Victoria.