In 2020, almost one million of Australia’s 13.7-million-person labour force lost employment due to COVID-19 and in New Zealand, the unemployment rate rose to almost 5%. Both governments enabled millions of others to keep their jobs through JobKeeper and wage subsidy payments, which helped many businesses stay afloat when lockdowns were enforced.

The optometric industry faced several challenges due to limited patient access to eyecare in lockdown and new government requirements around social distancing, meaning less employees were allowed to work in some practices.

Locum recruitment

For the first time, optometrists were unable to travel and it became less favourable to work in multiple locations. Specsavers saw increased demand for optometrists to shift from self-employed locum work to permanent roles as they sought stability.

Head of Specsavers Recruitment Services, Carly Parkinson says less locum optometrists were able to secure work in Specsavers practices in 2020 due to lockdowns which restricted routine care.

“Across the country as the year progressed, resurgences of COVID-19 resulted in fluctuating restriction levels, impacting the delivery of eyecare to vastly different degrees depending on the region. In April and May nationwide, optometric services were rightly reserved for emergency presentations, patients with acute or progressed symptoms and those with known at-risk conditions necessitating care in COVID-19 lockdowns. Limited patients meant we had less opportunities for placement of locum optometrists.

“There was further impact in both February and August when new graduate optometrists entered the workforce under the Specsavers Graduate Program, meaning there were even less opportunities for locum optometrists,” says Carly.

Graduate Retention

Similarly, as the workforce sought stability, Specsavers saw a record retention rate in its graduate optometrist cohort.

From the Specsavers-employed February 2019 graduate cohort, a retention rate of 89% was maintained across Australia and New Zealand. Comparatively in 2020, the retention rate increased to 98%. This gave Specsavers’ Graduate Program a retention rate of 95% over the two-year period.

2021 and beyond

Despite the many challenges of 2020, latest data gives a positive outlook on what we might expect for 2021 and beyond. As restrictions continue to lift, there is ongoing work to ensure patients whose eye tests were delayed or cancelled return safely to receiving their recommended eyecare.

“To help us to assist the backlog of patients in need of eyecare, we have seen an increase in locum work across the Specsavers Australia New Zealand network. For example, in December 2020 we saw a 24% increase in locum requests for New South Wales compared to the year previous and we’re seeing increases in other locations also,” says Carly.

Graduate numbers are also promising, with 374 expected to enter the ANZ workforce in 2021.

“As we recover from the impact of COVID-19 on 2020, we look forward to working with the many optometrists that will join us on our mission to continue to transform eye health across our Australian and New Zealand store network,” says Carly.