Sanjay Patel, ophthalmic director in Maidstone, Kent, explains why taking on multiple pre-registration optometrists is working for him
Do you take on pre-regs every year?
In the past we usually just took one pre-reg every year but we relocated in September 2016 and we now have 14 optical testing rooms, so we can take more people. This year we have four optometry graduates working with us in their pre-reg year: one lives locally, one relocated from Northern Ireland after graduating from Ulster University, and we’ve also employed a husband and wife team who did the one-year conversion course for dispensing opticians at the University of Bradford. They live in Gravesend and commute to Maidstone every day, which takes about half an hour. This is comparable to Worthing and Eastbourne Specsavers stores who also have four pre-regs too.
Do you have any difficulty in attracting pre-regs?
We have had difficulties previously persuading students to join us, yes. Kent has a big shortage of student optometrists. It’s difficult to get local candidates so we’ve had to have trainees relocating. Unfortunately this does leave us more open to them moving back home if they don’t settle well.
What’s your strategy for attracting pre-regs?
We like to meet people face to face to talk to them about our store and how much we can support them in their training. The best way to see as many people as possible, is to get involved with graduate recruitment days at universities. For example, I go to City University of London, to assist at the group graduate recruitment event. It’s a good way of getting to meet the students.
We’re also going further back and working with schools. We’ve just been to a careers fair at our local grammar school, where we recruited a pre-reg for 2021 from the upper sixth. We also met three lower sixth students who are thinking about optometry as a career choice and want to do work experience.
The Specsavers graduate recruitment team can support financial incentives, such as ‘Golden Hellos’, to come to hard-to-fill areas, including Maidstone.
One way of persuading pre-regs to relocate is for the graduate recruitment team to offer to place a group of friends within a certain area, close enough for them to live together. Last year we collaborated with two other nearby practices and took on a group of four friends from Ulster University – one came to us, one went to Tunbridge Wells and two went to Canterbury. We’ve had really high-calibre individuals from Ulster because it’s a great university.
Are there any advantages of taking more than one?
They tend to do the same assessments at the same time. We can do all their training in one go. It helps that they’re developing at the same pace.
Any advice for other stores considering pairs?
Don’t be afraid of taking on more than one! If you take on two, you have more chance of one staying longer-term. We’ve got a big need for employed optometrists and the best way is via the pre-reg route. Also, a lot of people of my age are looking at succession planning. If you develop the pre-reg and give them a development pathway, eventually they could become a partner.
Do you supervise pre-regs?
I supervise one pre-reg a year. It’s my choice to do so, but there are only a certain number of optometrists in a store who can do it, so it’s normally partners in most stores. As the group get largers however and employs more lead optometrists more people supervise. It’s really enjoyable. It’s great developing the optometrist teams to the standard you want them to work to. The supervisor’s role is crucial and your effort gets repaid in loyalty afterwards; if they’re comfortable and go on to flourish in your store, they won’t want to leave.
What’s the difference between the pre-regs on their first day and when they qualify?
They come from university with little practical experience and we polish them into really competent optometrists. After the first few months they become really productive and make a good contribution to the store; they can contribute to test numbers in their pre-reg year, and are much more affordable than locums.
What are your own memories of being a pre-reg?
I had a cracking pre-reg year in Romford in 1991. It was a fantastic experience. I worked there for two and a half years and then an opportunity came up in the Maidstone store and I became a Specsavers partner at 24.
Would you advise optometry students to consider relocating?
Lots of optometry students want to stay in city centres. But that can be hard because of lack of test room facilities; they may not be testing enough. Also, patients in the city centre stores will be mostly 25 to 40-year-olds. The provincial stores are often much larger and have a wider range of patients and clinical conditions. The accommodation is cheaper, too. There is a life outside London, Manchester and Birmingham!
What’s the best pre-reg attitude?
Be prepared to work really hard and be organised with your log book and record keeping. Have a plan for which OSCEs you want to get to and when you’re going to do your assessments. Also, maintain a really close relationship with your supervisor, because that’s crucial to your development.
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