Recently on an equine veterinary discussion group, two posts sparked significant chat. The first praised a recent campaign by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), which was trying to explain the shortage of equine vets to the public and asking for their help to make the job more appealing by being kind to their horse vet. The other was a practice owner struggling to recruit despite offering what was perceived as a “good package”. Both these topics relate to the current recruitment and retention crisis, which has featured in research and conferences across the globe in recent years and will be in the spotlight again at this year’s BEVA Congress.
What is going wrong?
It is always worth reminding the public to behave appropriately when interacting with their vets, and as a profession, we should exhibit zero tolerance, just as other industries have. In an increasingly litigious society, vets can find owners distrustful, demanding, unappreciative and fickle. This is probably easier to stomach when you are experienced, confident and established in your career. But it doesn’t do the new graduate or recent “returner” (eg post-parental leave/career break/changing career paths) any good, particularly in an age where social media makes negative experiences so difficult to overcome.
Negative client interactions are unlikely to be the reason why people are put off entering our profession; however, they are a perfect straw for breaking the camel’s back
It has almost become the society “norm” to assume failure and attribute blame before discussing the issue and resolving it appropriately, which is probably a result of increasing dissociation between consumers and producers/service providers. We are slowly forgetting how to discuss things as human beings after what is now years of communicating remotely, online and with large corporate companies, rather than seeing the vet–client interaction for what it is and behaving appropriately. Where vet–client relationships are strong and respectful, there is less opportunity for “death by social media” or RCVS complaints. Encouraging owners to see vets as human beings is essential, never more so than in an age where veterinary practice is changing from the cottage industry it once was.
However, clients are not the sole cause of unrest and abandonment among our workforce – perhaps we need to look closer to home and get our own affairs in order. Negative client interactions are unlikely to be the reason why people are put off entering our profession; however, they are a perfect straw for breaking the camel’s back. Many other industries suffer from client “foul practice” and “financial negligence”, so we are not alone in this. Presumably you tolerate, manage or refuse to entertain it depending on how you are as a person and how determined you are to stay doing what you do. So, why are our camels already buckling at the knees?
How do we fix things?
I suspect the dissatisfaction with working conditions in the industry is more obvious than we care to admit. If we want to fix things, we should look at why people aren’t arriving (and create long-term solutions) and why they’re leaving (needing long- and short-term solutions). But what are these reasons, and how much stock should we put on them?
If we want to fix things, we should look at why people aren’t arriving […] and why they’re leaving
A failure to attract applicants. Or is there just so much more to choose from now (dilution)?
A failure to attract the right people. But the question is, who are “the right people”? I’d skip this one and trust that the “right people” will come if conditions are better.
More women, fewer men. Will more men fix this? What entices men away from veterinary medicine? Are they spotting work–life balance and/or poor pay sooner than women and altering their course earlier? Again, I’d skip this reason.
Few choose an equine career path. Long hours, lone-working, sports industry demands, risk of injury… these are all contributors, and we can educate clients (and horses) to improve these, but these problems will probably remain. So, once again, this one I’d skip.
Women starting families. Women are taking time off to have kids in many previously male-dominated industries, not just ours. This contributes to transient loss, but it can’t be the cause of permanent/long-term workforce issues. So, let’s look somewhere else.
“Leavers” not returning. Many professionals find work–life balance and career progression less than satisfactory, but permanently leaving your profession is unlikely to occur without a catalyst, such as enforced time off to have a baby. The decision to return to work depends on if the scales are tipped against them. For example, where a child is involved, and you can replace “child” with another dependant or time demand as appropriate in this scenario, the scales can be tipped by:
- Time to work – things like child’s needs, childcare options, spouse availability, being on call, etc, can tip the balance
- Being financially worthwhile – take-home pay after childcare, primary versus secondary income sacrifices, working for the love of it versus working to provide income, etc, are all things weighed up
Employees just want an easy life. I’m yet to encounter a vet who chose this career for an easy life – most are hard-working and determined. Leavers are often reluctant to do so but feel persistently undervalued. Many find alternatives where their time constraints and financial needs are better met. Some are reluctant to do out-of-hours (OOH) (particularly later in life) but might be persuaded if financially rewarded and afforded sufficient “recovery” time off. Career progression is important to most and needs addressing individually. But this is likely to translate to an increased hourly rate of pay or more time off with increasing experience as a minimum. When senior members of the profession exclaim that those more junior lack the desire to work, I think they could be missing the point. They are often very driven people who have learned to stop driving because they’re not going in the right direction in terms of their financial or lifestyle goals. It is futile to compare the last generation’s apples with the current generation’s pears, too. After all, there is:
- an increasing proportion of the workforce from lower socioeconomic backgrounds
- student debt
- the cost of living
- house prices
- an increase in two-income households/fewer stay-at-home parents supporting the breadwinner (and vice versa)
- fewer golden carrots on offer (eg partnerships), and these are likely to occur later in an individual’s career and/or are smaller in size (eg clinical directorship)
- relatively large start-up costs (equipment, premises, staff costs)
- less retirement security (no practice to sell, houses and pensions are less reliable and lower start point/smaller contribution potential)
Variety might be the spice of your practice, but you just don’t know it yet because you’ve yet to taste it
Everyone wants different contracts. Variety might be the spice of your practice, but you just don’t know it yet because you’ve yet to taste it. Happy employees are more productive. Books need to balance, so charge according to your practice staff costs. Happy staff will probably turn over more, and don’t assume… ask! Not all returning mothers want part-time or no on call. Not all men want full-time and to be full on call. Not all new graduates want three-day weeks, but they might want to plan for the future to get to that place at some point. Individual needs will always evolve, so prepare to adapt and be dynamic. If four of your vets need school hours, you might need to increase prices at “peak times” when you have fewer vets and reduce them from 9am to 3pm – don’t be afraid to be an Uber practice! Empower employees to achieve work–life balance with suitable remuneration, then offer an achievable service to your clients and charge appropriately.
Clients won’t accept increases in fees to cover increases in vet salaries. Let them choose, but consider explaining your price structure. Other professions associated with human and animal health and welfare unashamedly charge appropriately, and rightly so. Consider efficiency when covering salaries – how can the team be better utilised (eg managers, vets, nurses, techs and office staff)? Vets will always be viewed as the thorn in the side of animal ownership, but by ignoring the repercussions of underselling ourselves, we will only succeed in selling ourselves down a river, taking animal welfare with us in the process.
Vets will always be viewed as the thorn in the side of animal ownership, but by ignoring the repercussions of underselling ourselves, we will only succeed in selling ourselves down a river, taking animal welfare with us in the process
Higher salaries won’t attract or retain vets. Wanna bet? The salaries earned by current employers when they were assistants are not directly comparable to those of today’s as you need to take into account how things have changed over time (as listed previously).
A common theme in all the discussions about retention and recruitment is that no one size fits all. Rather than advertising for a “full-time/part-time/no-OOH/full-OOH vet with X years of experience”, thereby replacing someone or filling a “square hole” that has been created by practice growth/change, consider advertising the values and ethos of your practice, with ideas/examples of how the new person may best fit the practice. Hopefully, you can then achieve the best fit for both parties, not just who fits “on paper” for the practice.
Bigger practices may more easily accommodate alternatives to their “preferred” choice, but thinking outside the box is sometimes ground-breaking for a small team or growing business. Employers need to stop making assumptions about the workforce and start considering applicants on their merits rather than whether they are exactly the right-shaped peg for the current hole. Holes can often be altered, whereas available pegs may not without the risk of breaking.