TRENDS IN YOUR INBOX: A Tech Is Not a Tech Is Not a Tech . . . Anymore
Opportunities Are Knocking for Veterinary Technicians—But Are They Answering?
by Jennifer Reed
There’s no such thing as “just a tech.” Of course, you already know that.
From assisting veterinarians in the surgery suite to educating pet owners in the exam room, technicians are critically important to daily practice operations and invaluable members of the medical team. Just ask any practice owner or manager, and they’ll be quick to tell you just how hard a great technician is to find—and, these days, even more difficult to keep.
According to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of veterinary technicians is projected to grow 20% from 2016 to 2026—much faster than the 7% average for all occupations.
Despite this positive outlook, a 2016 study by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) reported a known shortage of credentialed technicians and cited difficulty attracting and retaining qualified personnel to fill positions as a major complaint of veterinary practices.
The reasons aren’t surprising—or new. Most clinical veterinary technology careers are short lived, often halted by feelings of stagnation in a field plagued by inadequate pay, rampant toxicity, and scant possibilities for upward mobility.
Of those respondents who answered they are not currently working in practice, nearly 50% indicated they left the profession altogether, citing problems with income, burnout, compassion fatigue, underutilization, recognition, and career advancement; and chances are, they aren’t coming back.
A Harsh Reality
For many, a career in veterinary technology simply isn’t sustainable in the long run, financially or otherwise, a pervasive problem not only for professionals but also the practices that need them.
“Veterinary medicine is a fantastic career path, but it’s not one that necessarily is going to pay the bills at times, and that’s a harsh reality,” said veterinary social media coach and speaker Danielle Lambert.
Through her consulting business, Snout School, Lambert empowers professionals in all roles to explore alternative career paths in veterinary medicine and leverage their unique experiences to forge their own, both inside and outside the practice.
While income plays a significant part in overall job satisfaction, Lambert said it is important to examine the other concerns highlighted in the NAVTA study, which almost exclusively point to problems with practice culture.
“The number one thing when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent is the culture of your practice,” Lambert said. “It has nothing to do with how fancy your practice is, [and] it might even, at a certain point, not have to do with pay. It has to do with giving somebody an opportunity to work in a situation where their goals and their needs are being met, and hopefully that relationship is balanced where they’re helping you meet your goals and your needs.”
Often, however, the demand for skilled, motivated technicians creates such a valuable commodity that once the positions are filled, the walls of opportunity simply close in around them.
“I think veterinary hospitals struggle to hire and retain technicians because most of them are short sighted,” said Linda Markland, RVT, veterinary relations specialist at Nationwide. “They need a technician to fill an open spot but never think about how they are going to keep that employee engaged. Engagement is the most important way to keep employees from looking elsewhere. They need to know they are appreciated, valued, respected and . . . [that] there is growth for them within the practice.”
“People really want to buy into a culture and a community . . . that’s going to help them grow their goals,” Lambert said. “They’re not just looking for a checklist of [responsibilities] and a paycheck at a time. If your pay isn’t so hot, you have to have the best culture on Earth for people to want to stay. You have to give them a reason.”
Practices Aren’t the Only Problem
From the time she enrolled in a veterinary technician program, Amy Johnson, BS, LVT, RLATG, knew she wouldn’t stay long in a traditional practice setting. In 2002, she left technician life behind to become an instructor of veterinary technology at Vatterott College in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Bel-Rea Institute of Animal Technology in Denver, Colorado, before eventually taking on her current role as education development specialist at Patterson Veterinary University.
“I quickly became disengaged in clinical practice due to poor practice culture, difficult hours, and low pay,” Johnson said. “I wanted more, so when the opportunity came to go into teaching, I took it without a second thought.”
Despite her own experience, however, Johnson said toxic cultures are not the only problem. Often, technicians limit themselves to clinical practice by assuming that is all they are qualified to do or being afraid to take a chance on something new.
“No one should have to hate their job . . . [but] one thing I don’t think technicians understand is that when they reach the end of their ropes, they don’t have to leave the field,” she said. “They can reinvent themselves in the field that they love. There are jobs out there for them in veterinary medicine where they can use their skills and knowledge and get paid for it.”
For Michelle Krasicki-Aune, MBA, BS, CVT, that meant leveraging her skills and passion to start Vet Teams, LLC, a business that provides relief veterinary technician and other support services for companion-animal and specialty practices.
“One of the biggest problems we face as veterinary technicians is that we’ve all learned this mantra of, ‘I’m just a tech,’” she said. “There is no shame in being a technician. We are valuable components [of the veterinary team, yet] so many of us have found [being a technician] to be a negative aspect of our life rather than a positive. I think our problem is we pigeonhole ourselves into just being a technician, not realizing we can reach out to all these other avenues and still be a technician.”
Despite concerted efforts to shed light on available opportunities for technicians in government, education, sales, insurance, marketing, and other facets of veterinary medicine through technician programs and state associations, conferences, articles, and books, such as Career Choices for Veterinary Technicians, Johnson believes the profession is still losing too many valuable technicians to other industries.
“As an industry, we are getting it out there, but I am not sure disenchanted technicians are listening,” she said. “I cannot tell you how many technicians completely leave the field without exploring all of their options here first.”
Where Will Your Path in Veterinary Medicine Lead?
Are you hitting a ceiling on your earnings as a veterinary technician in clinical practice? Is your body having a hard time keeping up with the work you love? Are you facing career burnout or simply looking for a new challenge?
Don’t throw in the towel just yet. Explore the wide range of unique career opportunities available within the field of veterinary technology with Career Choices for Veterinary Technicians: Opportunities for Animal Lovers.
Filled with ideas to broaden your perspective on what is possible in the field of veterinary technology, this comprehensive guide includes the latest information on new career paths for veterinary technicians (including online marketing specialist, certified veterinary journalist, and positions with the federal government) as well as information on veterinary technician specialties.
Find out where your career can take you. Learn more at press.aaha.org.
Ready for Change
According to Mary Berg, BS, RVT, RLATG, VTS (Dentistry), the first step toward an alternative path is recognizing when it’s time for a change.
“Many people will reach the point in practice where they kind of question [whether they are] enjoying what they do anymore,” she said. “When you reach that point, it’s worth taking a step back and saying, ‘Is there something else I can do?’”
Of course, “something else” is subjective, and the possibilities are endless.
After her start in equine medicine, Jessie Loberg-Paucart, BA, AAS, CVT, VTS (Equine Veterinary Nursing), gained a wealth of experience in the field as an educator, practice consultant, and animal health sales representative.
Julie Reisinger, CVT, RLATG, and Toni Mufford, CVT, RLATG, hone many unique (and often weird) skill sets, solve unique challenges, and work with a variety of different species, from bats and naked mole rats to dolphins and buffaloes, as research technicians at the University of Colorado Boulder.
As a full-time instructor at the Bel-Rea Institute of Animal Technology in Denver, Colorado, Janet King, BS, AAS, CVT, plays an important role in educating future technicians while getting her animal fix and continuing to enjoy hands-on tasks, such as catheter placement, venipuncture, and endotracheal intubation.
While these career paths presented new challenges, they also opened doors to unique opportunities to help veterinary clients succeed in their businesses, act as a mentor to others in the profession, and even send mice to space.
“I have learned so many crazy skills at my job, like how to place an abdominal aortic stent or how to remove a pig brain,” Mufford said. “I always say working for higher education means higher education.”
Starting her own veterinary dental consulting business, Beyond the Crown Veterinary Education, allowed Berg to pursue her true passion while making a greater impact.
“In practice, I was helping two, three, four pets a day with dental disease, and with what I do now, I can help thousands of pets every year get better dental care,” she said.
Markland feels the same way. “I feel so strongly about how important pet health insurance is and can be to our profession, I will continue to spread the word until I can no longer physically do so,” she said. “I feel that what I do now helps many more pets live longer, healthier lives than when I was in practice.”
For Loberg-Paucart, each position taught her invaluable skills that better prepared her for the next.
“As a practice consultant, not only did I learn so much about elevating the standard of care for patients in the veterinary clinic, but I learned how to help practices have a better culture and a healthy business,” she said. “I also gained skills necessary to call on veterinarians, practice owners, and managers. Each place I have worked has allowed me to become a better veterinary technician, specialist, educator, and veterinary partner.”
So, how do you know when it’s time to move on?
“When a technician doesn’t feel challenged in day-to-day practice, it’s time to make a change,” Loberg-Paucart said. “That change may mean going from general practice to specialty practice. It could mean looking into a supervisory or managerial role, or it could mean making a more drastic change.”
It can also mean cutting back on your time in practice with a part-time gig or changing up your daily routine with new roles and responsibilities.
“I know a lot of people who have taken over the marketing at their practices and then grown into seeing that as an opportunity to help with the marketing at other practices or to get involved with different companies, whether it be digital agencies or website providers in the industry,” Lambert said.
No matter what it looks like, if you’re feeling stagnant in your current position, Resinger offers this advice: “Find the part of your job that you love doing the most and see if there’s a realistic way to make that what you do.”
Forging a New Path
Ready to take a chance?
If you’re looking to make moves within your practice, you have to start with brave conversations, Lambert said.
“You have to be brave enough to voice your needs and your wants and discuss them with your employer,” she said. “And if that employer doesn’t see eye to eye with you, then that’s not a culture that’s going to fit you long term … and you need to be courageous enough to take that leap and start looking for a new job.”
In addition, Markland said a personal and professional development plan can help managers determine a technician’s passion and expertise and see how it can be utilized to help both the employee and hospital grow.
Want to explore options outside the practice? “Find someone who is doing what you want to do and make that connection,” Johnson said. “They will make great mentors and can let you know when there might be opportunities available.”
Johnson also recommends taking advantage of opportunities outside of work to network and gain additional skills, such as volunteering, getting involved in local veterinary organizations and associations, finding opportunities to speak or write about topics you are interested in, and exploring a specialty.
The bottom line? “Don’t be afraid to think outside the box,” Berg said. “Find out what hurdles there are [and] what you need to do, research where your true passion is, and go for it.”