Coming Up Short

You’ve got more business than you can handle but it’s taking a long time to find veterinarians to join your crew. You’re not alone. Between veterinarians wanting to retire or reduce hours and competition from others offering an array of sign-on bonuses and other incentives, veterinary hospitals are being forced to get creative in facing new operational challenges.

Salaries, Sign-On Bonuses, Extra Incentives Make Hiring a Challenge

“It’s an employee’s market. Young veterinarians want higher salaries and other considerations like mentorship and additional continuing education in specialized areas. For those who have jobs, I can’t blame them for entertaining other opportunities with higher salaries or increased benefits.”

The exasperation is evident as Richard Cohen, MBA, CVPM, shares his experiences in hiring veterinarians as practice administrator at the AAHA-accredited Dupont Veterinary Clinic and Palisades Veterinary Clinic, both in Washington, DC.

“A big issue in the industry is increased debt-to-income ratio. Less-experienced veterinarians will not accept salaries of $95,000 or $100,000 anymore,” said Cohen, noting that this trend may force hospitals to increase prices, putting most of the burden on their clients.

mentoring.png

“Networking, building relationships, and mentoring are keys to attracting  talent.”

—GLEN SELLERS, MS, MBA
CLINICAL LECTURER IN THE OFFICE OF
ACADEMIC AFFAIRS AND CLINICAL SCIENCES AT AUBURN UNIVERSITY CVM

Cohen is not alone in his concerns about finding and hiring veterinarians. Asked if she had to advertise in the last year for veterinarians, Tiffany Consalvo, BS, CVPM, practice administrator for the AAHA-accredited Gilbertsville Veterinary Hospital, Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, said her “yes” is “a universal yes from every manager in our industry. We had to look for six to nine months to find veterinarians for each of our two full-time openings.”

Susie Crockett, BS, CVPM, director of practice management for all nine locations of Noah’s Animal Hospitals in Indiana, manages general practice, emergency, and low-cost models. Five of the locations are AAHA accredited, and she said that they have been advertising for veterinarians for the last several years.

“In the last year, perhaps we have had 20 to 30 solid contacts. We have received interest; however, the competition in the market has increased substantially. The Midwest is not as appealing as coastal or southern states. We also are in a market with a lot of corporate entities that can pay a higher rate than we can as a single-doctor-owned company.”

Unfortunately, it looks like that hiring challenge could be around for a while. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics had projected that employment of veterinarians would grow 17% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations, and with a projected total increase of 14,500 more jobs.

Watching the Demand for Services Rise

But why is there such a need for more veterinarians? Increasing demand seems to be a common response.

“We had a run of veterinarians taking time off to raise families,” said Crockett, who manages 47 staff and 12 doctors. “We also had a lot of ER veterinarians getting burned out and moving on to GP. However, our main reason was still growth. In the last two years, we have expanded three locations with increased hours or increased services.

“We have also seen some of our general practices that were three-doctor practices increasing volume that requires four or five doctors. We were having a hard time matching the demand and didn’t want to risk losing clientele. So far in 2022, we have hired six new veterinarians. We still need more.”

At Gilbertsville, a renovation/addition project completed three years ago brought growth and the need to add veterinarians. In addition, said Consalvo, a veterinarian was terminated in the fall of 2020 because she did not fit the team, one relocated to another state in the fall of 2021, and another quit to work closer to home.

Cohen said they needed to hire because business was increasing and an expansion was allowing them to see more clients.

Rachel Koepsel, assistant director of career services at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) Career Services office, offered several reasons she is aware of for increased business.

“Younger generations are deciding to have pets instead of children and, having more discretionary income, make more visits to veterinary practices. Pet owners now google things that may raise concerns, and they want to get their veterinarian’s opinion. Pet owners are using more pet monitoring devices and treating animals like family, which is driving more clientele to veterinary hospitals.”

A March 2022 Rover.com study found that 1 in 10 pet owners are choosing to bring home a dog versus having a child owing to the lower total cost. This is most true for Gen Z (23%) and millennials (22%). The study also found that pet owner priorities and purchasing behaviors indicate 1) a shift toward products and services that better align with personal values and 2) prioritizing pet care.

Creating Ways to Interest Students

With so many businesses hoping to hire veterinarians, how might they interest new veterinary students? The process needs to begin long before the need is there.

“Hospitals need to be forming relationships with graduates years before graduation through mentoring of local students, offering externships for summer and fourth-year opportunities, and finding other ways to interest them in that practice,” advised James K. Roush, DVM, MS, DACVS, associate dean for academic programs and student success professor, small animal surgery, Kansas State University CVM. “Anything to get the students into that practice and learn it’s a good place to start out, including mentoring in the practice, is important.”

That idea has proved true at Noah’s Animal Hospitals. Crockett explained that they have been “more successful when we have a robust externship/internship program. We get them in during school and ‘wow’ them, get them integrated into our company and our teams, build the relationships. This seems to give us a leg up, if you will, when the applicants are looking for where they want to take an offer from.”

The hospitals make sure that externs have a lot of opportunities to “practice” under the guidance of their veterinarians, letting them get their hands dirty, and doing the “cool stuff,” she said. “Showing them what they will get to do goes a long way in engaging them.”

“Providing great mentorships is also important, Crockett noted. “We work extremely hard to gain new veterinarians (either new graduates or experienced). If we ‘throw them into the fire,’ they will leave quickly, just like staff, and then you have to start over.”

Learning to Manage with Fewer Doctors

While being proactive in interesting young people for the future and looking for that new addition, how can a hospital best manage without a full doctor crew? Critical and creative thinking and breaking the old rules appear to be requisites to keep operations running smoothly.

Managing a shortage of team members can be stressful, said Consalvo. However, if the management team takes a little time and steps away from the issue, they might find ways to create more efficient processes that take less staff.

“Utilize your technicians at a higher level by having them perform more technician appointments. A veterinarian can move efficiently from room to room with the right support staff, seeing multiple patients without being overwhelmed,” she said.

“We closed one of our offices on Sundays but expanded hours on Saturdays,” explained Cohen. “It’s one less day that staff members have to commute, which has increased morale.” He also suggested that hospitals consider alternative schedules like longer workdays so staff would only work three or four days a week.

Another option hospitals might want to consider is IndeVets, a company that offers a hybrid model of flexible veterinary staffing. Cohen said his hospitals have used IndeVets to fill vacancies.

Finding Time and Money Rising to the Top

Job postings for veterinarians feature a mix and match of appealing incentives. But what attracts a veterinarian to a new position? Large signing bonuses? 401(k)s?

According to Roush, “work-life balance is moving to the top of veterinary students’ wish lists, with shorter workweeks mentioned as a frequent desire and location having a large effect for many graduates. Salaries, starting bonuses, health insurance, and retirement packages are also high on their list of priorities.”

In addition, “practices and practice owners need to be realistic about today’s graduates and their job market,” Roush noted. “Students today are quite knowledgeable about what average salaries and offers should be, and they are not willing to spend years at low salaries to ‘earn their dues’—a phrase I hear frequently from employers. They don’t have to earn their dues anymore to obtain a competitive salary and excellent working conditions from day one with the numbers of offers they can choose from.”

Crockett has found that people want “time—time off work, time with their families, and the ability to travel and manage mental health. Providing a schedule where they have long periods of time off seems to be key.”

The new graduates Consalvo saw were interested in mentorship and understanding how management would support them with their employment journey. In addition, she noted, everyone asked about sign-on bonuses—a bolder move that she had not seen in the past from candidates.

For Cohen, the incentives that attracted one experienced veterinarian away from a local emergency clinic were more daytime hours and days off in a row. Another recent hire, also experienced, happened to start off in a relief role, then chose to join his staff.

Glen Sellers, MS, MBA, clinical lecturer in the Office of Academic Affairs and Clinical Sciences at Auburn University, said he sees that “networking, building relationships, and mentoring are keys to attracting talent. In addition, veterinary hospitals need to be as updated as possible on the business and veterinary (medicine) side as possible.”   

In talking with veterinary students about their future careers, he said he has found that “most students begin the conversation by asking if their contract is fair. So, in my mind, students are asking for fairness. That leads to a fair salary, benefits, mentorship, and work-life balance.”

Sellers, who directs practice management/business programs, explained that he educates students on current trends based on what the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), AAHA, Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks, owners, clinics, and students share. He accumulates data specific to that student population by visiting 50–80 students, speaking with countless owners, and assessing several operating veterinary clinics per year.

“For example, last year, I met with 66 students. This year, as of May 5, the number is 55. Based on the offered base salary and average production percentage, the production break-even has risen by almost $20,000 year-over-year while the base salary has been increased by nearly $12,000. That compared to previous years is significant in my mind and those of owners and students. I also cross-check my numbers with that of the AVMA to see how my specific student population matches.”

Seeing Changing Attitudes About Careers

The world of work and the attitudes toward careers continue to evolve. The advantage at present has swung to those seeking jobs.

Cohen suggested that part of the challenge is the attitude of younger veterinarians. He recalled, for example, being confused by one who questioned having to see appointments all day when that was the employee’s main responsibility. Additionally, he hears more complaints about leaving on time than ever before.

He’s aware that experienced veterinarians have conflicts with what is happening, citing that younger veterinarians want higher salaries and more accommodations. It seems, he said, that the younger generation of veterinarians are advocating more strongly for themselves than he has previously experienced.

“If they don’t start thinking about being part of a team environment, it’s going to hurt the industry as a whole. It’s become more about them than the team. I’ve seen that quite a bit.”

Crockett perhaps best summed up how to work with the current market conditions: “Compromise is the name of the game,” she said. “Gone are the days of having a very strict schedule and no flexibility. Being adaptable to the applicant pool is extremely important.” 

What does the future hold for veterinarians and employment?

2.pngThe future for veterinarians and employment is complex because of continuing stressors, evolving opportunities, and changing employer-employee expectations, according to José Arce, DVM, immediate past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). He said the AVMA is seeking and considering information from many sources and stakeholders for comprehensive workforce analyses.

“We hope these analyses will help the profession better understand the motivations and dynamics of those entering and leaving the active veterinary workforce, including those limiting their hours of practice or focusing on relief practice,” said Arce. “Getting the projections right is critically important because any changes that are made based on those numbers are likely to have long-term impacts on patients, clients, and our profession.”

What is known?

Three new schools—Arizona, Long Island University, and Texas Tech—will graduate their first classes in 2023, 2024, and 2025, respectively. All are operating under provisional AVMA Council on Education (COE) accreditation.

Two additional U.S. colleges are under development and several international schools have expressed interest in obtaining AVMA COE accreditation.

The AVMA is committed to providing support for practices, including resources on wellbeing, suicide prevention, student debt, burnout, and practice efficiency. Visit: avma.org/wellbeing.

Veterinary educational debt was growing 4.5 times faster than the growth rate of income in 2020. Since data show no correlation between the choice of a veterinary school and its graduates’ starting salaries, the AVMA encourages preveterinary students to choose the school that makes the most sense for their financial situation and personal circumstances.

Many veterinarians continue to want to work fewer hours for less compensation, and mental health remains a concern, according to the AVMA’s 2021 report.

 

Maureen Blaney Flietner
Maureen Blaney Flietner is an award-winning freelance writer living in Wisconsin.

 

Photo credits: ©AAHA/Robin Taylor

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