Hiring crunch

How to hire veterinary team members and keep them
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Help Wanted sign: Now Hiring...Two animal hospitals in Southern California have been working with consultant Andrea Crabtree for about a year, at least as of mid-February, to hire veterinarians. One, a three-doctor practice, is down to one doctor, and the other went from seven doctors to four. Even relief veterinarians are difficult to find.

Crabtree, a longtime practice manager and owner of FurPaws Consulting, estimated there were a dozen candidates for every open position in practice when she started out as a veterinary assistant 15 years ago. Now, there seem to be 12 positions available for every candidate.

Across the country, the veterinary job market has turned around since the Great Recession, with some locations and fields seeing a worse hiring crunch than others. Among veterinarians, shortages appear especially acute for specialists (see JAVMA, Oct. 15, 2018) and emergency veterinarians (see JAVMA, March 1, 2019).

Practical tips for hiring veterinary team members remain the same regardless of the ups and downs of the job market, say those with expertise or experience in the area—and the real key is retention. The AVMA offers hiring resources such as classified advertisements in the JAVMA and listings on the online AVMA Veterinary Career Center (see story).

Finding perspective

Only 1.6 percent of veterinarians reported they were unemployed in 2017, according to AVMA data. The national unemployment rate has remained around 4 percent since mid-2017, down from a high of about 10 percent in late 2009.

John Volk of Brakke Consulting believes the hiring crunch in veterinary medicine is not a crisis. While the Great Recession technically lasted from 2007-09, he said, veterinarians felt it worst from 2010-13, and the trends leading to today's shortages were set in motion 10-15 years ago.

Volk said most practices are small, independent operations with an average of two or three veterinarians. Many don't really need another full-time veterinarian, but only a third-time or half-time veterinarian. But a part-time veterinarian is harder to hire, and this tight labor market exaggerates demand.

Burdensome educational debt also forces some veterinarians to take the highest-paying jobs they can find, Volk said. A practice might have hired an associate at $65,000 not too long ago, but the weighted, mean starting salary for veterinarians was about $76,000 in 2017, according to AVMA data.

"I think that the shortage is very real," Volk said. "I don't think it's as dramatic as it feels right now."

The number of veterinarians is increasing with the addition of veterinary colleges and student seats, a development that went from unwelcome to welcome among practitioners as the economy rebounded. Volk said, "It's so easy to have a short-term perspective because you feel the glut now or you feel the shortage now."

AVMA veterinary career center ratio of applicants to available jobs, 2017 - Source: 2018 AVMA Report on the Market for Veterinarians

Dr. Peter Weinstein, executive director of the Southern California VMA and chair of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee, said he has heard of shortages of veterinarians particularly in large urban areas with many competing animal hospitals as well as in remote areas. In 2008-09, the SCVMA monthly magazine had one page of classified job advertisements in large font. In 2017-18, the magazine had four pages in small font.

Beyond veterinarians, people were asking 10-15 years ago how to find credentialed veterinary technicians, said Rebecca Rose, a longtime veterinary technician and owner of Catalyst Veterinary Practice Consultants out of Colorado. Now the question has taken on greater urgency.

Practice consultant

Southern California is an attractive location but an expensive place to live, Crabtree said. Veterinarians have high educational debt, and team members other than veterinarians don't make much money. Thus, recruiting candidates for any position is a struggle. In mid-February, Crabtree had three practices in a 10-mile radius looking for a manager, and she would recruit for only one at a time.

2017 job fair at Stanbridge
Veterinary technology students participate in a 2017 job fair at Stanbridge University in Irvine, California. (Photo by Melissa Tompkins)

Crabtree finds job candidates through sources such as the Indeed job search engine and the camaraderie of the North Orange County Veterinary Hospital Managers Group. Some managers in that group are dipping a toe in the water with Facebook ads. She said job fairs are time-consuming and can be expensive but are another way to recruit.

For a job ad, Crabtree often leads with a question, such as "Are you looking for what's next in your career?" Then she writes a sort of letter to candidates, saying, "This is our practice. For the most part, we're awesome, but some days, it's tough. Love, Dr. So-and-So."

With millennials, Crabtree said, hiring must move quickly. It used to be that a practice could take two weeks to hire someone, but now the process can be so fast that a practice makes a job offer within a day for a support staff position.

Crabtree tells practice managers and owners that employees are a practice's most valuable asset. She said practices must invest in employees to keep them and stop recycling them. Practices should engage with employees—from veterinarians to receptionists—and offer training, mentorship, and career development. Crabtree is a proponent of having check-ins with employees quarterly or more often instead of annual performance reviews.

"We have to be able to invest in our employees and allow them to blossom in our practices to help grow our practices," Crabtree said.

Tips for hiring

Stacy Pursell, chief executive officer of The Vet Recruiter, said the national search firm actually placed more people during the Great Recession than in the years prior. The firm had clients in various regions who couldn't find veterinarians even though she kept hearing there were too many. She anticipated that after the recession, the recovering job market would lead to an overall shortage of veterinarians.

Pursell said LinkedIn, the professional networking site, allows employers to showcase themselves and engage with job candidates. The Vet Recruiter uses Twitter to share job listings. The best way that the firm finds talent is with its proprietary database.

Employers need to sell themselves more, Pursell said, and they also need to look at each candidate's point of view. What is the candidate looking for? What is the candidate's motivation? Is the candidate not happy with his or her current practice because of the culture, size, technology, flexibility, or amount of collaboration?

"There has been no better time to be a veterinarian than today with all the opportunities that abound," Pursell said. "It's not necessarily the best for the employer that's hiring because they're the ones that are struggling to find talent to get their positions filled, but it's great for veterinarians who want to improve their situation."

Dr. Weinstein of the SCVMA said job ads can't be bland. He said: "You can't just be white bread. You've got to be some rye bread with caraway seeds, or you need to be a squaw bread or something, because white bread is not going to get you the person that you want any longer."

AVMA VCC job board at the convention in 2018
The AVMA Veterinary Career Center put up a job board in the exhibit hall at AVMA Convention 2018, July 13-17 in Denver, and ran classified job advertisements in the daily convention newspaper. (Photo by Matt Alexandre)

And there are so many job boards now, noted Rose of Catalyst Veterinary Practice Consultants, not only through the AVMA Veterinary Career Center and other VMAs but also through Indeed and other websites. A job announcement has to hit home right away.

Dr. Weinstein's main message is that practices should always be hiring for every position. If a practice owner runs into a great candidate, the owner should find a place for that candidate. Dr. Weinstein recommends hiring people who fit the culture of the practice and who can work with the entire team, partly by integrating the entire team into the hiring process. He advocates working interviews, even integrating clients into the hiring process.

Dr. Weinstein also recommends that practices should be malleable, maybe hiring two veterinarians to work three days a week instead of one veterinarian to work five days a week or hiring a morning doctor and an afternoon doctor.

Rose helps practice managers and owners assess their hiring processes. Her audit includes looking at job descriptions, job announcements, interview questions, and employment screenings.

Practice owner

Dr. Melanie Marsden, owner of Pikes Peak Veterinary Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said her region has an appealing lifestyle, so her practice is fortunate not to have challenges in hiring veterinarians. Finding other team members can be difficult partly because the pay is less, plus the military population of the area contributes to turnover.

Dr. Marsden, a member of the AVMA Board of Directors, hires on the basis of people fitting in with her practice's culture and values. She said, "When we do hire people, it's because we share a passion for what we do, and that translates to employee longevity."

She posts jobs in traditional places such as with state VMAs, the American Animal Hospital Association, and veterinary technology programs. A lot of the practice's good hires have happened through word of mouth from colleagues.

Dr. Marsden said the practice's job ads communicate the culture and values along with how the working environment and benefit package differ from the place down the road. The practice is family-friendly and locally owned, offers profit-sharing, and listens to team members. Of the 4 1/2 veterinarians, only one doctor works full time. To hire a practice manager, Dr. Marsden worked with Rose of Catalyst Veterinary Practice Consultants.

Hiring a veterinarian or veterinary technician involves a phone interview, reference checks, and a working interview. Team members go in with a set of questions or characteristics to look for to indicate a good fit.

After hiring, the practice pairs new team members with a buddy or mentor who can answer questions. Once a month, the practice closes for in-service meetings. Once a year, team members complete an evaluation of the practice. Team members turn to the Situation-Behavior-Impact Feedback tool to resolve conflict.

Retention is key

"What a lot of people don't realize is that retention starts the moment that the candidate accepts the offer of employment," said Pursell of The Vet Recruiter.

Pursell recommends beginning the orientation process between the time candidates accept an offer and the time they begin in the position. Practices must answer any questions promptly and address any concerns.

For long-term retention, Pursell advises showing appreciation to employees. Like others, she recommends meeting individually and regularly with team members to put together a plan of action based on employee feedback—and carrying out that plan.

Dr. Weinstein of the SCVMA said, "Retention comes from hiring correctly—taking the time to find the right person that fits with your practice, that has the personality for your practice—paying a fair and competitive salary with a fair and competitive benefit package, and supporting them as professionals as well as as people."

Most of the time, veterinarians don't leave a practice simply because of a lack of money, Dr. Weinstein said. They leave because there is a disconnect on the quality of care, or they feel unsupported by the leadership team, or they just can't get along with the rest of the staff.

"They're leaving because they just aren't happy with their situation," he said. "You know how you find out what people want? You ask them."

Practice owners are so busy being busy that they don't take time to engage people, Dr. Weinstein said. He advises practice owners who are short on time to hire a practice manager and to be a doctor.

Rose of Catalyst Veterinary Practice Consultants emphasized the problem with high turnover in the veterinary industry. She said practices that retain quality team members offer a competitive salary and a great place to work that uses employees' skills.

Across the United States, one of the first things people ask Rose is how to find team members, but she said team retention also is getting some well-deserved attention. She said: "It's a critical issue. I think that the veterinary community is realizing that we've got to properly leverage every team member to their max."

Team retention

Rebecca Rose, a practice consultant, spoke on team retention at a 2018 Washington State VMA conference. Here are the answers from one group of attendees to the question: "What concepts learned today can positively impact a team's culture?"

  • Fun, collaborative environment.
  • Open-book management, open-door policy.
  • Recognition. "Thank you!"

Related JAVMA content:

Turn to the AVMA for hiring resources (April 1, 2019)

ER docs shortage turns critical (March 1, 2019)

Market for veterinarians still going strong (Dec. 15, 2018)

Specialists in short supply (Oct. 15, 2018)