Like much of the healthcare industry, the veterinary segment has been struggling to hire and retain for years. Veterinarians are retiring at high rates, but the real struggle is hiring certified veterinary nurses. Even pre-COVID they faced acute shortages. Much of it was, and remains, a question of supply vs demand. Seasoned industry recruiters in the space have pushed back against this pinch-point for years, with little result.
Here’s what they’re up against: low pay, high burnout, and the need for specialized skills and training. Oh, and a changing job title.
It's every recruiters dream, right?
First, some semantics. If you look for "certified veterinary nurse" on Indeed, you'll also start seeing "certified veterinary technician" results. Because they're the same role. About a decade ago, Australia and the United Kingdom changed the title from technician to nurse - one assumes because a smart employment brander realized they needed to polish the role a bit. However, the US fell behind a bit on making the change and has been debating it for a few years, in the face of opposition from some technicians, as well as from the nurses who treat human patients. The Ohio Nurses Association and its 170,000 members have fought any legislation around the question, arguing that the state legally defines the term “nurse” as caring for humans and that no other person or profession may insinuate that they practice as a nurse. The industry itself is largely in favor, with well over 50% of nurses surveyed reporting they would prefer the title, according to research by Veterinary Business Advisors. So it's used in marketing, in some states it's legal and official, in other's it's not: the employment brand piece here is complex.
Along with this, the role itself is tricky to recruit for. The requirements typically include at least an associates degree, certification, as well as several years of hands-on experience. The starting pay averages between $16-20 per hour. To put that into perspective: the national average poverty rate is $12.60 per hour.
According to Kenichiro Yagi, who worked as a veterinary technician for over two decades before becoming an educator, and who currently serves as the manager of the Veterinary Education Simulation Laboratory at Cornell University and is co-chair of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative (VNI): “We’re having a hard time finding qualified technicians because they’re leaving the field, not feeling fulfilled, or being under-utilized.” Credentialed veterinary technicians report high levels of burnout due to a combination of stress, compassion fatigue, low pay, and having to compete for jobs with individuals who have not earned an associate or bachelor’s degree in the field, he adds.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Amanda DiDonato, supervisor of the Massachusetts Veterinary Hospital - a major veterinary surgery hospital - reports that although they are continually hiring she only gets 4-6 quality applicants a year. Her department has over 30 people and is continually in need of talent. This has not changed due to COVID - if anything, there has been a drop-off in applicants.
“Paying a rate that veterinary technician or even veterinary assistant will accept is a barrier to hiring,” says DiDonato. Most veterinary technicians’ top hourly wage never climbs over $24, an hour according to the Bureau of Labor and Statics May 2019 survey.
In addition to living just above the poverty line, the role requires long hours and flexibility with shifts. Veterinary nurses being paid this wage are expected to work twelve-hour shifts. Most nurses interviewed which added that it's rarely just 12 hours - shifts run over routinely, and some hospitals have mandatory on-call hours after those long shifts. The work seldom allows time for an actual lunch break. Veterinary technicians are usually allowed just enough time to ‘go eat’ in-between performing complex treatments, running anesthetic cases, performing radiographs, communicating with clients about complex medical procedures, and laboratory procedures. With a lack of breaks and work-life balance, the burn-out and turnover has become predictable. Stressed staff takes out their frustrations on each other, eroding the culture. The work, and hours, take a physic toll, as well: veterinary medicine holds one of the highest suicide rates of any profession, with veterinarians 3.9 times more likely to commit take their own life than average. Among male veterinarians and female veterinary technicians, the suicide rates were 1.6 and 2.3 times greater, respectively.
With all of these factors, adding in the coming wave of retirement as Boomer vets age out and are not back-filled at the rate they are leaving, the industry is approaching a crisis that will need to be addressed if hospitals plan on having a workforce in the future.
Adding to the struggle: COVID. For a long period, many hiring authorities could not compete with the additional unemployment support people were receiving during the pandemic - backfilling laid off or furloughed workers from early March has been a struggle. The work environment has only become more strained, as well.
Sarah Gomez Dykstra, an internal medicine nurse at a prominent specialty hospital in Colorado - reports how her job has changed: “Nurses must wear PPE, patients are taken from the cars and brought into the building in a method called 'curbside'. The clients are often upset by not being able to come to the building. We are limited on space because we can no longer have the clients hold on to their pets while we do procedures and records. Clients sometimes leave after dropping off pets, and then don't answer their phone all day - so we have to hold on to the pet all day for them. Animals are getting loose in the parking lot - it's no one's fault, just the nature of our new reality. We're all trying to make it work.”
With all of these compounding factors, Dykstra and DiDonato report that most of their current staff has stayed on despite these conditions. When asked about hazard pay Dykstra reported they were paid during the two weeks they had to stay home if they were exposed to COVID-19 at work. DiDonato reported that staff that worked during the height of the pandemic received a single bonus and one allotment of profit-sharing due to the increased caseload.
Backfilling and adding to staff, however has them worried. 4-6 qualified candidates per year may soon look like a bonanza.
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