You’ve likely read the stories, or experienced the reality – small towns, regional cities and rural area veterinary clinics in Australia and abroad are having one heck of a time keeping their clinics staffed, much less finding “heirs” to step in when they’re ready to retire.
One of the key challenges for veterinary practices outside metro areas is competing against the allure of “The Big Smoke” when recruiting new graduates or experienced talent for their vacant positions.
According to the Department of Industry’s 2017 veterinary labour market report, there’s an oversupply of vets seeking work in big-city practices and a shortage in rural areas. —Vet Practice Magazine
No surprises there.
The lack of interest in regional mixed-practice or small animal vet careers isn’t just a frustration for those vet hospitals and clinics looking to hire seasoned and entry-level veterinary pros.
- Small town residents aren’t getting the services they need for their dogs and cats.
- It’s becoming an issue for public health, as regional vets are the first to spot outbreaks in companion animals as well as livestock intended for food production.
- It’s becoming a challenge for independent producers, who maintain heritage breed bloodlines and cater to organic markets.
- A dearth of proper vet services drives new livestock farmers out of the region, as well as independent meat processors, thus threatening food security and healthy regional economies.
But nobody seems to be listening. In the meantime, veterinary practices want practical solutions to the current hiring crisis, if only so they can maintain their own viability as functioning businesses.
What’s Behind Today’s Regional, Small Town and Mid-size City Vet Shortage?
Before we can develop strategies for attracting new hires, we need to consider why regional practices aren’t drowning in qualified applicants.
What it generally boils down to are the lifestyle preferences of contemporary veterinary medicine practitioners, pressures to pay off student debt, and their individual career roadmaps. So let’s dive a little deeper.
Culture Shock and Regional Economics
“Urbanite” veterinarians are accustomed to big-city amenities and attitudes towards animal care. Small town life has a different pace than city life, and some vets assume they won’t “fit in”, and others just don’t want to fit in.
When veterinarians gravitate toward rural or regional metro mixed-practices from the beginning, it’s often because they grew up around larger animals. The attitudes of rural or small town culture might challenge a veterinarian starting out in or relocating to a regional veterinary clinic, especially one that caters to large animals.
Poor Job Prospects for Spouses and Partners
People don’t go into veterinary medicine because of the industry’s staggeringly incredible salaries. The average starting pay for vet school graduates is about half that of newly-minted medical GPs or technology whiz kids. Let’s face it, newish Veterinarians seldom generate enough income to serve as the sole provider for a household, and skilled nurses and technicians are paid even less.
So, although the cost of living in metropolitan areas is much higher than that in suburban or rural regions, the lack of small town opportunities for other members of a vet professional’s family are rarely compatible with their own career goals.
Career and Family Goals
Whilst big city clinics candon’t necessarily get to pick and choose from candidates, hiring part-time help to allow flexibility for employees who are raising families or pursuing specialised training. Often this can be due to the practices being slightly larger on average. Veterinarians who have earned their stripes can spend less time on-call or after hours and more time enjoying their personal lives. Distributed workloads and available locums in cities mean less burnout and reduced personal conflicts.
Clinics in outlying or rural areas, for the reasons described above, can’t compete for family-oriented candidates if they’re not able to provide schedule flexibility.
According to statistics, the majority of recent vet school graduates are female. At the same time, women are more likely to seek part-time work and flexible hours at urban clinics when they start raising families. These stats have ignited debates about whether men, in particular, should be recruited for regional veterinary practices or supported through special scholarships. Sexism is unpopular of late, but there may be a reality check required.
The Burnout Factor
Many candidates assume the worst when they think of regional small animal or mixed-practice veterinary clinics, even those barely ten or twenty kilometres outside metro city limits:
- A smaller staff always means an unpredictable schedule.
- Mixed-practice clinics demand gruelling physical activity, hip boots, and long drives for site visits.
- Customers always pay their vet bills with live chickens, so the pay sucks… especially if you’re a vegetarian.
While there’s some truth to these stereotypes, and there is a high attrition rate among rural veterinary professionals, you don’t want applicants who are, themselves, inflexible. If they envision life at a small town practice as a giant turd sundae, they will burn out… and they’ll bring down the rest of your staff. Don’t seek to put a square peg in a round hole just for the sake of filling a slot.
Think of the practicing vets in regional areas who love what they do, and wouldn’t give it up for anything. Those are the kinds of candidates you want to reach. They are out there.
So, What CAN We Do to Attract The Right Talent for Our Clinics?
If you’re a veterinary partner, office manager, or clinic owner, you’ve likely asked yourself a million times how you can compete with big city practices. You don’t want to hire just anyone; you want to hire technicians, nurses, and vets who fit in with your clinic’s culture, and who will stick around for years to come.
Government incentives that lure vet school graduates to rural practices are a step forward, but in the meantime, you have to keep your doors open and your current staff well-supported. So what can you do to attract high-quality candidates to your practice, and to your regional community?
First, carefully assess your financial resources – and it’s not just about paying more for your new team members, although that is an important factor. Before you can invest in new recruits, you’ll likely need to invest in your own operations. Some of the following might be out of your reach, but others could generate enough revenue to justify the expense.
Student debt payment arrangements: The debt-to-earnings ratio for veterinarians is atrocious. Whether you want to sponsor a local undergrad’s vet school education or retroactively assist with a licensed veterinarian’s student loan premiums, you could propose a contractual agreement that requires the candidate to stay on at your clinic for a pre-determined length of time.
Exchange or “in residence” programs: You’ve heard of student exchanges, but making arrangements with other practices in your region to cover for staff on leave, teach specific techniques, or to help mentor new recruits may benefit your clinic by several means. Or you might be able to lure urban veterinarians or vet school interns to help with a busy summer season, with the potential for getting them to stay on permanently.
On-premises residences: Whether you want to provide housing for locum staff or help offset the living expenses of an employee’s family, providing housing could be an option… especially if you require your hires to be on call more often than they would at a metropolitan practice.
On-premise housing arrangements help your new veterinarian balance home/work life, especially in remote areas where commutes would take a toll, or when most of your clients require your practitioners to go to them.
Family-oriented benefits: Supplemental health insurance schemes, compensation for daycare, paid holidays, and tickets to local or regional entertainment centres appeal to candidates who want to make the best decisions for their families.
Spotlight your community’s lifestyle: Vet practices in small cities and towns have their advantages! Life outside “The Big Smoke” is just that: Fresh air and less pollution. Life is less stressful, with more opportunities to enjoy outdoor sports and recreation, nearby national parks, and a slower, more enjoyable pace. Let them know about your community, and how your area is a wonderful place for kids to grow up.
Look the part, especially online: Handshakes and business cards might be all you need to generate new business in your region, but if you want to attract quality candidates, your dollars are well spent when you promote your brand as an industry leader. This entails more than slapping together a website and calling it a day. You’ll need to seek the services of a full-service digital marketing specialist to help you put the word out among your peers that your clinic is kicking ass and taking names in the veterinary field, whether your focus is on companion animals, livestock, or both. Your online presence will be the first impression for new potential team members – would you work for you based solely on your website message?
Profit-sharing schemes: You want your new employees to have a sense of pride in your clinic, and literally giving them ownership of your practice’s success is a chief motivator for new hires and existing staff.
Facility upgrades for more advanced treatments: Quality veterinarians from urban centres and recent graduates are accustomed to current technology and techniques. If your clinic relies on equipment that’s been outdated for a decade, it’s unlikely you’ll attract the best candidates, but if you respond to emerging market trends in your region, you can position your practice to offer specialised services and the most cutting-edge treatments.
Explore new revenue streams: How are you going to pay for all this? If you feel you’ve ignored one segment of your local market, now might be the time to tap into it. And if that market isn’t as strong as you’d like, you might consider joining forces with related associations or businesses to help attract new business and residents to your area.
You might capitalise on your particular expertise—or that of your prospective hires—and turn your hospital into a magnet for patients requiring specialised care, drawing business from around the region. Animal hospitals outside major metropolitan areas might be better able to afford the land required to house kennels and facilities for animals overnight or for the duration of their treatment. And they have fewer ordinances with which to contend!
Quality candidates want to work in a thriving, growing, supportive environment. Does that sound like yours?
The Investment is Mutual
If you want to attract candidates, they’ll have to want to invest in your practice. Show a willingness to promote your veterinary clinic as a vanguard for cutting-edge patient care, as an authority among your peers, and as a prestigious place to develop a career. Demonstrate to your current staff and your potential team members that you value and stand behind their goals, and appreciate the need to maintain a healthy balance between work and family obligations.
Your dream candidates are out there! Yes, it is harder and requires effort, but then the best things usually do…with the right recruiting strategy, the resumes will begin piling up… and you’ll have the pick of the litter.
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