‘Challenge of keeping vets happy, productive and sane is getting harder...’

01 September 2016, at 1:00am

Veterinary Practice reports on two of the sessions in the management stream at VetsNorth 2016 relating to the recruitment and retention of staff.

UK PRACTICES ARE FINDING IT INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT to recruit experienced and capable veterinary assistants – so what is the solution?

Perhaps they should realise that if they are not going to find fully formed clinicians in the job market, then they should be growing their own, managers attending VetsNorth 2016 were told.

Alison Lambert, of the Onswitch marketing consultancy, said practices should adopt a marketing strategy for the recruitment and retention of staff, as well as their clients. “The challenge of keeping vets happy, productive and sane is getting harder – it sometimes feels that there is a generalised malaise within the profession.”

Practice managers need to appreciate that a new graduate may not have the surgical experience that previous generations of vets may have had when they applied for their first job.

That is impossible with the numbers of students being trained each year, which has outgrown the numbers of patients available locally to work on during their training. But students do have other advanced skills useful to the practice and with the right support any deficiencies can be remedied. 

Mrs Lambert said the results of surveys on what new graduates are looking for in their first job are unequivocal. “They are looking for a clinical mentor, back-up when carrying out new and difficult surgical procedures and the opportunity to develop their own caseload – they don’t want you to hold their hands.”

Older practitioners, however, must understand that the “millennial generation” has very different attitudes towards work and life compared with their predecessors. They regard their veterinary career as a job rather than a vocation and do not want to work the long hours that used to be the norm. So time off is considered much more important than a large salary when looking at potential vacancies.

Indeed, those practices offering better than expected salaries to new graduates are likely to be viewed with suspicion rather than relish: “Their response is likely to be ‘What is wrong with the job if they have to pay that much?’” Mrs Lambert warned.

Other factors have changed over the past couple of decades. One has been the geographical location of the first job. New graduates today are much more insistent that they want to work in areas where they have established networks of family and friends rather than move to an unfamiliar part of the country.

They are also much more specific about the type of work they are looking for – few want to go into mixed practice and those that are keen on farm work will often specify the type of animals they want to deal with – dairy rather than beef cattle, for example, she explained.

Mrs Lambert recognised that both these factors make it more difficult to attract candidates for traditional mixed practice jobs in areas outside the immediate catchment areas of the veterinary schools. “So if practices want to make contact with the right sort of candidates, they have to go fishing in the right pool,” she explained.

Significant change in communication 

The way that the current generation of graduates communicates with the world has changed significantly, she said. New graduates are unlikely to go looking for jobs in the veterinary press in the way that generations of their predecessors have done. Instead they are likely to learn about job opportunities online.

A 20-something’s digital network will be much more inclusive than the friendship groups formed by her own generation, Mrs Lambert said. Young graduates will be happy to communicate across the generational divide in ways that would have been alien to her 20-plus years ago.

Links established through social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn will be increasingly important ways to make initial contact with veterinary undergraduates and find out whether they are interested in – and suitable candidates for – a particular job.

Friendships developed early in the veterinary undergraduate career or even earlier are likely to be influential in shaping a new graduate’s decisions on the direction of their postgraduate career. Initial contacts established online can then be cemented through offers of EMS placements in the later undergraduate years, when both sides can assess whether the practice/ student is right for them.

One issue that has not changed across the generations of veterinary undergraduates is their perennial impecuniousness. Offering a few days of paid work as a stand-in receptionist is a useful way of helping the student while also assessing their client-care and communications skills, she suggested.