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Recruitment and retention: what can be done?

by
01 June 2017, at 1:00am

RICHARD GARD examines the outlook in the UK for new veterinary outlook in the UK for new veterinary surgeons and what is being done to attract them into the profession and prepare them for practice life

THE TITLE OF THIS ARTICLE COULD BE “You Are Not Alone”. Having had conversations with various people, it appears that if you ask a principal of a veterinary practice about their experience with recruitment, the response is likely to be “a nightmare”, “if you want a rant, talk to me; if you want a rational view, talk to someone else”, or “we have been looking for an experienced vet for over a year with no success”. Individuals indicate that the problems, particularly with farm practice, may lie with out-of-hours work, TB testing, wanting to work a short week, or the expectations of new graduates. A typical comment is, “I think that we are a reasonable practice to work for, so why are we having difficulties?” Another view expressed is “more and more vets are qualifying – where are they?” Also, “it didn’t used to be like this”. The following observations may be helpful. The RCVS (2014/15) records that there are 20,571 veterinary surgeons practising in the UK. Of those, 5,355 are 30 years old or under and 75% are female. At the other end of the age scale there are 1,311 vets over 60 and 17% are female (see Table 1). There are about 800 new graduate registrations in the UK each year and this figure is fairly stable, whereas the number of overseas graduates has increased steadily in recent years and is around 900. The top five countries of origin for overseas graduates registering in the UK are Spain, Italy, Australia, Ireland and Poland.

Fee figures

In 2012 the tuition fees for all students in England rose from £3,450 per annum to £9,000. The fees are set for the duration of a course so the 2017 veterinary graduates completing a five-year course will be the first group having the higher fees and therefore an increased debt. It has been commented that this will increase the financial expectations of new graduates, but this may be a
misunderstanding. The Student Loan Company indicates (http//bit.ly/1G80CrM) that student loan repayments commence
when the monthly salary reaches £1,750. Thereafter 9% of additional salary is required to be collected by the employer. For every additional £1,000 per month the graduate is deducted £90. So, at £3,750 per month (£45,000 per annum) the graduate is deducted £180 per month (£2,160 per annum). The actual debt incurred does not influence the repayment schedule and although there is interest added to the sum outstanding, of Retail Price Index plus 3%, this means that the debt repayment period increases. The debt is cancelled after 30 years. If I have misunderstood the many tables and scheme options, I apologise, but it does appear that the figures involved are manageable and not sufficient to dissuade anyone from entering veterinary practice. The SPVS has reviewed its survey database and in 2015
the median employment package, including salary and benefits, for a new graduate was around £30,000. This had not changed significantly from the survey five years previously. A new survey is to be conducted this year. Many practices indicate that they have difficulty in retaining veterinary staff. It is said that the younger vets have an expectation of practice life that is not met in reality. But where do they go? If there is so much difficulty in recruiting the five-year qualified vet and these vets are leaving practices, it appears that they are not entering the practice recruitment pool. Neither are they joining the State Veterinary Service. It is confirmed that 89% of veterinary staff within government are from outside the UK.

Fall in satisfaction

Informal discussions with professors at Bristol and Nottingham universities indicate that they are well aware of a fall in satisfaction with practice employment. It is said that the students
are better trained than ever before, but they have wider career horizons and “other priorities”. It is believed that the difficulties
relate to generation and not gender. The younger vets of today are of the age of the children of many veterinary practice principals and that generation’s expectations, in all things, is different.
There seems to be a lack of desire to be business owners and invest in a long-term veterinary career. The veterinary surgeon’s working lifespan is said to be shortening, with less fulltime and increasing part-time work. Individual veterinary practices and veterinary groups have recognised and experienced all or part of the issues raised and are addressing the problem. Westpoint Farm Vets has increased over 10 years from 35 to 65 veterinary surgeon staff. Specifically targeting farm work, the growth has come from taking over the large animal work of existing practices and looking to expand the total volume and breadth of veterinary work, in many locations. Some experienced vets have remained in place, but the need to attract new graduates has led to an entry intern scheme. After graduation, the young vet joins a development programme that includes 24 days of CPD, a salary of £25,000, a review after one year, a joining-on fee if a permanent position is offered and a further fee after completion of the second year.
Vets who are five to 10 years qualified would be expected to be
running a practice. It is anticipated that during the first year the practice would not expect the individual to contribute to practice profitability. From six to 12 interns are recruited each year and
passage to full employment occurs for 60% to 100% in any one year.
The point is made that each young vet has to be viewed as an individual and so there is some bending of the group to meet the needs of the individual, but also recognition by the person that the job has certain practical needs to meet the expectations of farmer
clients.

Coaching and mentoring

Social media is a factor where there is continuous exchange of
experiences, positive and negative. But this all takes deliberate action and time. The XL Vets group of independent practices operates training courses for veterinary surgeons and other staff of
member practices. Interestingly, the eight-day farm assistance programme (there are also equine and small animal variants) starts with a driving experience on a skid pan. Whether this reduces the number of young Individual practices have adopted a coaching and
mentoring approach to help new graduates adapt to practice life,
help them with their anxieties and concerns and make them more
content. vet car accidents is not known, but it introduces fun into training, which is seen as important. However, the shortstaffed
practice may find it difficult to release a graduate as the work left
behind still has to be completed. There is also a coaching and
mentoring course for senior practice members. Thriving in practice is another theme where the practice environment is seen as a better place to work. Veterinary practices are having to recognise that not only do new graduates need to be urged to understand and be content within a practice environment, but also members within a practice have to be allowed to meet their individual
requirements to provide an acceptable work-life balance. This is a major shift away from the experiences of existing experienced
veterinary surgeons, certainly in large animal practice, who started with a set of skills and developed these over the years to provide
professional satisfaction. There is also the uncertainty of Brexit and the future availability of overseas veterinary surgeons who are providing veterinary services not being adopted by UK graduates.
There is another view from veterinary surgeons who are experiencing more weekend and outof- hours working, because there are not enough competent bodies within the practice to meet the increasing technical demands of farmer clients and government. The point is made that if the new and younger vets are not happy with working in practice, then the selection and training need to be changed to provide graduates with a realistic view of the workload that needs to be done. The scheme to show Advanced level students some of the realities of veterinary practice, before they apply for a university course, would seem to
have an increased value. There certainly appears to be a need for veterinary practices to be able to access advice and support over the recruitment and retention of veterinary surgeons.