Tackling recruitment issues

What can large animal practices do to improve staff recruitment and retention?

03 April 2018, at 11:56am

Experienced clinicians are leaving the profession and many new graduates are reluctant to take on the challenges of working with farm clients. Sophie Aylett, director of the award-winning Meadows Farm Vets practice in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, offered a few recruitment and retention tips to colleagues attending the SPVS-VPMA congress in Newport on 27 January.

Hers is a farm-only practice set up from scratch in April 2010. It now employs eight full-time vets and serves around 750 farm clients over a 50-mile radius. At the opening session for the congress, the management team received the SPVS Vet Wellbeing Award 2017 in the small practice category.

“I was surprised to be picked for the award, we haven’t done anything in particular to qualify for it. We just try to look after our staff and do the basic things properly,” she explained.

But 18 months ago, the practice did take the rather unusual step of employing four new clinicians at around the same time with either very limited experience or none at all. “They were all very suitable candidates and we knew that we would be needing more staff because we are still growing and attracting new clients.” By introducing them at monthly intervals, the practice could give them their full attention for the first month and closely mentor them for another five months. “The first one started in the summer and the idea was that by the next spring, for our busiest period, they would need very little supervision,” Sophie explained. 

Previously, the practice had shied away from employing inexperienced clinicians but after discussions with her husband Richard, the practice manager, she decided to change the policy. Instead of concentrating on the interview results, they asked existing staff members to look at the applications and then took the candidate out to lunch to assess how well they got on with their potential future colleagues. “We felt it was more important for the new vets to be able to communicate with clients and other staff members than have clinical experience – we can give them all the training they need in surgical skills.”

Employers should not ignore any relevant experience when picking staff at a time of labour shortages, she suggests. One of the four had worked at a farm practice as a TB tester and another had spent six months working in small animal practice. “It may be that this person has had very little practical exposure to farm work but they may have other skills that they can bring to the table. It helps, for example, in understanding how to carry out a consultation and the small animal surgical skills are readily transferable.”

Each of the four greenhorn vets was allocated a mentor, who was rotated at intervals to give them some insight into the different approaches of their senior colleagues. By the end of the six months, they were pushed into the deep end in carrying out challenging procedures like a caesarean on their own. “At least, that is what we told them. In fact, there was a colleague waiting in a lay-by five minutes away who could be called in if anything did go wrong. But believing they were in sole charge helped in getting them up to speed and in building their self-confidence.”

Sophie came up with the idea of a “star chart” to help monitor their new colleagues’ clinical progress. This listed the range of clinical procedures that the management regarded as essential for all farm practitioners. Each time the new vet carried out one of those procedures it would be noted on the chart and when the mentor was satis ed that they had achieved full competence, the event was marked by the addition of a gold star.

Sophie says that the star chart created a degree of friendly competition between the four graduates but it also had a practical purpose. It was pinned to the wall in the practice office and the reception staff could look up and see which vet still needed to work on a particular procedure and could then allocate visits accordingly.

Achieving each individual goal was worth more than bragging rights for the new vets. “We introduced an automatic pay rise for each one when they hit one of the main targets, like achieving competence in carrying out a caesar. They may still be taking 50 percent more time to do the job than their experienced colleagues but that will come with time and for the moment they are bringing in valuable income to the business.” 

Senior Editor at Veterinary Practice

Jennifer Parker, BSc, PgDip, MSc, is a science writer and editor. She studied zoology, endangered species re-covery and palaeoanthropology in the UK. Jennifer was Senior Editor of Veterinary Practice magazine for almost three years; she left the publication in October 2019 to move abroad and pursue a freelance writing career.

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