DVM needed: A look at the associate veterinarian shortage

March 28, 2019
Maureen McKinney, Associate Editorial Director

dvm360, dvm360 May 2019, Volume 50, Issue 5

A combination of factors have created an environment where there are more veterinary positions than doctors to fill them. Heres some insight from both perspectivesthe clinics and the candidates.

Just over five years ago, the National Research Council released the results of a comprehensive study of current and future workforce needs in the veterinary profession. The report's conclusion was clear: There was little evidence of workforce shortages in most areas of the profession. “True personnel shortages are indicated when salaries rise sharply in an attempt to attract qualified candidates,” the report noted. “That is not occurring in any sector of veterinary medicine, except industry,” which often requires a PhD or other highly specialized training.

Here's more from the dvm360 team on the associate veterinarian shortage the profession is experiencing-and what can be done about it.

Veterinary recruiting: How one hospital group makes it work

Can't find an associate? Adopt these three hiring strategies right now

Fast-forward to today, with our booming economy, record pet ownership and increasing desire of pet owners to provide the very best veterinary care possible for their four-legged family members, and that exact scenario is playing itself out in companion animal practices throughout the country.

In fact, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that employment opportunities in the veterinary profession are exploding, with a projected increase of 15,000 veterinarian positions between 2016 and 2026.

Factors driving employment growth

Pet ownership statistics are a clear indicator that the demand for veterinary services is growing. Indeed, data from the American Pet Products Association show that pet ownership is on the rise everywhere, with 68 percent of all U.S. households-or 84.6 million homes-owning a pet in 2018 compared with just 50 percent in 1988.

And those pets are treated largely like a part of the family, as evidenced by consumer pet spending data. Annual household expenditures on pet care continue to rise year over year, with a record-breaking total spend of $72.56 billion in 2018-a 4 percent increase over 2017 spending. Veterinary care accounts for one-quarter of that amount, or $18.1 billion, an increase of 6 percent over 2017 numbers.

Generational differences are also at play, Stacy Pursell, BA, CPC, CERS, founder and CEO of The Vet Recruiter, told dvm360. When baby boomers were young, they would get married, buy a house, have kids and then get a pet. Conversely, millennials get a pet before getting married, having kids and buying a house, making this group today's largest pet-owning demographic. “They are practically getting a pet in their dorm rooms,” Pursell says, “driving the increasing demand for veterinary services.”

She also notes that the baby boom generation of veterinarians-many of whom are used to putting in long hours-is retiring, and the younger veterinarians joining the workforce are often unwilling to put in so much time.

Finally, diagnostic and treatment advances, coupled with the increased willingness of owners to provide optimal care throughout a pet's life, have increased the longevity of both dogs and cats. Between 2002 and 2016, the average life expectancy for dogs rose by 12.4 percent, from 10.5 to 11.8 years. Feline longevity saw an even bigger increase during the same period, from 11.0 to 12.9 years-a leap of 17.3 percent.

What does all this mean for today's veterinary practices? While the national unemployment rate has remained steady at 4 percent since 2017, unemployment for veterinarians hovers at just over 1 percent, according to an April 1 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. That means a lot of open positions with seemingly not enough companion animal practitioners to fill them. “While it's very easy for veterinarians to find jobs today, it's tremendously difficult for many practices to find and hire qualified candidates, Pursell says.

For new grads, opportunities abound

Jessi Farris, DVM, a 2017 University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine graduate, landed her first job at Bentley Animal Hospital in Fenton, Missouri, while she was still in school. “I found Bentley through a pharmaceutical representative who highly recommended the practice and mentioned they were looking to add another veterinarian,” she told dvm360. Dr. Farris now works at the practice part time while she pursues her MBA at nearby St. Louis University.

Similarly, 2018 University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine graduate Jill Giunco, VMD, began an internship at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, a month after graduation and will continue working there when her internship is complete.

Self-employed emergency relief veterinarian William Hodges, DVM, a 2014 graduate of Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine who works in North Carolina, says he could probably get a full-time job at almost every practice he works with. “The market is open to me right now,” he says. “Many of the practices where I work actively try to hire me full time.”

Life is not quite so rosy from the practice perspective, says Chaya Hirsch, DVM, who has been actively recruiting for associate veterinarians for the Spay Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP) in Houston for about a year. Although the high-volume surgery practice has made a few offers, the positions remain unfilled.

Melissa Wells, CVPM, has been trying to fill an open associate position at Coats Veterinary Hospital, a four-doctor practice in eastern North Carolina, since October. She interviewed three young veterinarians during that time and made offers to two of them. “One candidate declined because the practice was not offering ownership possibilities, and the other because she received an offer considerably higher than Coats' initial offer,” Wells says.

Both Pursell and Victoria Travis, MS, CPC, owner of Travis Veterinarian Recruiting, say starting salaries in the range of $75,000 to $110,000 are not uncommon. “The lowest offer I recall recently was $85,000,” Pursell says, “and we have seen some [new veterinarians] get six, eight or 10 job offers,” she adds.

What do young associates want?

In light of the tremendous debt saddling new graduates, salary is certainly an important consideration. Other monetary benefits that are helping some practices entice qualified candidates include full healthcare and dental coverage, sign-on bonuses, relocation packages, matching 401(k) or IRA plans, paid time off, and a stipend for continuing education (CE).

Among the reasons Dr. Hirsch believes SNAP is having such difficulty finding associates is the glut of available jobs and the slightly lower compensation the nonprofit offers. “Although we're fairly competitive with salary and benefits, we can't offer signing bonuses, relocation reimbursement or other perks that private and corporate practices can afford to offer,” she says.

But it's not all about the money. Not by a long shot. For many younger veterinarians, factors such as practice culture, work-life balance and mentorship are crucial.

Travis recently worked with a new grad who turned down an offer in excess of six figures. Her reason? “When she asked the staff if they were happy working there, she got very lukewarm responses,” Travis recalls. “That veterinarian chose a position with a lower salary that offered a collaborative team, buy-in potential down the road and a slower pace.” 

Like many other new graduates, Dr. Farris was looking for a job with a supportive team of veterinarians who would help guide and support her through the first few months of practice. She also wanted to work at a hospital whose clients allowed her to practice the standard of medicine she learned in school, such as dental radiographs with every oral procedure and routine blood work as part of wellness exams. Also important to her was balance in her schedule. “I was happy to work longer days for the occasional three-day weekend,” she says.

For Dr. Guinco, the signing bonus, mentorship plan and money for CE were appealing, but not her sole reasons for accepting the position at Red Bank. “I knew that I wanted to work as an emergency veterinarian, and after completing my internship I knew that I wanted to be in a facility like Red Bank that has multiple specialties where I can continue to learn and develop as a veterinarian,” she says.

Today's younger veterinarians see every job as an opportunity for growth, both personally and professionally. “We want to feel like we are making a difference and are able to grow in our roles, and for that mentorship is key,” Dr. Farris says. “My clinic offered me a very structured mentoring plan that eased my qualms, as it was mutually understood I would need time to learn the flow of the practice and the platforms used. I was also encouraged to build up our social media presence, which allowed me to develop a new skill that added unique value to the hospital.”

Culture is another key factor for attracting and retaining associates. “There are inherent stresses in our profession, so any toxicity in the workplace amplifies this stress and erodes the overall morale and productivity of associates,” Dr. Farris says. “A successful culture allows employees to enjoy their work.”

Travis believes the No. 1 attribute of a great practice is a happy staff. “When owners and hospital managers/administrators understand and value their staff and show it through education, training and flexible work schedules, the staff feels like family,” Travis says. “Just throwing money or giant relocation packages at candidates doesn't do it.”

Cultural fit is a consideration that cuts both ways, says Dr. Hirsch. “You spend a lot of time at work, so you want it to be pleasant for everyone,” she says. “We've chosen not to make offers to some qualified candidates who didn't seem like the right fit for our practice, and I'm sure some candidates have turned down offers for the same reason.”

For his part, Dr. Hodges started doing relief work after graduation largely because he wanted to explore his options before committing to full-time employment. Relief work was a way to “try out” practices before signing on, he says, but he found that many places would not have been a good fit. “Sometimes it was due to an individual person,” he says. “Other times the culture of the practice simply was not welcoming or progressive enough.”

So what's a practice to do?

New grads bring a lot to the table, from their knowledge of new protocols and medications to their fresh ideas and outlook, notes Wells. “They tend to have lots of energy, and they're not burnt out like more seasoned docs might be,” she says.

That's why it's so important to consider the needs of younger veterinarians throughout the hiring process. Coats Veterinary Hospital offers a flexible schedule, with doctors averaging 36 to 37 hours a week, to satisfy the need for balance. “We need to give young vets what motivates them-mentorship, collaboration, a positive culture and work-life balance,” Wells says.

To attract top candidates, Travis says, practices have to come across as a place where someone wants to work. “Practice owners can do this by making their job postings friendly, warm, professional and fun,” Travis advises. “If you post only a basic job description, candidates are not going to be attracted to working with you, regardless of where you are located or what salary you're offering.”

Also think about offering benefits that send a message to candidates that employee well-being is important. “My generation does not get as much satisfaction from our work as older generations did,” Dr. Hodges says. “We get a lot more from our community. So gym memberships, cleaning services for our homes and paying for organizations that we want to be part of are becoming ever more important.”

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