Three things new veterinary associates want in their next job

July 6, 2019
Kyle Palmer, CVT
Kyle Palmer, CVT

Long-time dvm360 magazine and Firstline contributor Kyle Palmer, CVT, is hospital manager for VCA Salem in Salem, Oregon, as well as a practice management consultant for a number of other hospitals.

dvm360, dvm360 September 2019, Volume 50, Issue 9

If youre struggling in small-animal or equine practice to find associates, check out the results of my unscientific survey that reveal new and future veterinarians wants and needs for their workplace.

Those of you in the know have already adjusted to the fact that today's new veterinarians and employees have different expectations of practices and their jobs than the veterinarians of a few decades ago. But some veterinarians who own and manage practices are having a difficult time figuring out what they need, or want, to do to accommodate the changing needs of the new generation. The question remains: Do you know what new veterinarians are looking for, and are you offering that to them?

I recently conducted a poll of newly graduated veterinarians, those graduating this year and current third-year students, and the results turned up responses that very much characterize their changing needs. Of the group surveyed, 70% were practicing-or planned to practice-companion animal medicine, 25% fell into mixed-animal practice and 5% were planning on equine-only practice.

Respondents were given a list of 15 “employment amenities” and were asked to weigh them individually according to this point system:

  • 5 points: “This must be present for me to be happy”
  • 4 points: “This is very important, but if other things are in place, I may be able to live without it”
  • 3 points: “This would be nice, but wasn't initially part of my priority list”
  • 2 points: “Less important”
  • 1 point: “Not something I require”

By far, the top three needs were identical to those expressed by recent graduates I've worked with in practice.

No. 1 benefit: Good mentorship

The appropriately evolved employer has long recognized that mentorship is extremely valuable to new veterinarians, and more importantly, that the word mentorship means something very different than it did for practitioners 20 years ago.

Review me!

Eight-six percent of respondents said it was important for them to receive an annual evaluation or some type of formal feedback. Many bosses overlook these out of fear of confrontation or the belief that evaluation needs to be negative. Associates clearly feel otherwise.

Back in the day, mentorship was what most of us would actually call “orientation,” and some doctors think that the need for anything more is a sign of weakness. After all, they learned the “hard way,” and nothing short of having a few bad outcomes could have properly prepared them for a career that demands a tremendous amount of knowledge and confident decision-making. What's changed, however, is less about the new veterinarian and much more about the state of the human-animal bond. Animals are no longer just commodities-dogs and cats are commonly considered family members, and even horses seem to occupy a position of deeper emotional connection than in the old days. In short, the stakes are high for the new veterinarian to be able to fill the need as the “other family doctor” right out of the gate, addressing complex problems that are diagnosed with ever-expanding diagnostics and that include always improving treatment options. That dynamic doesn't happen without a network of peer support that must include both the employer and fellow associates, if there are any. It's no longer good enough to go into each day armed only with the 5 Minute Veterinary Consult and an old version of Plumb's for reference. Today's associate wants and needs to be able to bounce case ideas off others in a way that allows them to deliver a similar outcome as would be delivered by a deeply experienced practitioner, and it's important for the employer to realize that this need isn't just driven by their new employee-it's a client expectation.

But what about equine?

This expectation can be harder to achieve for equine doctors. While companion animal practice seems well designed for this, with a typically extensive team of support staff as well as the benefit of practicing alongside one's peers, equine work (or that portion of mixed practice) is far less so. Here, equine employers must make a commitment to “being there” for their associate-answering the phone when they call, making an effort to schedule weekly doctor meetings to discuss cases and recognizing that pushing someone into the deep end of the pool and seeing if they make it is no longer an acceptable method of building veterinarians. In my 25 years of experience in equine mixed practice, I saw how damaging lack of mentorship was. Many associates hired to share in the equine workload shifted their focus away from that part of practice, and all but one ended up as a small-animal-only veterinarian. It certainly wasn't the only reason, but bridging the difficult divide of mentorship when one's peers simply weren't present was definitely a factor.

No. 2 benefit: Great workplace culture

For many seasoned employers, work is something you came in the morning to do, and fun was something you did afterward. But the idea of workplace culture is a moving target: Is it rooted in the mission statement of a practice, helping to direct staff toward priorities in delivering veterinary care on a daily basis, or is it connected to the way the team interacts with each other while doing so? Is it simply “professionalism” as traditionally defined, or does it represent other ways managers and employees treat each other during their daily routine?

This area is by far the most difficult for an employer to assess, address and evolve. In the survey responses, one young veterinarian wrote, “Quality of workplace interactions and co-worker relationships is paramount. It seems more or less clear to me that mine is a ‘work to live' generation and not the reverse. There is no appeal to working a high paying job if the workplace is not an enjoyable place to be. I believe this is more of a reflection of our desire for work-life balance, rather than an indication that we lack ambition, which is most certainly untrue.”

But what about equine?

Workplace culture may be more difficult to change for equine employers. There may not be much of a “workplace” at all if you're strictly ambulatory and the opportunities for large team involvement are few. Fortunately, culture can also include the way you define your relationships with clients, and this is an area where equine practices can focus. In other words, shrink or eliminate the gap between how you practice and treat your clients and how your new associates do. Clients will appreciate the consistency.

No. 3 benefit: Flexibility

While it may be true that veterinary medicine (and specifically equine practice) used to be defined by long hours and an uncertain home life schedule, that simply isn't good enough anymore. Equine practices are the ones most likely to still be providing on-call emergency services, but that doesn't mean doctors should always need to work hours later than their companion animal peers to get their work done. Today, associates-and frankly all employees-want to know they can be home at a reasonably predictable time to enjoy personal lives. It's not a ridiculous request, and it doesn't matter anymore that you worked until 8 p.m. every day for years because it what was expected of you.

A 2019 DVM candidate wrote that she values “flexibility and a practice that understands that life outside the clinic is integral to doing the best job while in the clinic.” She added that “veterinary medicine is who I am, but I am also a partner, a parent and a friend. I need to have those other areas fulfilled to be an excellent, empathetic veterinarian for my clients.”

You should want your associates to enjoy lives that require a commitment to relationships, marriages, families and personal interests. If you don't, you won't hold onto your doctors. But flexibility also doesn't mean everybody wants or needs the ol' 8-to-5, Monday through Friday schedule either. Explore a four-day workweek, consider flexible start and finish times if it works better on a specific day, and let your associates schedule around the important events in their lives. These things will help the newer generation of associates embrace your practice as their long-term home.

The still important also-ran list

In descending order, here are the other 12 items considered:

  • No. 4 benefit: Great health insurance
  • No. 5 benefit: Input into my daily workload to ensure I'm home at a reasonable time
  • No. 6 benefit: Being well-compensated
  • No. 7 benefit: Retirement plan
  • No. 8 benefit: Enough paid vacation
  • No. 9 benefit: A good CE allowance
  • No. 10 benefit: Practice-provided disability insurance
  • No. 11 benefit: A four-day workweek
  • No. 12 benefit: Not being responsible to cover emergency shifts
  • No. 13 benefit: Bringing my dog to work
  • No. 14 benefit: Health club membership
  • No. 15 benefit: A practice-provided company vehicle

The above “also ran” list should not tell you these aren't important-every one of those amenities were listed by at least one person as something they can't live without. It's further proof that your team will always be unique, and it's incumbent on you to constantly take their pulse, be involved and be evolved when it comes to appealing to new applicants and keeping the great employees you've got.

They've got big plans

Perhaps most interesting to potential employers is the fact that more than 35% of respondents said that, regardless of their satisfaction with a particular practice, they plan to explore the industry and gain a variety of experiences. Almost the same number said that their ideal tenure at a particular practice is one to three years, suggesting that less than two-thirds of hired associates are even open to sticking around. That could make you cynical, but it should really make you think about ways you can prove that your practice is way better than the greener grass on the other side.

What was most surprising to me-and a positive sign-was that almost 50% of respondents said they wanted to eventually buy or own the practice they now work for or a future one they work for. I was under the impression that associates no longer have an interest in the time-honored system of partnership, but this could be a bright spot for many employers who are struggling to identify an exit plan-especially for equine or mixed practices, which are more difficult to fit into the corporate transition models that are so common.

As employers, most of you know you're facing a market in which your associates can leave and go almost anywhere and be greeted with open arms. As employers, most of you are facing a workforce that values and prioritizes things that you may not have dreamt of early in your careers. There is nothing more important in terms of recruiting and retaining associates than understanding that you must be able to stop seeing things how you see them and be willing to see things through your employees' eyes.

Long-time dvm360 magazine contributor Kyle Palmer, CVT, is working as a practice management consultant for a number of hospitals.

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