Where have all the technicians gone?

September 14, 2017
Julie Carlson, CVT

Julie Carlson is a freelance author and certified veterinary technician in Phoenix. She is the founder of Vets for Vets Pets, a nonprofit organization providing supplies and medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans.

Many practices are finding it difficult to hireand keepcredentialed veterinary technicians. Learn why are there so few of these elusive creatures and what can we do to help them flourish.

Shutterstock.comUntil recently, I was the hospital manager at a small clinic in Phoenix. Part of my job was interviewing and hiring veterinary technicians. When I advertised for a full-time veterinary technician position, I only received three resumes in a month. Only one of these applicants was credentialed. The other two had no veterinary experience beyond owning pets. Conversely, when I placed an ad for a receptionist, I got more than 100 resumes in a week and ended up canceling the ad because of the overwhelming response.

What gives? Where are all the credentialed technicians?

According to the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board, there are a little more than 1,000 credentialed technicians in Arizona. That sounds like a lot until you consider that there are about 1,000 licensed veterinary premises in the state. Sixty-six certified veterinary technician licenses were issued in Arizona at the end of June 2017, which is down from the 79 that were issued at the same time last year.

Credentialed technician vs. veterinary assistant

To get a handle on this, let's first talk about what a credentialed technician is. I live in Arizona, and according to the Arizona State Medical Examining Board Arizona Revised Statutes (commonly referred to as the veterinary practice act), a certified veterinary technician is either a graduate of a two-year veterinary technology program who has passed a veterinary technician examination or a person who was certified on or before December 31, 2010. A veterinary assistant is an individual who provides care under the direct or indirect supervision of a veterinarian or certified veterinary technician.

So, it's fair to say that in Arizona you are either a certified veterinary technician or a veterinary assistant. There is no such thing as a noncredentialed veterinary technician. But every hospital I have worked in my more than 12 years in practice uses the term “veterinary technician” for both credentialed and noncredentialed. Huh?

Kelly Smith, hospital manager at Arrowhead Ranch Animal Hospital in Glendale, Arizona, says, “When we talk about technicians, we don't differentiate between any of them. Even in training, they are all basically required to learn the same thing. There is no ‘get one of the assistants or techs to do that.' We're working to get them all up to the same level, and we don't differentiate between them.”

That seems to be a common theme among veterinary clinics. Tammy Sweet (name has been changed for anonymity), a CVT in Phoenix, says, “I worked hard to earn my title, and it bothers me to see someone who just walked in off the street getting the same title with the same pay. Part of the reason I'm thinking about leaving my clinic is a lack of respect and recognition for the credentialed techs here.”

The National Association for Veterinary Technicians in America has recently introduced a national credential initiative that would create a standard credentialing requirement, title, and scope of practice for technicians in all 50 states (in addition to changing the term “veterinary technician” to “veterinary nurse”). The goal is to help pet owners understand what patient-care-credentialed technicians provide. Sweet says of this initiative, “It's a good place to start.”

Do credentials = more professional respect?

Desiree Jordan, DVM, clinical director and attending veterinarian for Pima Medical Institute's veterinary assistant and veterinary technician programs, says she feels more comfortable working with credentialed technicians than with veterinary assistants because she's “able to trust them to make decisions and judgment calls, to ask me the right questions in order for me to make those calls, or to notice things that an assistant might not.” When asked how other veterinarians at her previous hospital felt, she stated that they also preferred working with technicians who had attended school.

 

Stephanie Huss, program director for the veterinary assistant and veterinary technician programs at Pima Medical Institute, says she's seen a huge shift in her students' ideas about credentialing. She says that practices are starting to realize the value of having credentialed technicians, “especially these young, new vets,” and says area hospitals have been calling the school looking for educated technicians.

“I feel like I have an opportunity to impact the industry with our graduates and raise the bar on what veterinarians think we can do,” Huss says.

Huss is leading the way for this program, as her campus is new and has only had one small class of graduates so far. However, all of those graduates secured jobs in the field and half of them will receive raises immediately upon becoming credentialed. On the topic of hospitals hiring more credentialed technicians, Huss says, “If we have more people banding together saying the same thing, they [hospitals] are not going to have a choice.”

But not all credentialed technicians are as hopeful. One of my classmates from veterinary technician school who requested anonymity says, “I have worked in the same practice for almost 11 years, despite poor management and less-than-desirable coworkers. But I'm thinking of a career change. I'm burning out, losing my compassion for the animals and my drive to help. I love that I'm good at my job. I feel I'm great at it, and I still enjoy the variety and skills involved. I'm nervous to go from something I'm good at and have some seniority in to something brand new, but I'm starting to think it might be worth it.”

Kayla Goldberg, CVT, of Phoenix Dog Cat Bird Hospital, says, “Some techs wonder, why become credentialed when they're only going to make a tiny bit more than they were before? Or they feel like someone else can do a nine-month vet assisting program and be called the same thing as someone who has a degree and has passed the boards.”

Josh Esquivel, medical career specialist at the Pima Medical Institute, says only about 40 percent of veterinary assistant students move into the veterinary technician program. “They find out the pay isn't much different, if at all, for a vet tech vs. a vet assistant and they see no incentive to take on the extra school debt.”

Rachel Schultz, CVT, scheduling coordinator at the College of Veterinary Medicine Companion Animal Clinic at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, says, “I could have done everything I have done in all my jobs except for teaching and spared myself the $30,000 in student loans. We have a long way to go before CVTs will get the recognition with the pay. Even at Midwestern, we have techs that are not CVTs and they can still do everything a credentialed tech can do.”

Leaving the profession

Diana Brown graduated from a veterinary technician school and became credentialed in 2006. Three and a half years later she left the field and let her license expire. “After daycare, driving expenses, lunches, et cetera, I was making $35 a week,” she says, “and I was not able to attend my kids' events and was always worrying about arranging childcare around my weird hours. I loved my job, but it wasn't worth the stress it was putting on my family. And there were no other jobs that paid better or had better hours.”

Although Brown had a two-year degree, national and state certification, a few years of experience, and was helping the clinic with marketing, she was only making $11 hour. Unsurprisingly, when I asked a group of veterinary professionals why they or their technicians left their jobs, low pay was the most frequent reason given.

Stefanie Perry, CVT, works at the Animal Health Institute Companion Animal Clinic at Midwestern University. She has 13 years of experience but almost left the veterinary field. She says, “Loving medicine and animals makes it [veterinary medicine] a no-brainer for me. But I couldn't find a private practice that offered the benefits I get at Midwestern.” Perry's husband is chronically ill, so health insurance is a major deciding factor in where Perry works. If it weren't for the benefits she receives at Midwestern, “I might have had to leave the industry to find better insurance just to stay above water in medical bills.”

Bridget Heilsberg, DVM, owner of Crown 3 Equine Veterinary Services in Whitesboro, Texas, says “not being able to pay them what they're worth” keeps her from hiring credentialed technicians. She says, “I have one credentialed tech that is waiting for me to be able to hire her, but she needs full time with benefits and I can't do that.”

In addition to low wages, credentialed technicians often leave the field because they feel there is no opportunity to expand their knowledge base and skill set. Karen Marcus, CVT, instructor at Ridgewater College's Veterinary Technology Program in central Minnesota, solved this problem by becoming an instructor. She says, “I worked 20 years in emergency but love teaching. I like the challenge of learning new things.”

Working in an academic environment has given Perry the opportunity to learn new skills. She says, “Working in a teaching hospital affords me the opportunity to get my VTS in dentistry. It has shaped my career path. I'm pretty sure I'm a lifer now.”

Boosting our profile-and earnings

Esquivel says most of the people he speaks with about a career in veterinary technology think the job entails only about half of what a technician actually does. “They don't know about doing labs, taking x-rays or assisting in surgery,” he says.

Esquivel points out that he has never personally witnessed a technician on the job. When he takes his dogs to the veterinarian, team members take the dogs out of the room for diagnostic testing. Then the veterinarian comes in and gives the diagnosis. If owners like Esquivel don't see what a technician does, how can they know how valuable a technician is? That feeds into an incomplete or incorrect perception when people consider a career in veterinary technology.

Veterinarians can help educate the public on their techs' expertise by using phrases such as “Carrie is going to scrub in on Fluffy's surgery today.” Veterinarians and credentialed technicians spreading awareness of the vast skills that a technician has may help educate the public.

In my experience, most veterinarians would like to have credentialed technicians who can calculate drug doses, induce anesthesia and intubate patients, but they don't want to pay for it or feel they can't afford it. But several analyses have found that credentialed technicians will pay for themselves if allowed to work to their maximum potential. Allowing credentialed technicians to work to their fullest ability will not only increase the technicians' level of satisfaction in their jobs, it will free up veterinarians to do what only they are licensed to do: diagnose conditions, prescribe drugs and perform surgery.

Julie Carlson, CVT, is the winner of the 2015 Hero Veterinary Technician Award from the American Humane Association and is the Founder of Vets for Vets' Pets, a nonprofit organization providing medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans. Julie has five cats and two Chihuahuas and lives in Phoenix.