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Veterinary Hospitals, Are you struggling to find team members? You are not alone.

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I wrote this article for the SDCVMA Intercom August 2021 edition

Over the past year, I have been reading a lot about the labor shortage in the US.  At first it seemed to be focused on the industries that were forced to close due to COVID-19, such as hotels, retail stores, and restaurants.  But over time it has become apparent that few industries would be spared the challenges of finding qualified applicants, including ours. 

A few years ago, I would receive 50-100 resumes in a month applying to a veterinary receptionist job ad and now I am lucky if I get 10 qualified applicants.  I work with hospitals all over the country and the message is clear, we need more veterinary professionals, and we can’t find them.

The veterinary profession is no stranger to being understaffed and overworked.  I think many of us thrive on this and use working hard like a badge of honor.  So, what changed?  Why are we not able to weather this storm as easily as we have in the past? The answer is simple, we are busier and getting overwhelmed by the yearlong deluge of work.  The need to hire new team members is dire and we are fighting to survive daily. 

There are a lot of theories as to why veterinary hospitals are busier, but I think the biggest one is that we are seeing more patients.  Many hospitals have had record breaking income over the past year because the pets don’t stop coming.  According to the APPA, pet ownership increased from 67% of US households to 70% in 2020 which is a huge jump, especially when hospitals are having difficulty hiring more team members.  It is also even harder when we can’t find the doctors to examine the patients. 

What can we do about it? There is no “one thing” that will magically give you qualified candidates.  Hospital owners and managers are going to have to work at it and might have to change their approach to recruiting. 

Here are 6 things that you should think about when you are looking for qualified candidates.

1.  Review your job ad.  Today’s candidate needs to be sold on why they should work for you.  Gone are the days of posting a position to tell people about the job and expecting them to apply.  Now you need to sell the candidate on what makes your hospital better than the one down the street.  Do you have good benefits? Do you have a good environment and culture?  Do you have a flexible schedule?  Candidates need to know what is “in it for them” when they apply for a job, not just what the businesses needs are. 

2.  Depending on the positions you are hiring for; you might want to post ads in multiple places.  If you are hiring for a doctor, use the AVMA, CVMA, SCVMA, Indeed, Linked In, and even some FB groups.  You never know where a doctor is going to look.  Don’t stop at just placing an ad, you need to email candidates directly through the resume searches on the different job boards. Sometimes people are not actively looking and just posted their resume.  So, contacting them directly just might find you a candidate.  And don’t forget about the Career Fairs! Places like Western University, UC Davis, the AVMA and many other vet schools have in person and online career fairs where you can connect with 4th year veterinary students and current veterinarians.  Recruiting for an RVT or vet assistant?  Use technician students! We have a lot of veterinary technician and assistant schools here in Southern California including Pima Medical Institute, Stanbridge University, Carrington College, Platt College, Mt. San Antonio College, Cal Poly Pomona, Animal Behavioral College, Penn Foster, and other online schools.  Reach out to one in your area to see if you can become part of their externship program and use your hospital as a location they send their students to.  Remember, these students are potential employees if they work well with your hospital.  I have hired a lot of students over the years and ended up having 4 additional RVT’s at my first practice as a result.

3.  Hiring for a receptionist?  If you are not getting any experienced applicants sometimes you need to look outside the industry.  I look for candidates who have a lot of customer service experience, this shows me that they like people.  I also look for candidates who worked somewhere that is a fast-paced kind of environment.  Restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons, and busy call centers are excellent indicators of these types of jobs.  I interviewed a candidate recently who worked as a receptionist/hair stylist in hair salons for the last 10 years and wants to work in the vet field.  When I talked to her about her experiences there were a lot of similarities between what she did at a busy salon and what she would do at a very busy 8 doctor animal hospital (minus the medicine).  Don’t overlook them just because they don’t have veterinary experience. 

4.  Respond to applicants quickly.  Almost every hospital I know is hiring for at least one position right now so you cannot afford a delay in your response.  Try to respond within 24 hours of their application.  Unfortunately, I have had several hospitals lose exceptional candidates because they waited too long to contact them.  You should also review your application process and if it is hard or complicated, this might discourage them from applying.

5.  Do you offer a good salary & good benefits? Candidates are looking for higher pay and they are not afraid to ask.  Veterinary hospitals tend to offer lower salaries than our human health counterparts as well as other industries.  I would recommend that you review your hourly rates and make sure they are competitive with other hospitals.  It is easy to go on Indeed and look at what rates other veterinary hospitals are listing in their ads.  Do you have competitive benefits?  In addition to the required sick time many hospitals have vacation, health insurance, retirement plans, paid CE, paid licenses, veterinary discounts, and employee assistance programs for mental health.  A good work environment and flexible schedules are also something that today’s candidates really care about.  Mental health and self-care have become a hot topic and people are more aware than ever that they do not want to work 45+ hours a week. 

6. Take the time to properly interview them.  Even though you might be inclined to hire “a warm body” most of the time you will regret that.  If you are not completely sure that someone is the right fit, they probably are not.  I recommend doing working interviews with every applicant so that you can ask them to show you the skills they said they had during the interview.  Make sure you pay them for their time, at least the minimum wage in your city is what is required if they do any work for you.

There is no “full proof” way to guarantee you will find a great candidate, interview them, and hire them.  As a recruiter I have had many candidates change their mind and stay at their current place of employment, accept another position, or not end up liking the hospital they applied to.  The best you can do is find a system that works for you and your hospital.  And if you get really overwhelmed reach out to a local recruiter to help you. 

Melissa Tompkins, BS, CVPM, PHRca, CCFP

About the author,

Melissa is a small business owner in Southern California, owning South Coast Veterinary Management Solutions.  She works as a veterinary management consultant focusing on helping veterinary hospitals, practice owners, and their team members be successful with their business.

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