Recruiting in the veterinary profession

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Recruiting when the profession is undergoing the double hit of a skills shortage and COVID-19 restrictions demands new ways of finding the best staff. By John Burfitt

When it comes to effective recruiting of staff in a profession that has undergone a shortage of skilled workers in recent years, veterinary consultant Dr Paolo Lencioni believes the situation comes down to a matter of numbers.

“The fact is we face a skills shortage,” Dr Lencioni of the ValuVet agency says. “The veterinary profession got 20 per cent busier through COVID-19, as more people now own pets. So vets’ workloads went up by 20 per cent, but the ability to recruit new staff has gone down by an estimated 20 per cent as the vets from overseas we usually rely on are not coming in.”

This means, he says, that in 2021 a far more focused approach is necessary to address the current reality of recruiting good new staff into a practice. Improved recruitment processes and addressing such issues as skills levels, workplace culture, schedule flexibility and wage levels all figure high on the agenda.

The process in practice

Initially, transparency about the way the practice operates and a comprehensive job description is paramount. “You need to be honest about the way you do business, because candidates have many more options these days,” Dr Lencioni says. “Too many places I know are just grabbing people because they are desperate to fill roles, and yet that’s a big problem when that practice and that candidate are not a good match.”

Veterinary nurse Janet Murray, a board member of the Veterinary Nurses Council of Australia, adds that a greater effort needs to be made at the job interview stage. 

“Planning key questions that are targeted so the candidate understands the scope of the role and can then explain whether or not they are suitable, can make a big difference to how the process plays out,” she says. 

“This means paying close attention to how they respond to questions. You need to listen closely and decide how they might or might not fit in, rather than just grab someone because you urgently need an extra set of hands.”

Open to change

Of utmost importance among veterinary teams in 2020 was their flexibility. “With new staff, you need those who can adapt quickly, adjust with the times and are not thrown when the system changes,” Janet Murray says.

With new staff, you need those who can adapt quickly, adjust with the times and are not thrown when the system changes.

Janet Murray, Veterinary Nurses Council of Australia

Up-to-date computer literacy is particularly vital. “You need to know if the candidate understands how some of the key computer consulting systems operate, or is at least keen to learn it, and ensure this way of working will not flip them out. Or if they’re having to do drive-through carpark consultations, it’s something they just roll with. If training is needed, then factor it in, but right now, there’s no room for a reluctance to learn.”

The skills set

There’s also a need to explore and evaluate the range of clinical skills the candidate offers, with special consideration about what those skills might mean for the future of the practice.

“New staff need to be able to offer more than basic skills, and surgical skills are highly desirable,” Dr Lencioni says. “The vet doesn’t necessarily need to do specialist surgery, but they should have the capability of doing things like a splenectomy and bladder surgery.” 

In recent years, he’s noted a reluctance of many graduates to attempt even basic surgery, while vets only a few years older consider it a part of the routine.

“Right now, the skills your team has on offer and what that means for the way your patients are served needs to be factored closely,” he says. “It is also a far better outcome for the patient if a condition is treated promptly rather than waiting for a referral.”

There is also the financial realities of having a surgeon on staff. “A surgeon always generates higher revenue than [a vet with] other skills in a veterinary practice,” Dr Lencioni adds. 

A matter of dollars

Dr Anthony Bennett of the Berry Veterinary Clinic on the NSW South Coast has just employed two new graduate vets to join his expanding team, but confesses it took months to fill the roles. He’s noted a definite shift in financial expectations when it comes to wages.

Too many places I know are just grabbing people because they are desperate to fill roles, and yet that’s a big problem when that practice and that candidate are not a good match.

Dr Paolo Lencioni, ValuVet

“The starting salary published by the Australian Veterinary Association is no longer really relevant, because the starting salary vets are asking for is significantly higher,” he says. “You have to be sure you are keeping up with that change in demand.”

Dr Bennet found the difference between the AVA recommendations and what was being requested was 10-15 per cent higher. “That is significant and it’s important to know that what’s being used as a guideline and what the reality is are very different.”

It’s a point echoed by Dr Lencioni. “As many practices became more profitable over the past year, then you need to pay your new staff well, as we’re in highly-competitive times.”

More enlightened workplaces

A new workplace culture has also emerged, where flexibility reigns supreme, attitude counts for plenty and consideration of the wider life of staff members is part of the picture. 

“This time around we changed our approach, so instead of mainly looking at skills, we were much more focused on attitude, behaviour and the workplace culture that’s important to us and that candidates were looking for,” Dr Bennett says. 

Adopting a flexible approach to working schedules proved significantly important in terms of attracting the right candidates. “If you want to employ the right people and you want retention, then you’re going to need to be more flexible than you probably have been in the past,” he says. “So if that means the employees want to work part-time, or take on new study or also train to be a triathlete, then we’re happy to facilitate that if it’s going to make for a stronger team when they are doing their job at the clinic. Flexibility is the rule now.”

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