It is no surprise to anyone every workforce has been compromised in one way or another by the global pandemic. Supply shortages, COVID outbreaks, remote work, financial struggles, and staff shortages have all contributed to a less-than-ideal work environment over the past two years.
Adding these complexities to what feels like a higher workload and heavier mental burnout in veterinary medicine, it has become crucial for clinics to retain experienced veterinary technicians and nurses to maintain professional and functional clinic operations. Just as medical doctors cannot close the doors to their human patients, veterinary clinic doors simply cannot close either; people and animals are deeply dependent on these services.
Not only are experienced and credentialed veterinary technicians experts in their field, therefore allowing them to more easily manage and triage serious cases, they are also a vital component to training new graduates in healthy, educational, enriching, and supportive environments. Simply put, credentialed veterinary technicians are the past, present, and future of veterinary medicine. Without beating around the bush, veterinary medicine does not exist without these unsung heroes.
The numbers speak volumes
Finding senior veterinary technicians, and holding on to them, is next to impossible. These gems are like clinic unicorns.
In a recent study, 56.7 percent of veterinary technicians changed their place of employment within the first five years of practicing in the industry.1 This means clinics are not employing their senior techs for more than a handful of years. Staff resources are then being delegated to overtime, onboarding, and training new staff, and hiring non-credentialed team members who may have little to no history or experience in the veterinary field.
With a national average turnover rate of 12 to 15 percent, veterinary technicians land at a staggering turnover rate of 30 to 35 percent. More staggering, this 30 to 35 percent turnover rate is happening within five to 10 years of beginning their career.2 These are really terrible numbers.
What’s happening and how do we fix it?
The questions are:
- How do we hold on to these special unicorns and keep their lights burning brightly?
- Where do veterinary practices begin?
- How do clinic managers, leads, and owners juggle their current workload and keep their essential technical staff happy?
Well, the answers are multidimensional and require nontraditional brainstorming, as well as really straightforward, but perhaps daunting, reality changes. Despite the overwhelming and grim numbers, these answers are not out of reach, and systemic change is possible.
Initial steps towards retaining seasoned veterinary nurses include prioritizing livable wages, setting and maintaining work boundaries, effectively utilizing credentialed technicians/nurses, and providing easy access to mental health support.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a veterinary technician is $36,260 per year or $17.43 per hour.2 In many places across the country, this is barely enough to keep a roof over an employee’s head and food on their table, let alone investing in other life ventures, such as creating a family, purchasing a home, traveling, or maintaining other extracurricular activities for a positive work-life balance.
The veterinary industry cannot expect to maintain credentialed nurses without paying them a living wage, and this is the bottom line. How much nurses love their job or consider it their calling will never outweigh the practical aspects of housing and other basic needs for life. For a hardworking, exhausted veterinary nurse who has worked tirelessly (and likely short staffed) through this pandemic and before, there is nothing like regular raises, bonuses, and paid promotions to show gratitude and extend job retention.
While I do not pretend to have all the answers here, our industry must work toward making this an achievable goal or we will forever spin around on this hamster wheel. Skilled, senior veterinary nurses have always been worth more than their pay grade, and now more than ever. It may feel expensive to properly hire and retain these nurses, but it is essential for the life of the practice.
Changing the salary standards for certified veterinary technicians will not happen overnight, but working toward creating a pay structure for credentialed staff to allow them to have both a family and their career (or whatever variation of work/life balance it is they choose) is the turning point for not only retaining them, but for retaining happy and highly skilled ones.
Consider a clinic therapist
Just a thought: What if every veterinary clinic had their own designated clinic therapist?
While choosing the “right” therapist is a very personal decision, there may be some benefits to onboarding a clinic therapist for the entire team. One simple reason is a therapist may be cost prohibitive for many staff members (especially at the salary/hourly wage discussed above).
While choosing a therapist for an entire team versus an individual may have some limitations in regards to diversity of needs, it is certainly a step in the right direction. An on-staff therapist normalizes our need for mental health care.
An on-site therapist would also help bridge transportation limitations (driving to and from appointments during off-hours) and could potentially begin understanding specific challenges and issues faced within the clinic’s dynamic structure while offering constructive and beneficial feedback.
If pursued, clinic leads should consider finding a therapist who specializes in the specific needs and mental health issues found within the veterinary industry itself, such as trauma, PTSD, suicide ideation, burnout or compassion fatigue, and boundary issues.
Speaking of boundaries, veterinary clinics need to practice healthy work boundaries and the clinic leaders must be the ones actually establishing and setting them!
Boundaries may look like ensuring every nurse has a proper lunch break, job duties are evenly and appropriately distributed, concerns are not only heard, but addressed in a safe place, working overtime is 100 percent optional, judgment is not passed when someone needs to leave early due to life circumstances, hours, or illness.
They also include not tolerating bullying or harassment from staff or clients; balancing hours between work and team building, and organized and proper amounts of daily breaks.
Bottom line: Work standards and boundaries start at the top. By not having leaders advocate for their team by setting and practicing these boundaries, clinics are inadvertently creating unhealthy and toxic work environments.
Fully utilize their skillset
How underutilized are credentialed veterinary technicians/nurses, you ask? Very!
Former president of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), Kara Burns, says the underutilization of veterinary technicians is a massive issue. Simply put, if there are no differences in job pay, title, and job duties of credentialed technicians versus technicians/assistants with on-the-job training, what is the point in investing years of time and money into academics, degrees, certifications, and required continuing education?3
For many reasons (some outlined above) credentialed veterinary technicians are unlikely to be fully utilized for their highest skill sets, including patient assessment, treatment planning, protocolized plan, and monitoring anesthesia.1 Rather, you may find them cleaning kennels, mopping clinic floors, doing laundry, or feeding/walking patients.
By utilizing credentialed technicians to their maximum, clinics are removing extra workload from overworked veterinarians, and are continuing to bridge a gap between non-credentialed staff or assistants. Additionally, veterinary technicians will feel valued and more fulfilled in their career.
The inability to retain senior and credentialed veterinary technicians will continue to be a deeply rooted and toxic pain point for the veterinary community (including staff, clients, and patients) until it is assessed and treated.
However, as the industry continues to rally with resources and fight for proper nationwide scope of practice and credentialing, title protection, and maximum utilization for veterinary technicians/nurses, along with the points discussed in this article, we should all feel really excited and optimistic for the future of veterinary medicine as it pertains to these amazing and essential team members!
Claire Primo, CVT, CCMT, is a veterinary nurse and certified animal massage therapist residing in Lyons, Colo. She offers animal massage therapy, laser therapy, hospice and palliative care, and veterinary nurse needs through her practice, Peak Animal Wellness & Massage, while also managing a holistic veterinary house-call practice, Boulder Holistic Vet. Primo specializes in senior pet care, holistic veterinary nurse care, and empowering guardians with all the appropriate tools and guidance needed for a healthy and nurturing relationship with their pets.
- Prime issue for veterinary technicians: Underutilization. American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2018-11-15/prime-issue-veterinary-technicians-underutilization
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, September 8). Veterinary technologists and technicians: Occupational outlook handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/veterinary-technologists-and-technicians.htm
- Vetfolio. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://www.vetfolio.com/learn/article/how-to-survive-as-a-veterinary-technician