All over the world, practices are struggling to attract and hire associate equine veterinarians. In the U.S. in 2021, 1.4% (46) of new graduates accepted equine positions as associates directly after graduation. An additional 3% (96) entered equine internships. These numbers are far lower than those of just 10 years ago.
Equine medicine is not alone in this struggle. The AVMA reported at the 2021 Economic Summit that there were 16.8 job openings per veterinarian jobseeker across the country at that time. Most of those positions were for companion animal doctors. Because work hours are lower, with little to no emergency work required and much higher compensation, many new graduates are attracted to small animal or mixed animal practices.
Average debt in 2021 among the 83% of graduates with loans was $188,000. This left many feeling compelled to take higher-paying positions in small animal medicine to meet their financial obligations. This is true even if they had originally intended to work with horses.
In this tough environment, equine practices are competing with each other and with companion animal practices to attract associate veterinarians. Many receive no applicants even after multiple months or years of searching. In fact, AVMA data showed that about 50% of states have fewer than one applicant per job opening. This can be a daunting struggle, especially for practices that have lost doctors and with a caseload predicated on a certain number of practitioners. With the workload increase for the remaining veterinarians, the risk of further attrition grows even stronger.
What Attracts Associate Veterinarians?
Attracting an associate in 2022 has many elements. Successful hires often are veterinarians who want to return to their hometown areas or home states. Often, these are women who plan to have children and want to be near extended family. Location for these doctors is one of their top priorities.
Geography is also important when a spouse has a career that must be accommodated. By identifying students interested in veterinary medicine in your region, you might be able to establish a relationship. Then, you can offer mentoring and shadowing prior to their application to vet school. Participating in career fairs and speaking about your profession at local 4-H or Pony Club groups can stimulate interest in a life as a horse doctor. If these young people become veterinary students or graduates, you might become a source of externship opportunities or an employer. Many of today’s successful associate hires have come from this type of long-term nurturing.
The type of position that is attractive to Millenials is one that acknowledges their desire to have a life outside of work. A four-day work week is increasingly common. A survey in May 2022 revealed that 25.3% of respondents’ practices saw routine elective appointments only four days a week in their slower season. Many of these doctors work four 10-hour days a week and earn similar amounts of revenue to what they earned working five days. Being rested and having time for personal pursuits seems to increase productivity for these veterinarians.
Millennials also cherish communication and leadership that is collaborative and transparent. They value mentoring but dislike being micro-managed. They expect that their ideas will be considered and sometimes implemented. Making a positive difference in the world is important to them. Practices that seem overly focused on making money rather than helping horses will disappoint them. Educating these doctors about the connection between revenue production, healthy profit, high compensation and a strong business can help their job satisfaction.
Most equine veterinarians that leave the equine sector do so because of long hours and lifestyle, emergency duty requirements, mental health and low compensation, according to a study reported at the 2020 AAEP Annual Convention. Associates seek an equitably shared on-call burden and one that minimizes their emergency duty responsibilities. One weekend every four to six weeks and one weeknight each week or less are often the maximum that will attract a candidate. For the majority of practices, this means forming or joining an emergency cooperative or no longer providing these services.
Unfortunately, seeing enough emergencies in early years of practice to become more confident of one’s abilities is necessary. Otherwise, permanent emergency duty anxiety can set in. Even young associates who have finished an internship might not have experienced independent emergency duty and might not feel ready to exercise their knowledge.
There is no replacement for experience in teaching a doctor about his or her own competency and abilities. As emergency duty becomes less frequent, there is a strong possibility that young doctors will not bridge that critical confidence gap. In lieu of those formative experiences, post-graduate education in emergency case management might be more necessary in a continuing education setting. In some horse-intensive areas, emergency-only practices might fill the gaps.
Because the majority of veterinary graduates are women in their childbearing years, associate positions need to be family-friendly. Employers need to talk about how previous maternity leaves were handled or have a plan for handling them. Exhibiting flexibility is a key component, as pregnancy and delivery are quite variable.
Once children are on the scene, flexibility remains important because of unexpected child-care issues, illness and other demands. Having a hard stop on non-emergency duty days helps parents meet their obligations for pick-ups of children as well as fostering time to actually be together as a family. Owners of practices that are most successful in hiring often have children themselves. They “walk their talk” by making their families their priority in visible ways.
Money Still Attracts Associate Veterinarians
Companion animal business models are highly efficient compared to the equine veterinary industry. Expecting associates to earn sufficient production to support higher salaries will require you to raise fees. Encouraging haul-in appointments to minimize the time and expense of ambulatory calls can be helpful if the facility is modest and used to capacity. Providing technical staff can also increase efficiency and boost earnings.
Practices that can offer these options will typically attract more applicants for associate veterinarians.
A recent survey showed that about two-thirds of associates prefer to be compensated with a base salary plus a production bonus. However, only 38.6% were receiving that type of renumeration. Payment of emergency fees was reported by 72.0%, with 28.0% receiving no additional pay.
Most candidates now expect 100% of emergency fees to be paid for emergencies they attend in order to consider accepting a position. Base salaries for filled positions are rarely less than $75,000. On the coasts, base salaries of $85,000 are more typical.
Benefits that attract potential associate veterinarians include student loan repayment plans that are non-taxable, meaningful amounts of time away from the practice, the opportunity to engage in skill-building continuing education, and a clear path to ownership should they desire it. Candidates expect licenses, memberships in state and national veterinary associations, and professional liability insurance paid by the practice.
Although it is hard to represent a practice’s culture in a job ad, practices that are successful at hiring are able to paint an accurate picture of what the practice’s team cares about and why the practice exists. An applicant needs to get a feel for the practice’s values and priorities. Then, they can decide whether those values and priorities resonate with their own.
In the past, many job ads used the words “work ethic,” “hard-working” or “team player” to signal that only hard-driving, work-centered applicants belonged.
It’s a new world.
The words that attract now include “team-centered,” “collaborative,” “flexible” and “supportive.” Potential associate veterinarians are attracted to environments where the well-being of the team trumps client demands and maximizing earnings. In other words, “people before profit.”
Lifestyle and Environment
Because Millennials are, as a rule, environmentally conscious and enjoy spending time outside, sometimes the allure of the surroundings of a practice will matter as a deciding factor between two jobs. When writing your job ad, accentuate the natural world features that are most positive. Also mention any family-friendly attractions such as highly regarded school systems or low-crime, country settings.
Describing what life is like in your town or county is better than a laundry list of the diagnostic equipment that has become a baseline expectation for any practice.
Also, a description of your client and patient population is critical for attracting a candidate who wants what you have. There is no sense in hiring an associate who moves on within a year or two because he or she wants to practice with a different type of clientele.
Take-Home Message: Attracting Associate Veterinarians
Every candidate will have different desires for their ideal positions. Be flexible, and understand that they are often more focused on interviewing you and the practice than you are on interviewing them. But do ask about what they want to achieve professionally in the next five years, and what they desire their life to look like in 10 years. Ask whether they can see themselves attaining their goals at your practice, and why.
If they ask about mentoring, be honest. If you are not temperamentally suited to the patient and often time-consuming process of teaching, don’t raise false hopes. Instead, offer to arrange opportunities for learning in a different setting or with a different mentor.
Be ready to talk about your priorities for your work and life. Discuss what is most important to you. A candidate whose children or life outside of work are first—and profession is second—will rarely accept a job where the owner models a different way and doesn’t show acceptance of other perspectives.
Feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance is a human need. If a veterinarian feels like his or her values and priorities don’t match up with others on the team, they will not accept a job. Or if they do, they will rarely be there long-term.
In summary, creating an associate veterinarian position that will attract candidates is challenging. It can require change to the practice’s culture, business model, fee structure, expectations and communication style. Embracing change is not easy, but it is the best path for engaging the newest generation of horse doctors.