Self Assessment

Moving into the marketplace? Find a way to differentiate yourself.

Sometimes timing is everything. Veterinary students graduating in the spring of 2008 had their pick of jobs. It was certainly a time of demand exceeding supply. Whether they had an interest in reproduction, lameness or surgery, every grad had several choices. Now graduating students, through no fault of their own, are facing a much tighter job market in all areas.

New grads, interns and graduating residents are competing against each other for the same jobs, and there are fewer jobs to go around. It all sounds pretty bleak, but if we look at the demands of equine veterinary practice, we can see there are numerous areas where a job seeker can add value by offering more than what has been the traditional definition of a new veterinarian. It is not enough to be able to float teeth or diagnose and treat for colic. Today’s veterinarian needs flexibility, broad-based technical skills, business and marketing skills, emotional intelligence, and, probably most importantly, excellent communication skills.

This sounds daunting, but as we explore this list further, we will see that many veterinary prospects already have many of these abilities, but likely they never thought of them as values. In today’s economy and job market, it is not enough to be an excellent veterinary diagnostician. Successful veterinary job seekers knows that the more value they can add to the position, the easier it is to positively distinguish themselves from their peers.

In a dream world, we would all love to have jobs in our home towns or regions, or where our spouses have jobs. Even better, we would all love to work regular schedules that are the same every week.

This is less of an option now.

There is likely not a dream job where you want it. Simply put, if you want a job as an equine veterinarian, you need to go where the jobs are. That might be across the state, the nation or even to another country.

North America is struggling to recover from the recession, but other areas in the world are doing well. For example, the horse industries in China and South America are booming. In the case of China, in particular, there is a severe shortage of Western-trained veterinarians. This might offer a great opportunity to explore another country while you are young and without family obligations.

Many progressive veterinary businesses are also using flex time to offer expanded hours to clients. Instead of having business hours Monday through Friday from 8 to 5, some practices are offering late hours through the week or regular hours on Saturday and Sunday. Some practices are even hiring veterinarians for primarily emergency after-hour work. These scenarios might not be ideal, but they can give you a foot in the door for later opportunities. In the meantime, you are able to gain valuable experience.

Broad-Based Technical Skills

For several years students have been graduating from veterinary programs with few hands-on skills. Of course this varies by school, but in general this is true. It is not the fault of the veterinary colleges, as they suffer from declining caseloads and the need to educate interns and residents as well as students.

If you want to be an equine veterinarian, it is essential to do an internship. Without one, the majority of new grads will not have the technical abilities to begin a new job without the need for constant mentoring.

Your stock will rise in the job market if you can handle a colic case, suture a wound and block a lameness without the senior veterinarian in the practice having to spend a lot of time training you. This is not to say that you can’t expect any mentorship, but keep in mind that the practice for which you will work is a business. The more time that a productive and busy veterinarian spends engaged in non-billable activities, the less revenue the veterinary practice generates. If the hiring choice is between a new grad and someone who has completed a comprehensive internship, the choice is easy.

Before 2008, it was a reasonable expectation that an equine veterinarian could specialize in English sport horse lameness, reproduction or surgery, for example. There are still numerous veterinary practices that specialize, but as a new practitioner, you can make yourself much more employable by not specializing too soon.

When pursuing an internship, find one that offers you exposure to all areas of practice. You might have your heart set on being a reproductive veterinarian, but in this time of decreasing breeding, you might find more opportunities in a job where you use more diverse skills.

Non-Veterinary Skills
You might be surprised to hear this, but many graduating veterinary students have more business skills than seasoned veterinarians. Students and some vet colleges are realizing the importance of business skills for the graduating student, and that training can be a differentiating factor in why you are hired. For example, if you have the knowledge to offer suggestions on minimizing inventory costs, you have increased your value to the business.

While most people under the age of 30 are very familiar with social media, older veterinarians are just now realizing social media is something their business needs, but they have no idea how to do it. How can this affect you?

Perhaps you work as a veterinarian four days a week, and on the fifth day you manage the practice’s Facebook page, and/or you write a weekly blog for the practice’s website about the business and the conditions you and your colleagues diagnose and treat. Maybe one of your first non-veterinary jobs will be to train technicians and other veterinarians how to use Facebook or Twitter for the purpose of promoting the practice.

Other skills you can offer include creating client education presentations on PowerPoint or writing the practice newsletter. These are all skills the average veterinary practice owner knows are needed, but often doesn’t have among his or her current staff members.

Emotional Intelligence

A person has emotional intelligence if he is able to identify, assess and control his own emotions and (to some extent) the emotions of others. Simply put: You do not cause drama in the workplace, you help decrease it.

In general, most people avoid conflict. Nobody likes having a difficult conversation where the negative or disruptive actions of a person need to be addressed. At the same time, venting about co-workers or triangulating where two employees talk about each other to a third person can really contribute to a toxic work environment.

If you work toward having a good sense of your own emotional intelligence, you will be the kind of co-worker with whom everyone wants to work. Usually this is something that people identify once they’ve worked with someone awhile, so it is something that will be reflected in your letters of reference.

I know I look for comments that a job candidate works well with his co-workers, respects technicians and brings a good energy to the workplace.

Our profession is stressful enough, given that we deal with sick animals and distraught owners, without us lashing out at staff because we are frustrated. Emotional intelligence is an essential skill for all people, but it is even more important in those who have to handle the extreme emotions of others.

Being a People Person

Probably the most important trait required in modern veterinary practice is being a people person. Contrary to the common vet school belief, we are in the people business, with their animals as an excuse for personal interactions.

For many veterinary students who entered the profession because they preferred the company of animals to that of people, this might hard to acknowledge. The reality is that our ability to communicate effectively with empathy is key to a horse owner or trainer having faith in our ability to diagnose or treat a horse.

I had the good fortune to hear Andy Clark, DVM, MBA, speak several years ago about patient outcomes versus client outcomes. Most clients have the expectations that all veterinarians are technically equal. We have great educations and share similar abilities to diagnose and treat common ailments. What separates us from each other is our ability to have an excellent outcome for a client regardless of how the patient fares.

A client who sends you a card of thanks after you euthanize a horse in an example of this. It’s a poor patient outcome, but excellent communicators can make this a successful client outcome.

I was reminded of this after seeing an unsolicited post on our business’ Facebook page. A client wrote a post thanking one of our veterinarians for all of the excellent work she did caring for her horse with an eye problem. The horse ended up having the eye enucleated, but the client was grateful for the attention she and her horse received from our colleague.

What does this look like in practice?

You are able to have an easy conversation with your clients about them or their horses.

You don’t talk about yourself all of the time. We are there for our clients, not the other way around.

You remember the names of kids and spouses and significant recent events.

You call the day after an appointment to see how the horse is doing and to find out if the client has any questions.

In essence, we are demonstrating that we care about our clients as much as we care about their horses.

As a practice owner, I hire new veterinarians as much for their people skills as for their technical veterinary skills. In fact, their people skills might be more important since it is easier to learn veterinary skills than to develop excellent communication skills.

For students or new graduates who struggle to deal with people, it might be worthwhile to attend a Dale Carnegie course or get involved with Toastmasters to help you develop the skills to deal effortlessly with clients.

Unfortunately, I meet many veterinary students who lack these skills or are just too shy to show them off. So if you have the ability to be at ease communicating with people, you will have an advantage in the job marketplace.

If you are struggling with this concept, think of the experience of buying a vehicle. It is nerve-wracking in that there are so many unknowns, potential pitfalls and, in general, we have a lack of understanding of the products. That puts us on the defensive. If the car or truck sales person listens to our needs, explains his offerings in easy-to-understand terms and finds a vehicle appropriate for our needs, we develop confidence in him.

Odds are, if we shop around and find less-engaging sales people at other dealerships, we will go back to the sales person who made us feel comfortable.

That is how veterinary clients often feel. They don’t understand most scientific terms and they fear spending more money than they want—yet they have an emotional attachment to their animals, so they want to do the right thing. Communication is key to setting their minds at ease and having comfort in the decisions we make with them.

Take-Home Message
There is phenomenal competition in the equine veterinary job market today, but those individuals who can offer more than basic veterinary skills will have huge opportunities.
Those who can differentiate themselves with valuable traits or abilities will have an easier time getting a job.

Think of yourself as a stand-alone business that is offering professional services to the market. Many of the products and services our profession uses every day are generally the same, so the only way we determine the value of one over another is by price or convenience.

If every coffee tastes the same, you will go for the cheapest one or the one nearest to you. Why spend more for an equivalent product? Starbucks, on the other hand, offers more than the generic coffee from the fast food chains. The customer service, comfortable environment and unique products enable Starbucks to charge far more than its competitors. It is different, and that difference is valued by its customers.

It is unlikely in this competitive job market that your differentiating features will translate into a higher pay offer, but it can mean the difference in getting the job you want.

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