Veterinary Workforce Shortage and Millennials in Practice
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
With the growing demand and no short-term relief in sight for veterinary staff shortages, it's time to move past the 'old-school' doctrine of veterinary medicine, and make way for millennials.
I am a Veterinarian and a Millennial. My business partner is a Registered Veterinary Technologist and a Millennial. We are proud members of the so-called ‘Me’ generation. We both worked long and hard hours in emergency medicine for years. We currently both work hard with a rapidly growing start-up company, taking financial and career risks, all while trying to raise our families.
Quite frankly, we are tired of being called entitled, narcissistic, unfocused, and lazy.
There is always going to be inter-generational conflict, but it seems this unprecedented veterinary staff shortage has reinvigorated the conversation. The reality is the Millennial generation overtook Gen X as the largest generation in the veterinary workforce according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). As the shift in generation occurs, Millennial culture and characteristics will continue to evolve the veterinary industry.
The Alberta Veterinary Technologist Association (ABVTA) and Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA) recently released the Veterinary Professional Workforce Project, which shows that the shortage will continue to worsen without vital short-term and long-term changes. We are seeing evidence North America-wide with emergency facilities limiting service and rural practices shuttered without veterinarians to staff them. In the Calgary area, there have been two new emergency/urgent care hospitals opened in the last year (six before 2020), with another two 24hr facilities before the end of this year.
The complex problem isn’t just the numbers of new graduates, but the attrition rate of veterinary professionals, particularly RVTs. Multi-faceted solutions will be needed to address the shortage, but complaining about Millennials isn’t one of them.
It’s Time to Move Past the ‘Old School’ Doctrine of Veterinary Medicine
Instead, let's focus on how the Millennial generation provides opportunities for our industry to evolve and become more sustainable. Dr. Sarah Boston previously wrote about the ‘Suck It Up’ doctrine of veterinary medicine and how some of these unsafe soul-crushing experiences in residencies are still viewed as ‘badges of honor’ for many. As a Millennial, we view this as a choice and one that we can and will walk away from. From an employer and leader perspective, we strive to replace this ‘old-school’ doctrine with an empathic, collaborative, and solution-based culture.
To survive and thrive in this environment, let’s explore some of the Millennial traits and priorities. It is time to reframe them.
This is a priority for the Millennial generation, but how we achieve this is a very personal choice. The approach to the veterinary career can take many forms. Some vets and RVTs want to work a strict 9-5, minimal weekends. Some vets prioritize the community perspective in their rural practices and don’t mind the on-call aspect. Many of us have growing families with young children, so integrating our family, work, and personal lives requires flexibility, healthy boundaries, and hard work.
Offering flexibility in a fair way can help recruit and retain veterinary staff in these times. Sometimes this is something as simple as wellness days, shift trades, or making it easy to ask to come in late so staff can go to a Dentist appointment on short notice. Making it easy and fair for staff to integrate the other parts of their lives (family, personal needs, community) will go a long way.
Setting boundaries is hard, takes practice, and is undervalued in our profession. Be careful not to mistake boundary setting by veterinary staff as ‘lazy’ or ‘selfish’. Boundary setting for all aspects of our lives is important to work-life integration. Healthy boundaries can apply to caseload, protecting certain times to recharge (e.g. lunch breaks to leave the clinic), family members, and extend to the community (e.g. after-hours).
In my opinion, boundaries are one of the most important tools to achieve this so-called work-life integration goal we strive for. Dr. Marie Holowaychuk has a great one-month program called, Building Better Boundaries, that veterinary staff can enroll in to help develop this skill. Helping employees pay for such programs through work budgets is a good example of an intangible benefit that Millennials will be attracted to.
If you are a practice owner or employer, you are also allowed to have boundaries. It is a two-way street in my practice. Recently, one of my superstar RVTs approached me and requested a new schedule that would have been difficult to implement due to a variety of factors. Instead of simply saying ‘too bad’, we sat down to explore the reasons behind the request, which were rooted in better integrating family and personal time. With a collaborative approach, we found a fair solution that respected both of our needs, set a timeline, and stuck to it. That RVT is now thriving with the modified schedule and able to better handle the pandemic chaos that is veterinary medicine.
Collaborative Team Environments
There are many studies on Millennial workforce trends, but a collaborative team is consistently a factor mentioned. Data provided by PGI even shows 71% of Millennials want their co-workers to be a second family. We all like to think that our practices have a great team that work well together, but this point will take a lot of introspection on workplace culture, leadership styles, personalities, and honest feedback.
Personality profiles can be a useful tool to help achieve that desired culture. Non-veterinary and veterinary companies have been sharing personality profiles (with consent of course) amongst team members to help improve communication and understanding within teams. There have also been several studies extending back more than a decade evaluating personality types in veterinary schools. This kind of data, combined with team member personality profiles, can help surgically improve team dynamics.
Avoiding toxic environments, especially with teams pushed to the brink recently, is more important than ever. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of veterinary team members avoid conflict, which often allows for that toxic environment to germinate and thrive. Addressing toxic behaviours quickly is important to retaining veterinary staff, especially Millennials.
An efficient and comprehensive veterinary practice software is an important part of modern veterinary practices, and many Millennial candidates will shy away from practices that still rely on written records. If you want to stand out from the pack, set it up so it can be accessed remotely to give that flexibility to staff to help with the work-life integration piece as well. I have colleagues that do not want to work at home and some that prefer to finish files at home. Personally, with young children, the flexibility to write files from home after the children are fed and in bed is great to have.
We are part of a generation that grew up with screens and technology. I personally gravitate towards advancement in technology, especially ones that make our everyday lives better. Advancement in communications technology has allowed us to launch Animal HealthLink TeleTriage and has enabled our RVTs to reliably work from home.
Advancing technology and communication methods in veterinary practice are important tools to effectively boost client retention through changing communication preferences. Examples would be asynchronous text messaging and telemedicine consultations. The group that is driving this demand on the client side are also Millennials. So, let's reframe the ‘they are always on their phone’ mentality to leaning on your Millennial and Gen Z staff to help advance technological change in your practice and improve social media presence.
Millennials also overtook Baby Boomers and Gen X as the largest pet-owning generation several years ago in North America. There are similarities between generations with how pets are viewed in the family, but they differ with spending behaviours and communication preferences. I would also argue that they have higher expectations with medical standards and their relationship with the veterinary practice.
As much as new graduate Millennial veterinarians and RVTs crave mentorship, it is important to allow each one to develop their own style of practice. This may give us insight and help bond Millennials clients, who are not afraid to switch veterinary practices with suboptimal experiences according to this survey.
Mentoring students and new graduates effectively takes time, energy, and a commitment to the process. Mentoring veterinarians and RVTs is also a team activity that requires your entire practice to be involved and committed. But this investment in time is probably one of the, if not the, most important factor in attracting and retaining new graduates. I was contacted multiple times in the last few years from previous students that are looking for advice and/or a change due to a lack of mentorship only several months into starting their career. This is honestly heart-breaking to see in our profession, but also completely understandable with how overwhelmed our entire industry has been.
Mentorship also comes in many forms, from casual conversations or an empathetic ear to formal feedback sessions. Several corporate groups in the US have successfully implemented formal mentorship programs to help transition new graduates from their student life to clinical work. Not only does this help set up the new generation of veterinarians for clinical practice, but it is also an effective recruitment tool. Personally, I did a small animal rotating internship out of vet school; structured mentorship was one of the main reasons I did it, and it played a factor in how I ranked practices in the match.
Millennials crave feedback and advice. According to the Harvard Business Review, Millennials emphasize the opportunity to learn and grow, which coincides with an increased interest in post-graduate training programs (internships). New graduates have a lot to learn from other Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers. I have had many strong mentors in my career so far and continue to learn from them.
With the growing demand and no short-term relief in sight for veterinary staff shortages, practices must set themselves apart from others to attract staff. Yes, times and veterinary staff have changed, but we need to reframe this for the sake of our profession. On the practice level, downtime without RVTs or DVMs will cost the practice and add further stress to other team members. On the industry level, we have the opportunity to come out ahead in the long term with a more sustainable and resilient future.
Dr. Sean Neate, DVM, BComm Chief Veterinary Officer and Co-Founder Sean grew up in Alberta and originally obtained a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Alberta, but switched careers and graduated from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary. After graduation, Sean completed a rotating small animal internship at a referral institution in Calgary. After spending several years in referral and emergency medicine, he moved to family practice. Sean is currently a practicing partner in a group of veterinary hospitals in Calgary. Sean enjoys a mixture of clinical cases and leading teams in their growing practices.