Whether staging collaborative recruitment days, offering generous salary packages or agreeing to sponsor clinicians from abroad, Australian veterinary practices are trying everything to address the vet shortage. Tracey Porter reports
You don’t have to travel far to feel the tremendous impact the well-publicised vet shortage is having on animal health professionals around Australia.
It’s there in the eyes of overworked clinicians and support staff bravely attempting to service their community, having not worked less than a minimum 14-hour day for the past few years. It’s also there in the real estate signs that litter the community practice landscape, the very same towns and villages which once housed thriving clinics able to have their pick of quality candidates.
While it is difficult to put this into perspective, one specialist employment site—selected at random—has nearly 200 vacancies for fulltime veterinarians on its books. In addition, it has nearly 30 emergency and critical care vacancies, 20 specialist veterinarian positions and 14 equine vacancies waiting to be filled.
Adam Gould of veterinary recruitment firm Seven Animal Health says even from a candidate perspective the shortage is creating a “vicious cycle”. This is particularly true of the professionals who are remaining in clinical practice, he says.
Gould, whose firm launched in Australia roughly two years ago, says this is because they are being “overworked and not getting enough time off directly” due to the lack of staff, which makes it difficult to look for a new role, interview and visit clinics.
“Since inception of our Australian branch, the national vet shortage has always been a challenge. It is a minefield when it comes to applying for jobs directly; there are many positions to research and the shortage has caused desperation in some practices.
“Sadly, I hear of many veterinarians being misled with the jobs they are applying for as the practices need them. For various reasons, they may not be suitable for the role, nor the clinic suitable to them, but they are being seen as a short-term solution to fill a gap. It’s not sustainable,” Gould says.
The Animal Referral and Emergency Centre (AREC) in the Hunter Valley doesn’t care to be thought of as a victim, but marketing manager Louise Carey admits the shortage has taken its toll on all GP, specialist and emergency clinics in the region.
Noticing the absence of fulltime vet staff and locums getting significantly more pronounced 36 months ago, and having already exhausted the normal recruitment channels, she decided to put her marketing skills into action and wrestle back control.
Utilising the great relationships AREC already enjoys with many of the equine, mixed practice, emergency, multi-location, independent, exotics and shelter clinics across Maitland, Hunter and Newcastle, Carey invited them to work collaboratively to stage a recruitment day to show off all the great attributes in their region.
“We didn’t want to be poaching from our regional vet clinics,” Carey explains. “It wasn’t a fair way of operating as we’re all here to support each other. But as a candidate looking for employment, you also want to have control in your choices, you want to be able to meet lots of different practices and work out what works for you as an individual and your existing or potential partner or family.”
An assortment of candidates attended where, as well as being given the opportunity to network informally with staff from a variety of practices, attendees were also invited to conduct tours of different practices in the area. All were taken to lunch at some of the region’s famed beaches and wineries to get a glimpse of what quality of life they could enjoy if they chose to move to the region.
The initiative proved a great success, Carey says. “We recruited a couple of vets who had been living out of our region and were looking for a change—one of whom was thinking about leaving the profession altogether.”
Gould, who says he has seen more veterinarians looking to make the move to non-clinical positions or to leave the clinical industry altogether over the past two years due to stress, burnout and being underpaid, says in recent times he has seen practices create recruitment videos and other various recruitment events to attract talent.
However, by far the most effective strategy he has seen vet practices adopt to overcome the shortage of vets is to become a nominated sponsor.
Gould says by opening the opportunity to employ overseas veterinary candidates, clinics have access to a much wider candidate pool.
“We find it helps to cast a wide net and are constantly headhunting from overseas. With harder to fill positions, we have in some cases had to request more attractive salary packages to get the right candidate across the line. It certainly always helps if our clients are in a position to offer additional benefits to make a package more attractive, with anything from CPD allowances, mentoring programs and company vehicles to flexible hours and additional annual leave,” he says.
Like Carey, Gould says it also aids the recruitment and retention process if a clinic has positive relationships with current staff.
A clinic who prioritises their team’s health and wellbeing, monitors emotional and mental fatigue and provides support for mental health challenges will be held in high regard as well, he says.
“Clinics that have a focus on having a healthy work-life balance will be easier to recruit for.”
Yolanda Gerges, the director of private practice coaching consultancy The Peak Performance Practice, says she is not averse to incentivising staff through benefits such as additional annual leave or an above-the-odds salary package in tough times such as these. However, she also cautions those who do to be wary of the type of candidate they may attract.
A staff member who is drawn to this type of incentive may not be truly invested in their work or where they practise. It may also mean they are not motivated to stay in their position, she says.
Gerges says clinics should instead take a moment to reflect on what their essential and desirable criteria is before embarking on recruitment and then ask themselves where they might find candidates that have the required skills, capability and fit for their practice.
“It’s better to find candidates that are more intrinsically motivated to work in your practice, your environment and the veterinary industry than attracting candidates who are attracted by the perks. It’s also better to use these perks when you are at the salary negotiation phase and after you have tested that you have the right candidate in front of you.
“Good recruitment is actually testing that the candidate has the capability and willingness and thus fit to work in your practice, given the opportunity.”