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There is a huge untapped resource that could be the solution to the shortage of veterinary professionals in Australia. By Kerryn Ramsey
There is an acute shortage of veterinarians and nurses right across Australia. The Australian Veterinary Association’s Workforce Survey Analysis Report 2021 found that in NSW, more than 40 per cent of veterinary job vacancies took more than 12 months to fill. The problem is so severe, the NSW Government established an inquiry into the veterinary workforce shortage in 2023.
While the core issues are varied, one vet, Dr Jocelyn Birch-Baker, has an immediate solution. She talks at expos and conferences, and on podcasts and webinars about this very subject and was invited to speak at the VetForum in Singapore in October this year. In 2022, she won the Veterinary Business Group Veterinary Business Thought Leader award.
“It’s important to look at the data,” says Dr Birch-Baker, who owns and runs High Street Vet Surgery in the central Queensland city of Rockhampton. “More women are becoming vets and are still expected to look after the children and household. Daycare is often unavailable, particularly in rural and regional areas, and on weekends and evenings, so working full-time is simply impossible.”
Dr Birch-Baker believes that making practices more mother-friendly would go a long way in solving employment shortages.
Being a woman in the veterinary space often means having a very different career plan to a man. The common expectation of a vet is to be available 24/7, including weekends.
“When I started out, I couldn’t work those crazy hours,” says Dr Birch-Baker. “I was the sole carer of two children. I had to negotiate my career plan with my employer. When I became an employer, I reflected on that and created individual plans with my staff. They work the days and hours that suit them. When they’re here, they’re full on, involved and very dedicated to our clinic.”
Dr Birch-Baker also sent out surveys that revealed 100 per cent of mum vets cannot work full-time. Despite this, the vast majority of employment ads are for full-time positions.
“We have to be realistic,” she says. “Women do the child rearing and society does not make allowances for men to take that over. We need to set up different systems, values and cultures so women vets can come back into practice. You don’t need to work 38 hours a week to be a good vet.”
Smooth Operating Vets
To help solve this problem, Dr Birch-Baker launched Smooth Operating Vets, a program to help practices become mother-friendly. The program follows the same precepts that Dr Birch-Baker uses successfully in her own practice.
“All it takes is collaboration, flexibility and understanding,” she says. “We utilise a shared rostering system and all staff are prepared to back each other up. One of our vets has five grown children. Another vet has a three-year-old. If the three-year-old gets sick, the vet with older children will kick in a shift. One of our nurses is about to have a baby. Soon she won’t be able to work full-time but after the baby is born, she will have the capacity to fill in and help out.”
For this system to work, all staff have to be onboard and embrace the process. Staff may work 20 hours one week and 30 hours the next. If they need to take a week or two off, that can be organised too. Of course, the system also works successfully with men who choose to share the child rearing.
“We’ve been operating in this fashion for six years,” says Dr Birch-Baker. “Our clinic is profitable and thriving. Occasionally, we’ve had a rostering hole we couldn’t fill. In those situations, we’re willing to manage the clinic and push the non-urgent, routine consultations forward to when we have a full team again.”
One vet who has benefitted from the mother-friendly practices at High Street Vet Surgery (HSVS) is Dr Kirsty Downing. After a few years working in rural and regional areas of Australia, she settled in Rockhampton, working 38 hours a week at HSVS.
“When I fell pregnant, Jocelyn was great,” says Dr Downing. “She told me to take off as much time as I needed, 12 months or two years or whatever. At around four months, I wanted to start doing a bit of work again. I came in one day a week from 7.30am until 2pm. I had pumping breaks and my bub would come in for a lunchtime feed. It was a really nice transition. I’ve just slowly added more shifts over the past three years of my little boy’s life.”
Dr Downing is clear about what would have happened if she had not been offered this flexibility. “I definitely wouldn’t have gone back to work as early as I did. If full-time was my only option, I wouldn’t be back at work now.”
It seems almost unbelievable that there’s a severe vet shortage while there are mum vets desperate for a job. They’re a huge untapped resource going to waste. While it takes planning and putting a few systems in place, running a clinic with flexible staff hours and days is relatively easy. And Smooth Operating Vets can show you how.
“It requires a mindset and cultural change,” says Dr Birch-Baker. “One of my vets told me when she walked out of another clinic at three o’clock, someone said, ‘Oh, I see you’re working the princess hours.’ That’s not the attitude. She’s only being paid until three o’clock. Of course, she’s going to leave then. This type of unreasonable resentment needs to be eliminated.”
The biggest advantage of a clinic adopting mum-friendly options is that they will be employing dedicated vets who love their job. Communication between vets, nurses and staff will increase. Ultimately, a mum-friendly clinic is a happier and mentally healthy workplace.
“My ideal is for vets to bring their best self to do their best work at their best time,” says Dr Birch-Baker. “You’re a vet but you have a life, a family, a sport, a hobby, an injury—whatever! Let’s respect that.”