How to get and keep the associates you want.
Today the competition for associate veterinarians is at an all-time high: there is one veterinarian for every nineteen openings; new veterinarians leave school with a debt of between $200,000 to $400,000; schools can’t keep pace with the demand for new veterinarians; associates want more money while working fewer hours; large corporate hospital systems pay hiring bonuses of up to $200,000; and practices have more clients demanding more services.
On top of that, a study conducted at the Cornell Center for Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship in February 2022 found that more than 50% of veterinarians and certified techs suffer from burnout due primarily to persistent long working hours, animal deaths, unexpected patient outcomes, and client complaints—a phenomenon that was exacerbated by, but present before, COVID.
Amid this perfect storm, the question is: how do you attract and retain the right associates for your practice?
Many of us think that money is the most significant factor, and it is undoubtedly important. Yet, regardless of the compensation model we use, it takes more than money to be an employer of choice. Associates are also looking for options to meet their individual needs, positive and collaborative cultures, and “work-life balance.”
Each of our practices are unique in size, budget, resources, markets, and priorities, so there are no “one size fits all” solutions. Putting together the total package to fit your circumstances takes thought, creativity, and a willingness to understand and address the needs of your associates and staff.
This is a two-part series, with this post focusing on meeting the needs of your associates and work-life balance and the next on building a positive culture.
Meeting the individual needs of associates. Does treating people fairly equate to treating them the same? It doesn’t. Individuals have different needs based on their stage of life, personal circumstances, and values.
Andrea Crabtree, BS, CVPM, SPHR, PHRca, CCFP, FFCP, owner of FurPaws Consulting in Southern California, says, “the most important thing practice owners and managers can do is ask candidates and associates, what will meet your needs? For many practices, this is a real change in how they approach associates, and change isn’t easy. It can feel like opening a pandora’s box.” However, understanding your associates’ needs opens the door to new possibilities that can also work for your operations.
Like Crabtree, Jessica Molina, PHR, CVPM, CCF, Veterinary Operations Advisor, and VHMA Board Member, encourages hospital leaders to take a “collaborative approach to negotiations, be open to what candidates want, and be willing to try things you haven’t done before.”
And it’s OK to do something on a trial basis—even if it’s for two months. Says Crabtree, “be clear that it’s a trial, and even if it doesn’t work out, the associate knows that you are willing to work with them to meet their needs.”
What’s new and different? According to Crabtree and Molina, practices have taken a variety of innovative approaches to meet the needs of associates and staff, such as providing compensation options, flex, and tailored schedules, benefit choices, paid time off options, mentoring, discounted or free pet care, student loan repayment contributions, concierge services, employee assistance programs, wellness programs like yoga and mindfulness, and staff gatherings with food and fun activities.
This is what some of your peers are doing.
Stipends, education, and well-being: Jim Nash, COO, and Managing Partner of a multi-location and multi-service private veterinary group, AscendVets, in Lakeland, Florida, asks candidates in job interviews and contract negotiations, “what’s most important to you in your work life?” And he continues to ask them this throughout their careers with him.
Nash found that this conversation surfaces associates’ needs and priorities that aren’t typically part of the conversation—education, flexibility, personal goals—and can be addressed with creative solutions, some of which have no or only minimal additional expense.
For example, like many practices, he paid a stipend for certain benefits—continuing education, licensure, membership dues, conferences, and malpractice insurance—as separate items. Now he gives each associate a lump sum that they can apply to the specific benefits that are important to them, recognizing that associates have different priorities at different times.
Nash also provides online and in-person learning opportunities for personal and professional development and wellness (e.g., yoga, meditation, nutrition, exercise) and creates time for his associates and staff to be together to relax and get to know each other during and after work hours.
Grace Ursery, CVPM, RVT, is the Director of Operations at Bishop Veterinary Hospital, a four-hospital system, headquartered in rural Northern California that is a mixed practice serving large and small animals and equine. Her philosophy is to understand her associates’ individual professional goals and support them in achieving those goals by such things as tailoring tuition assistance specific to their goals and allowing the use of practice resources for their clinical work exploring various medical modalities. In the long run, she sees this as a retention strategy and believes that the associates’ new specialties and credentials bring the potential to expand the services the practice can offer.
In addition, some practices give associates choices about how much vacation time they receive in exchange for a salary adjustment. If, at a particular time, an associate values vacation time more than its value in pay or vice versa, they can choose what’s right for them.
Compensation options: Crabtree is seeing some practices shift back from ProSal to straight salary because associates, particularly newer ones, want a salary’s stability and avoid the uncertainty of how much they’ll produce. No matter what compensation model a practice uses, there are possibilities you may not have considered.
Kim Jacobs, CVPM, CCFP, Practice Manager of the Texas-based Corinth Veterinary Clinic and VHMA Board Member, has three associates who prefer a straight salary, and this model works well financially for her clinic. Periodically, however, she checks in with them to confirm that this remains their preference. If they want some portion of compensation to be production-based, Jacobs is willing to make an adjustment. And when she hires a new associate, she is willing to offer a production-based component of their compensation.
Consultant Andrea Crabtree is encouraging practices to offer merit bonuses, a form of profit sharing, to their teams, giving everyone a stake in the practice’s financial success. These are typically based on the practice’s achievement of specific revenue growth goals. In contrast to production-based payments, which incentivize individual achievement, these bonuses are meant to incentivize team efforts. If the practice hits its goals, everyone wins.
A twist on this approach is to give associates merit bonuses in exchange for pursuing goals related to the practice’s performance and their own professional development, such as creating educational tools for team members, clients, or the community, engaging in business development, and obtaining professional education. For example, says Crabtree, “I’ve seen doctors undertake such things as helping practice owners with doctor scheduling, implementing practice technology, and creating new profit centers such as acupuncture after completing CE programs paid for by the practice.
“It’s worked fantastically. It tends to get better team-wide buy-in while improving the practice’s bottom line and operations.”
Jim Nash uses ProSal in his hospitals and offers merit bonuses to his staff, and it’s been a positive for the practice and his staff.
Offering Flexible Work Hours and Schedules: Whether we like it or not, a younger generation of associates and staff are seeking jobs with “work-life balance.” This can range from working fewer hours for full-time pay to getting weekend or evening hours off to have more say in their scheduled hours.
Today, 62% of veterinarians and 80% of veterinary medical students are women. Research shows that women value flex time more than men and are more likely to request it since they still tend to take on more family responsibilities, e.g., childcare, aging parent care, and daily household chores. As a result, says Crabtree, “women want to have the option of blocking time on their schedules for their kids’ activities, appointments, and school events. While it can be inconvenient operationally, practices should weigh this against the benefits of having a happy associate who chooses to stay with the practice.”
Jacobs says that her practice’s highest priority is putting family first. This has required her to think creatively about solutions that meet the needs of her staff, clients, and operations. For example, one of her part-time associates wanted to cut back on her hours to be at home with her children after school. Jacobs offered to let her work from 7 am-3 pm, even though she had never booked early morning appointments. It worked so well for the associate that she could work more days, and her clients were thrilled with having more scheduling options.
We, like most employers, are being called on to think differently about how and when work gets done and to find ways to get and keep the best employees for our practices. As such, we must adapt how we do business—including ways once considered impractical or out of the question—to become more “employee-centric.” After all, says Crabtree, “your people are the ones who build the business and make it successful.”
In part II, we’ll discuss workplace culture’s importance and how to make it positive, collaborative, and productive.