The last few years have tremendously altered our lives. A pandemic not seen in our lifetimes, an ongoing war in Ukraine, and social and political shifts in the United States and elsewhere have impacted everything from where we live to how we shop. And the “Great Resignation,” which saw some 47 million workers quit their jobs last year, has put enormous pressure on finding and retaining local talent. That isn’t any less true when it comes to Americans, their animals, and those who take care of them. According to one article, thirty-two percent of pet owners added a new pet to their household during the pandemic. This led to a surge in demand for veterinary care services during 2020 and 2021. However, the pandemic also greatly reduced the number of workers willing to do in-person jobs, putting pressure on veterinary practices to have enough staff to meet the needs of local pet owners. (The situation was no easier for large animal practices, which have always struggled to attract talent.)
There is no one size-fits-all to how veterinarians should find qualified talent in this new, still-evolving economy. However, understanding your practice needs, the shifts in the market, and what potential employees value most, can help you make informed decisions.
Four ways veterinary practices can attract and keep employees in the new normal.
Increase signing bonuses . . . but structure them for retention. Historically, signing bonuses have averaged roughly ten percent of an associate veterinarian’s salary. However, like anyone in scarce supply, the cost of finding and retaining these employees has increased. Signing bonuses now are closer to fifty percent of the starting salary. That might seem difficult to swallow, but keep in mind that you can use a larger signing bonus to help retain, and not just attract, a new hire.
In the past, signing bonuses were paid within thirty days of the start date. This was risky, because if the employee changed their mind and left soon thereafter, they had already pocketed the bonus. That is painful at ten percent, but downright excruciating when it’s half a year’s salary. Instead, you can balance this risk by paying all or a portion of the bonus over three to six months after the start date for smaller bonuses or recent graduates. Others report payouts over a period as long as thirty-six months for larger bonuses ($50,000 and up) and those awarded to experienced or specialist veterinarians.
Keep close to your current employees. Don’t take for granted your existing team, either. No news isn’t necessarily good news – just because an employee shows up for work and doesn’t complain, doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping an eye out for other opportunities. In some cases, this might mean increasing salaries: inflation has hit everywhere in the country, and those with practices in expensive markets should be particularly careful not to lose their team to locations that offer a lower cost of living. But don’t underestimate the power of non-financial benefits as well. Even before the pandemic, many younger workers prioritized other employment benefits such as pro bono opportunities (for example, providing free services to an animal shelter or low-income pet owners), flexible hours, or even unpaid time to pursue other interests or travel.
Include non-competes in employment agreements. The only thing more painful than losing a good employee is watching them take clients or other employees with them. The best way to deter this is with non-compete and non-solicitation clauses in employment agreements. Get legal advice for specific language as the enforceability of such clauses varies by state. However, they are strongly recommended because just including them can discourage “poaching.” And if you have any short- to medium-term interest in selling your practice to a corporate buyer, you should know that such clauses will add confidence about the stability (and value) of your business. Add these to new hire agreements, and if you are raising salaries or offering retention bonuses to current employees, execute a new agreement with these clauses included.
Consider telehealth. The pandemic ushered in a surge in online shopping, virtual meetings, and work from home arrangements. We have also seen a huge increase in telehealth, including veterinary telehealth, which is expected to grow to more than $500 million in the U.S. alone by 2030. This could open up new opportunities for veterinary practices who are trying to attract talent. For large animal practices (livestock accounted for more than 27% of veterinary telehealth revenue in 2021), this could be a way of attracting new employees who do not wish to relocate to areas that provide this care. And for practices located in higher cost-of-living markets you may be able to employ remote workers and access a larger pool of talent (and possibly at a lower rate of compensation than what your own location demands). Do make sure you get business and legal advice whether you add your own direct telehealth services or through an existing provider: both options have pros and cons and could incur additional obligations.
Our new normal comes with challenges — but also opportunities.
The shifts in the market generally, the ways that people want to work, and how veterinarians deal with their clients (both furry and human) have all changed from even just a few years ago. That doesn’t have to be a negative event for you or your team. What is key to success is understanding what has happened, why it changed, and how it impacts your business needs. No matter the stage and age of your practice, there is a path forward to being the type of veterinarian – and employer – that you want to be.