Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is co-owner of Waltz Animal Clinic in Madison, Indiana, and a former Charleston, South Carolina, practice manager. She has spent nearly her entire life in the industry, earning her keep in her parents’ clinic before advancing into the world of veterinary management. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and is a certified veterinary practice manager.Read Articles Written by Abby Suiter
As I write this, Indeed.com shows over 40 active job postings for veterinary receptionists, technicians and assistants in greater Charleston, South Carolina. All the employers essentially are looking for the same applicant.
Frustration with short staffing and turnover can be felt at times in any practice, even those with better-than-average employee satisfaction rates. The reality is that we should expect new hires to stay with our hospitals for three to five years (4.2 years if we match national averages across all industries). If you predominantly hire people under age 35, expect the tenure to be even shorter. Millennials job-hop frequently — baby boomers did the same in their 20s and 30s — as they settle into their career paths and adult lifestyles.
So while on the one hand it is important to identify, address and minimize the reason for any turnover you experience in your practice, it is equally important to expect and plan for a certain level of hiring each year. Perfecting this process is a work in progress for me, but through trial and error I have developed some successful strategies.
A common notation on nearly all 40 job posts was “veterinary experience preferred.” It’s understandable. Working in an animal hospital seems enticing to typical pet lovers until they discover that the job is as much about customer service as patient care. They also find that the hours are long, the work can be emotionally and physically draining, and the pay is not reflective of the required effort. Too frequently they quit during the first year.
We all look for the ideal candidate who understands what it takes to work in our profession and remain passionate about the job. With a limited pool of desirable, experienced applicants, how do we weed through the wannabes to find true potential?
I have found that Indeed.com produces the highest volume of applicants for our open support-staff positions. I routinely cross-post openings on Facebook and occasionally advertise higher-level positions on industry job boards, but Indeed is my go-to resource.
In 2016, I posted three variations of a couple of job openings and received nearly 600 applications. The vast majority of applicants did not have any veterinary experience. I was willing to take a chance on a newbie, however, and I desperately needed a way to efficiently sort through the cashiers and servers to find the right person. I created a Survey Monkey questionnaire that I could send with one click to any candidate for whom I had at least a mild interest. The email congratulated the applicant on being selected for an initial round of interviews. It included a link to the questionnaire, a completion deadline and the date I would respond if the person was chosen for the next interview round.
The survey covered topics like availability, pay requirements, the reason for leaving a current job and three behavioral questions. A shockingly large portion of applicants never completed the questionnaire, and I was grateful to have a way to identify them early and with little effort.
Other applicants indicated that they could not:
- Arrive at the time we opened.
- Stay until we closed.
- Work Saturdays.
- Afford to live on the hourly rate we had in mind.
Unless I found a strong reason to get creative and consider them, they were set aside. My favorite part of the survey was the open-ended questions about their current job and behavior.
To be fair to anyone not formally schooled on how to interview for a job, I provided a link to a blog outlining how to fully and concisely answer behavioral questions. The number of people who followed the recommended STAR response method was next to none. Others gave fairly comprehensive answers but revealed concerning negative information about themselves. By and large, applicants typed vague one-sentence replies with little regard for the English language.
My applicant pool quickly went from 600 to a chosen few for whom I could begin the process of phone, formal and working interviews.
Staff for Shortages
We operate most tranquilly when a good portion of our team prefers to — and can afford to — work at three-quarters time but is willing to pick up shifts as needed. This gives me the ability to approve and cover time off easily and does not send the team into a panic when someone hands in their notice. Many people have room in their schedule to pick up a half or whole day throughout the week without putting them into overtime and consuming all their energy. This allows teammates to vacation or tend to personal needs at will, and it buys me valuable time when searching for a needed new hire.
This staffing model is more relaxed but also more expensive. Four employees working 30 hours a week and earning full-time benefits are needed to cover for three employees working 40 hours and earning the same benefits. I argue, however, that the expense is outweighed by the cost of overworking the team or being frequently understaffed, which can result in undesirable consequences such as decreased client service, increased risk of patient care mistakes, reduced team morale, and employee burnout and turnover.
All factors being equal, I seek candidates who fit and appreciate this scheduling model.
Build a Reputation
Our most dedicated new hires often are those we acquire from outside a public job posting. Student externs, acquaintances of current employees, clients and local veterinary professionals looking for a change are some of our best recruits. In some ways, crossing paths with these people has been about good luck and timing, but more often it’s about outreach and our hospital’s reputation.
Making a conscious effort to build an employee-centric work environment, welcoming the opportunity to educate students, and sharing our experiences with friends and colleagues has made our hospital a desirable place to work. Our reputation has been a slow build but has paid off with a recent wave of unsolicited applications from experienced, qualified, local technicians and receptionists. Even when we are fully staffed and a great application crosses my desk, I will at least offer an interview to entertain a possible job offer.
Through a mass applicant filtering process, flexible scheduling and reputation management, hiring has moved from a dreaded task to one I can take in stride along with the other routine issues thrown my way in a given week. Such is the life of a veterinary practice manager.