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Life first, work second

For today’s young veterinary professionals, an excellent quality of life is a must-have. Practice owners need to embrace a new employment model if they want to hire and keep the best and brightest.

Life first, work second
Work-life balance means different things to different people. While some of us might wish to work three days a week and spend more time with family, others might choose to work more days in service to their student debt.

The game has changed in the world of veterinary employment, and to succeed in today’s market, practices need to play by new rules. Job applicants are looking for different things from an employer than in years past. For that reason, practices planning to hire and retain great new talent must understand two basic principles:

There are a lot more openings than applicants.

Applicants can hold out for exactly what they want in an employer.

Before we examine what applicants want, let’s cruise up to 30,000 feet and survey the landscape. Here’s what you’ll see:

  • There’s never been a better time to be a veterinary professional. Pet lifespans are up, euthanasia is down, pet spending is up, and we’re on the cusp of a technological revolution in how we can better connect pets, their owners and veterinary teams.
  • The profession is exploding. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 19 percent job growth for veterinarians from 2016 to 2026 and 20 percent for veterinary nurses. Wow!
  • Perhaps best of all, we continue to attract the best and brightest. Veterinary school applicant numbers continue to grow. New graduates — veterinarians and nurses — are just as prepared, or more so, than when I came out of school sometime last century.

These millennial graduates are idealistic, hard-working multitaskers. They work well in teams, they’re tech savvy and they’re open to change. They, however, have a completely different view of their lives and careers than my baby-boomer generation. Baby boomers like me put our careers first and worked to fit our lives around our jobs.

Today’s graduates, wisely, have a life first and a career second.

Job Prerequisites

So, what is it they want from today’s employer? Just flex schedules, four-day work weeks, generous vacation time, good benefits, well-equipped practices, AAHA-quality medical standards, mentorships, regular feedback, employee assistance programs, professional development allowances, a tech-enabled workplace, empowerment, meaning, and a healthy and fun culture in which to work. That’s all.

Can all this be provided? It’s not an unreasonable ask. We all want that kind of workplace. To attract and retain today’s new and recent graduates, it’s what employers must deliver. Graduates can, and are, holding out for exactly what they want. If you, the employer, don’t offer it, someone else will.

Life first, work second isn’t limited to the veterinary profession. It’s true throughout the economy. I kind of like it.

Bill Gates is quoted as saying: “The competition to hire the best will increase in the years ahead. Companies that give extra flexibility to their employees will have the edge.”

That Was Then, This Is Now

My WellHaven Pet Health practice has embraced what we call a “white coat off” philosophy. The important parts of life come when the white coat is off. Again, life first, work second. Today’s employers need to remember the correct order. Without vets and vet nurses, we can’t take care of pets.

I run into colleagues who insist that today’s new doctors must conform to how many of us were hired years ago. In the “old days,” new graduates received little coaching or mentoring, worked five- and six-day weeks, were required to take on-call duty, received little or no benefits, endured sometimes less than ideal workplace cultures, dealt with understaffed hospitals, and enjoyed maybe one week of vacation a year.

That was then, this is now. No one wants to hear the story, again, about our first day on the job when the boss went to Hawaii, leaving us all alone to figure it out. Get over it. Today’s hires don’t have to take that job and they won’t. They have multiple job offers and the freedom to pick where they want to work.

For practices struggling to hire associate veterinarians, I have a couple of questions. First, are you providing what today’s veterinary professionals are looking for? Second, do you have a hiring problem or a do you have a retention problem? Frequently, the answer is retention, not hiring. If that’s the case, do you offer flex schedules, generous vacation time, a healthy culture, and the opportunity to learn and grow? If you don’t, your employees will find it elsewhere.

A quick aside. Work-life balance means different things to different people. While some of us might wish to work three days a week and spend more time with family, others might choose to work more days in service to their student debt. The white coat on and off philosophy starts with listening. It starts with open conversations with new and prospective hires to identify what a balanced life means to them.

Remember why we take jobs: culture, autonomy, an opportunity to make a difference and give back, and money. Money usually ranks somewhere down the list; it’s rarely first or second. Some of the big players in our profession might impress applicants with enormous sign-on bonuses, but they can’t compete with a fun workplace, friends at work, autonomy, a good boss, a sincere desire to partner in coaching and mentoring, work-life satisfaction, and the joy of working in a stable, happy, dedicated team environment.

The Retention Equation

The challenge for employers today is to find and retain great doctors and nurses. In the human resources world, hiring is just one step. When it comes to new veterinarians, the hiring life cycle might start with a campus job fair or school partnership. At selection time, open-ended behavior-based interviewing focused on known success competencies are essential. Once hired, the team members should be oriented using a comprehensive onboarding program. As they settle in, multiple professional development opportunities should be provided.

If you do all this well, then you’ll see retention. Leave a piece out and you won’t.

If you think you are interviewing candidates to find an applicant good enough for your open position, whoa, back up. Today’s applicants are interviewing you to see if your job is good enough for them. They likely have three or more jobs to choose from. Remember principle No. 1: In today’s economy, there are more jobs to fill than applicants to fill them.

New and recent graduates are a great source of talent. Newer veterinary schools like Calgary, Lincoln Memorial and Western University, along with some legacy schools, are partnering with quality, progressive practices in educating clinical-year students in a community-based affiliate relationship. A number of technician/nurse schools have similar programs.

Practices using these partnerships collaborate in educating students in a busy, quality, real-world setting. It’s a sort of internship without the extra year and expense (and compounded student debt). Participating practice owners gain the satisfaction of helping to shape future colleagues and land a potential new hire upon graduation. The school gains a cost-effective, high-caseload, quality, real-world learning environment.

Think about it. What is a better way to prepare new graduates for practice than having them learn in a real-world practice situation? The students build confidence and competence, receive mentorship and coaching, and perhaps land a job. Win, win, win.

Partners for the Future

As employers of new and recent graduates, we know well the competencies that best correlate with success outside the ivy-covered halls of academia. They are not class rank, GRE score or GPA. We look for skills like communication, collaboration, grit, leadership and basic financial acumen. These competencies are stressed and included as part of the core curriculum in new-model schools.

As a clinical affiliate partner with Lincoln Memorial University, WellHaven Pet Health is able to reinforce the modeling and teaching of these skills, and we are able to identify students who already demonstrate entry-level competence.

WellHaven practices have hosted a number of remarkable fourth-year veterinary students, and we work hard to hire them at graduation. We look forward to offering them the chance to contribute to our great profession and put their life first. Life first, career second. White coat off before white coat on.

Additionally, we’ve had the opportunity to serve on veterinary school admissions committees and advisory boards, and participate in on-campus teaching and speaking events. The partnership opportunity between new educational models and new employer models is enormous. Everyone wins.

Dr. Victor Trask, past CEO of Mayo Clinic Arizona, when speaking about training medical students, said: “By hiring our own trainees [MDs], we can pick the best of the best. And they’ve seen us, and they’re going to stay because they want to stay.”

Why do they choose to stay? Because they’ve worked there as a student, they know the culture, they know the expectations and they want to be part of the team.

A new kind of educational model is needed to best prepare graduates for today’s rapidly changing workplace. A new kind of employer can win in today’s game of hiring. While the applicant pool might not be as large as employers would like, the quality of applicant has never been better.

There’s never been a better time to be a veterinary professional.

Dr. Bob Lester is chief medical officer of WellHaven Pet Health and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the North American Veterinary Community board of directors.

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