Sarah Rumple is an award-winning veterinary writer living in Denver, Colorado, and the owner of Rumpus Writing and Editing. She has been a veterinary writer and editor since 2011, when she was hired as a copywriter for the American Animal Hospital Association. Learn more at rumpuswriting.com
In 2019, Meagan Parks, RVT, found herself sobbing on the phone while speaking with her mentor, the director of a veterinary technology program. Parks was asking for advice, even though she knew what she had to do. By then, she had worked in the veterinary field for more than 12 years. She started as a veterinary assistant in 2007, went back to school to earn her credential and, by 2019, was married to a teacher and living near Kansas City. She wanted to continue working in veterinary medicine but couldn’t afford to live on technician wages.
“I was bawling my eyes out because I didn’t want to leave practice. I wasn’t ready to leave the floor, and I didn’t want a desk job,” Parks recalled. “But my mentor told me, ‘Meagan, you have to take care of your family.’”
That’s what Parks did. She took a desk job with Boehringer Ingelheim but missed working as a technician. Today, she is the senior veterinary technician recruiter at Mission Veterinary Partners, a corporate group with 330 U.S. hospitals.
“I want to help increase the number of veterinary technicians,” Parks said. “This position has helped me educate hiring managers on what we need to do as an industry, as a company, as people in this field, to support veterinary technicians.”
Soon after starting at Mission Veterinary Partners, Parks was asked by corporate leadership: “Why did you stop working as a veterinary technician in practice?”
“I started digging deeper within myself,” she said, “but then I started thinking about all the amazing individuals I had met and worked with over the years who had left practice or left the veterinary field entirely. I had reasons for leaving, but I wanted to know why they left.”
That’s when Parks decided to ask. So, in May 2022, she posted a 13-question Google Form on social media.
“Within a couple of days, I had several hundred responses,” she said. “People just kept sharing it.”
The respondents, representing all 50 states, included 859 current or former veterinary technicians and 66 other people, most of whom identified themselves as veterinarians or practice managers.
The survey revealed:
- 634 of the 925 respondents left veterinary medicine completely.
- 291 were still in veterinary medicine.
- Of the 291, nearly half (135) reported that they were going to leave practice within the following year.
The top three answers to the question “Why did you leave the field?” were:
- Low wages
- Toxic work environment and poor workplace culture
- 46% would return to practice if the reasons they left were addressed and fixed.
- When asked how much a veterinary technician should earn within one to three years out of school, the surveyed technicians and assistants said $24.60 an hour. DVMs and practice managers said $24.78 an hour.
How severe is the shortage of veterinary technicians? A 2022 white paper from the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association found 20 open positions in the United States for every one veterinary technician.
However, by exposing why technicians leave and how they feel, Parks hopes the profession can begin to make meaningful changes. Doing so, she said, would change the field’s trajectory and the trajectory of the lives of many former, current and aspiring veterinary technicians.
Parks recommends that the veterinary industry:
1. Increase Pay
“We have to start paying technicians a livable wage,” Parks said.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published in May 2022 concluded that the living wage in the United States is $24.16 an hour. However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for a veterinary technician in 2021 was $36,850, or $17.72 an hour.
“The technicians, veterinarians and practice managers who responded to my survey agreed that $25 per hour is a good starting wage for credentialed technicians,” Parks said.
She also thinks practices should consider a bonus structure specifically for credentialed technicians. And the numbers indicate they’re worth it. The last time the American Veterinary Medical Association evaluated a veterinary technician’s monetary value to a practice was in 2008. Then, the AVMA determined that for each credentialed technician employed, a veterinary practice could generate $161,493 in gross revenue. That would be more than $222,000 today, adjusting for inflation.
Speaking at the AVMA’s 2019 Economic Summit, Frederic Ouedraogo, Ph.D., reported that adding a credentialed veterinary technician to a practice resulted in an 18.3% revenue increase.
“As a profession, we need to decide how much we value technicians,” Parks said. “Are they worth it? In my opinion, they are worth it, and we can’t afford not to pay them what they’re worth.”
2. Protect the Title
“If we want to have quality, educated paraprofessional staff in our hospitals, we have to elevate the people who are credentialed,” Parks said. “These people went to school, took state and national exams, have to do continuing education to maintain their license, and have to abide by the laws and pay attention to their practice act and what’s allowed and what’s not, because their license is on the line. There’s a level of accountability. It’s a very clear difference to me.”
In her job at Mission Veterinary Partners, Parks tells noncredentialed candidates they will not be called veterinary technicians.
“I say, ‘I know you’ve been calling yourself a veterinary technician for a long time, but I want to make you aware that if you do get hired, your title’s going to be advanced veterinary assistant, just because you don’t have your credentials,’” she said. “Not a single person has argued with me.”
Parks supports the idea of national credentialing.
“All the states need to be on board, and we need to bring the discussion to the state practice acts,” she said. “I think the AVMA has a responsibility there.”
3. Attract People to the Field
Let’s make it easier to get into the veterinary technology field, Parks said.
She recalled a JetBlue representative who spoke at a Banfield event about how aspiring flight attendants get started: “You sign up for a class, and they pay you minimum wage throughout the class. Every week you get trained and tested. And if you make it, you go on to the next week. But if you don’t, you’re cut, you get a check and you leave. You know the timeline, the expectations and that you may or may not make it.”
4. Keep People in the Field
Parks stressed the importance of:
- Allowing for flexible schedules. “We need to be more agile and start thinking outside the box. It can be done.”
- Supporting the team’s professional development. “Let’s invest in educational programming and support the assistants who want to become credentialed.”
- Creating sustainable working environments. “There are still practices in trailers. There are places that don’t have a place for a mom to go pump breast milk. Make your practice a place that people would want to work.”
- Leveraging technicians and making them feel valued. “A credentialed technician in a well-run hospital literally does everything for that doctor, and that doctor is only diagnosing, prescribing and doing surgery. I remember seeing more than 30 patients per day in a high-volume specialty practice because I was properly utilized.”
“We are in a crisis,” Parks said. “We can’t just ignore this anymore. I have chosen to take a stand and dig my heels in. I’m not going to give up.”
HAVING THEIR SAY
Veterinary technicians who responded to Meagan Parks’ May 2022 survey volunteered comments such as these:
- “It’s really scary to think there will come a time when no one wants to [work in practice]. And the only people who do are too broken to do their jobs correctly.”
- “The pandemic changed people for the worse, and my corporate practice didn’t support us through it. We lost half our staff. My mental and physical health were suffering, and I had to leave to become a functional person again. To find another specialty practice to match my reasonable pay and benefits, I drove 50 miles each way, which is its own kind of torture and just not sustainable.”
- “I’ve always understood that this was not a high-paying job, but when you make the same amount as a day care provider, the industry is no longer family friendly.”
- “Working long hours without adequate pay and no PTO is hard. I am currently working part time as a nanny for several families, as well as teaching part time. As a nanny, I am getting paid the same or almost the same as a tech.”
- “As someone with two decades of experience, credentials, a [bachelor’s degree] and a plan to leave the field when I finish this semester of grad school, I can’t wait to get out.”
- “I was the head ER/ICU nurse for a large practice. We had a really hard time finding staff, finding good people who would stay and work. I didn’t mind working long hours, but it became too much when I worked three back-to-back 16-hour days and my 4-year-old son was not seeing me for 72 hours straight. I had to make a choice between my career and my family. I miss the field every day. I miss helping animals. I miss helping people.”
- “As a single woman, I couldn’t support myself on RVT wages. And with no room for growth, despite advanced certifications, it began to feel like a dead-end job. The pay is not proportional to the skill level, education and effort required. In most practices, if you approached the subject of a raise or commented about your pay, you were made to feel ashamed, selfish or wrong.”