From trainee to practice director

Written by: Renay Rickard
Published on: 30 Aug 2019


When I left school, I had a handful of mediocre O-levels, a plan to do “something veterinary” and no concept of the veterinary nursing profession – so started working as a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) animal care trainee with Pelyn Veterinary Group, in Cornwall, in 1985.

The YTS was similar to the modern apprenticeships available today. It involved a work placement in a veterinary practice, with one day spent studying for a National Kennelstaff Training Certificate. I was also able to study for my biology O-level resit as part of this funded, off-the-job training. The training allowance was £26.25 a week.

At the time, you could not enrol as an SVN until you were 17 and no other courses – such as the veterinary care assistant or animal nursing assistant courses – were available. This meant the YTS was my only option.

However, this gave me a good grounding in animal husbandry, nutrition and genetics that proved useful when studying for my veterinary nursing exams.

It was while working in the sector that I learned about veterinary nursing – and I knew I had discovered my dream job. Making it a reality, however, proved more of a challenge because no veterinary nurses were employed by the practice I worked in – so I had to persuade my boss that gaining training centre status and investing in my training was a brilliant idea.

My persistence paid off and I qualified from Bicton College as a veterinary nurse in 1989 – making me the first and only qualified VN in my practice.

I felt incredibly proud. Veterinary nursing was a very young profession at the time, so it was incredibly exciting to be part of something you knew was vital to the industry and could help develop.

My green uniform and badge definitely earned me a lot of respect among my team and our clients.

But I wasn’t on my own for long, as I soon started training other nurses – and had progressed to head VN around 1994.

Today, many school leavers who take up animal care courses at college choose to do their work placement in a veterinary practice. We have found many of these students then train as veterinary care assistants, then veterinary nurses.

This is vital to the industry, as it gives us the chance to find good prospective students and develop them through a clear career path. When I see them around our practices looking nervous as the “big boss” comes in, I remember how I felt and definitely feel empathy.

Education has always been one of my passions. A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into gaining a veterinary nursing qualification, and I am incredibly proud of my students and some of the hurdles they have had to overcome during training. I want to show them you don’t have to be academically brilliant to gain the qualification, but need to care about what you do, and to always try your best.

Working full-time while studying can be hard, so it’s vital to support them and have an open door for them to come and discuss any issues.

Climbing the career ladder

In 2004, I was promoted to practice manager due to my interest in the career development of veterinary nurses. During this time, I also worked with Duchy College as an internal verifier and, later, a moderator for the veterinary nursing qualification.

In 2014, we merged three local mixed practices into one business – forming Kernow Veterinary Group, for which I became overall practice manager.

The acquisition of another business three years later saw my role change dramatically due to the size of the business and the area we were covering.

The role of practice manager evolved as the size of the business grew. Initially, I managed all team rotas; oversaw nursing team development, recruitment and HR, and health and safety; and dealt with client accounting and issues.

I realised, however, I had development needs of my own – so at this point, I studied towards a level five diploma in management then gained the Certificate in Veterinary Practice Management, run by the VPMA (now the VMG). 

This educational experience helped me to create a formal development review process within the practice. By regularly discussing team members’ development needs, we have grown the role of the veterinary nurse within the business. We now have well-established nurse clinics along with nurses who develop their own areas of interest and expertise, such as within animal behaviour and emergency care.

 I am now working towards a level seven extended diploma in strategic management. My ultimate aim is to gain a master of business administration degree – I want to show it is still possible to achieve this via the vocational route.

In 2018, I was offered the opportunity to buy into the business and become one of the directors, which I jumped at. Earlier this year, we moved into a larger corporate group, but I remain working for Kernow Veterinary Group as a business director.

In 2013, I joined the board of the VPMA and became president in 2016. While I am no longer a board member, I still represent the VMG on the VN Futures project and am the chairman of its Career Progression Group.

I am very proud of how far I have come, especially as I never really had a career plan – I just knew I wanted to work in the veterinary world.

It has been challenging at times, as I have been a working single mum. But I have worked with some incredibly supportive and inspiring people whom I have a lot to thank for. Working with people who genuinely care about their team makes things easier during the tough times – I hope I do the same for my team now.

The veterinary nursing profession is now well established in its own right – I am in awe of my nurses when I venture into one of our prep rooms and see the level of care we are providing.

Client expectations are higher than ever – and rightly so. Veterinary nurses are intrinsic to meeting these expectations.

Great opportunities exist for nurses to develop their skills and knowledge at higher education levels, but also for them to develop their own areas of interest and extra skills within the nursing team. They are also gaining the confidence to be leaders within the veterinary industry.

I think the opportunities are endless if we can keep encouraging and supporting their development growth.

  • First published in Veterinary Times 49.34.