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Plugging the skills gap in veterinary practice

Written by: Stephanie Malone
Published on: 5 Dec 2023

In Practice

Image © didesign / Adobe Stock

The struggle of recruiting and retaining good staff has long troubled the veterinary sector. Encouraging skilled veterinary surgeons and nurses to join from a competitor, in an industry with a well-publicised staff shortage, is a well-known concern for all practices – across the UK and beyond.

With many overseas veterinary practitioners choosing to leave the UK in the aftermath of Brexit, the current labour market is hard to navigate.

Research we have conducted at Harrison Clark Rickerbys sheds light on the struggles that employers are facing in terms of attracting and retaining talent, and provides practical solutions for what they can do to leverage the skills of their current workforce; therefore, helping to plug any skills gaps they may be facing.

Recruitment and retention is a challenge for the majority of UK employers, and the struggle to find and keep staff is not new. This leads many employers to look outside the UK for talent, with veterinary surgeons and nurses both on the list of occupations which are deemed to be eligible for sponsorship. Further, the Home Office Shortage Occupation List (SOL) sets out the skilled worker roles that the UK Government deems to be in short supply; health and social care, which of course includes vets, is top of the agenda.

Following a lengthy campaign by the BVA flagging concerns regarding the impact of Brexit on the profession, veterinarians including veterinary surgeons and practitioners were added to the SOL back in September 2019, making it easier for UK employers to recruit into these roles due to reduced visa application fees and lower minimum salary thresholds.

What is a relatively recent development is the acute pressure caused by cost of living concerns and pay demands, compounding the skills shortages already being experienced. For veterinary practices, this is compounded further by increases in customer demand following the arrival of many additional pets during COVID when people were in lockdown – especially for those inexperienced or new pet owners.

Staff shortages

The shortage extends across every shape and size of employer – 68% of SMEs and 86% of large organisations are facing skills shortages – and, unlike previous shortages, does not just relate to the highly skilled: by 2030, it is predicted that we will need 3.1 million intermediate-skill workers.

Our research shows that a long-standing mismatch between the skills learned in education and the skills needed in the workplace is partly to blame, but lack of training opportunities during the pandemic is now also having a knock-on effect.

Becoming an employer of choice is not something you can achieve overnight, but it is worth the investment. Practices that put effort into building their brand values, instil purpose through meaningful work and keep their pay and benefits competitive, are the ones who will get the attention of ambitious and loyal future employees. This should be balanced against the practice expenses for locum support, which is often a regular fall-back for practice owners when addressing staff shortages.

Employees want longevity

Jobseekers know it is a candidates’ market, and the more socially aware and active youth are rightfully choosy about working for companies that can evidence the right culture, ethics and social capital that aligns with their values, too. Enabling staff to access defined career paths and learning and development opportunities also builds loyalty, and increases retention. For many older workers, whom the Government would like to encourage back to the workplace, purpose and flexibility trump pay – they can afford to be picky.

Entry into the veterinary sector is decreasing (new joiners are down from 2,782 in 2019 to 2,119 in 2021), and 45% of those leaving the profession have worked only for four years or less, showing high levels of disillusionment1. Attracting and retaining high-calibre and committed staff has never been a great concern for practice management.

Working patterns

In an industry often resourced via staff rotas, veterinary practitioners increasingly look to manage their working hours via flexible working patterns.

Progressively, more vets and nurses seek to work part time or on a defined hours basis.

While historically, options were considered for those with caring responsibilities, recent years have resulted in flexible working expanded to any employee and – particularly for vets – it is commonly a means to enable special interest or charity work, or to take up teaching opportunities.

With RCVS data from 2021 citing 77% of new-UK registrants being female, rates of part-time working have increased to 33% of female veterinary surgeons and 17% of males1.

Across all industries, the British Standards Institution (BSI) has published a report into women leaving the workforce early and not out of personal preference. The BSI examines the factors in their early departures and terms the phenomenon the “second glass ceiling”.

Of the UK women surveyed, the report found that 21% cited caring responsibilities (for parents or children) as a barrier to continuing in work.

Looking at the history of the statutory right to request a flexible working pattern, the rise of employment tribunal claims for indirect discrimination on the grounds of a refusal of a request is perhaps unsurprising.

The right to request flexible working was first introduced in 2003. It initially applied only to some parents and has gradually developed so that any employee can ask for flexible working arrangements as soon as they have 26 weeks’ service. New legislation, expected to come into force in summer 2024, is likely to make the right to request flexible working a day one right, as well as increasing the number of requests which can be made in any 12-month period.

Despite these changes, the right is still a limited one: it extends only to making a request and having it considered in a prescribed manner, including the right to appeal.

Critically, an employer can still refuse request if it can demonstrate one of eight business reasons for doing so.

Although refusal of a request does not provide direct grounds for making a claim of discrimination, any business that is not able to justify its refusal, or appears to reject applications as a default, does risk a claim of indirect discrimination from female staff with childcare responsibilities.

Since women remain more likely to shoulder caring responsibilities, the Employment Appeal Tribunal has reminded employment tribunals that they should continue to take judicial notice of the childcare disparity. This means they do not need to provide evidence that they are more likely to be disadvantaged from a refusal to agree a flexible working request.

Although, and as the statistics demonstrate, many veterinary practices have been able to support staff with hybrid and flexible working arrangements – particularly through the pandemic – some remain reluctant to fully embrace flexible models.

Some practices, based on their individual staffing resources, may not be able to accommodate demands that clash with operational needs, but any practices that close their minds to what is possible – particularly when employees can point to successfully meeting all targets through the pandemic – are likely to find themselves at increasing risk of successful claims.

In a world where candidates are increasingly discerning about the values of the practice they choose, it would be wise to remember that employment tribunal judgements are now published online and discoverable to informed candidates.

Think competitively

Culture is key, and when people are your biggest asset, but what they want is changing, employers need to change with them. Create a truly competitive proposition so that you are an employer of choice.

Emphasising the lifestyle opportunities of your location goes beyond the landscape (we have all seen the picture postcard images on the job adverts); taking time to understand local amenities, schools, transport links and promoting them as part of your recruitment process is time well spent.

Given your staff will share a passion for animal welfare, be sure to highlight work variety, complexity and, where they can be offered, opportunity to care for their own animals (for example, many more rural practices allow companion animals to come to work with their owners).

Often, the little “extras” go forgotten, but they can be enough to prompt candidates to consider your practice above others.

With the challenges experienced by employers post-Brexit, many employers are actively launching targeted recruitment campaigns overseas. The veterinary sector is no different, seeing an increase not only in employers within the sector applying for sponsor licences, but also the numbers of workers being employed from outside the UK by such sponsors to plug skills shortages.

For those employers who are planning to sponsor workers from overseas, planning ahead and giving consideration to sponsor licence requirements and the associated timeframes is of key importance.

The many factors affecting staff skill shortages in the veterinary sector are of fundamental concern and cannot be easily resolved. Taking time to reflect upon market conditions to inform the steps needed to become the most desirable employer in your region or specialist service can make a significant difference in attracting and retaining the key talent required to provide veterinary services.

Well-considered working patterns and job descriptions, along with a commitment to training and progression opportunities, help to engage workers and employees in a clear vision for your veterinary services, and foster a sense of pride in working for your care service and, most importantly, your customers.

References

  1. RCVS (2021). Recruitment, retention and return in the veterinary profession, RCVS Workforce Summit 2021.