The rise of locuming: it’s a contractual issue

Written by: Simon Toye
Published on: 8 Jun 2021

Image: Kurhan / Adobe Stock

Image: © Kurhan / Adobe Stock

The process of finding a new job, in recent times, has become an increasingly competitive practice. However, this is only true in the world outside of the veterinary community.


Many employers that advertise for office, retail or similar roles face the prospect of hundreds of applications for one position. The task of combing through applications is a huge undertaking, and with such a task, any issue with spelling or grammar is likely to stop that application in its tracks.

The harsh reality of the job market is that many prospective employees do not expect their application to be taken further on many occasions. Applying for jobs feels much more like carpet bombing than specifically targeting positions in which your skills will be best utilised.

This is not the case in the veterinary world. If anything, the situation is the antithesis of this concept. Many veterinary adverts get so little attention, I’m sure many recruiters need to check their advert has actually gone live and not been lost in the bowels of the internet somewhere.

So, why do these diametrically opposed situations exist? Many of you will immediately jump to the conclusion that a lack of veterinary professionals exists and, although this may be the case, it is only half of the story.

I believe issues with the terms of many veterinary roles are the other half. Make no mistake, the veterinary profession has been changing over the past few years. Those within the industry seem to be waking up to the idea that they do not have to work 50-plus hours a week, with extra out-of-hours work on top.

However, it seems the vast majority of people coming to this new way of thinking are the employed, not the employers. The fact that many are turning towards locuming as a method of being able to work when they can, not when an employer dictates, shows this to be true.

It’s a pandemic, in more than one way

The need to update the sector’s expectations is now more important than ever. The world has irrevocably changed. Never before has the public perception of animal and human health been so closely linked – practitioners are key workers, even if the powers that be have not actually bestowed the title.

There is a visual reminder every time you pass a veterinary practice in lockdown – they are open and have been since coronavirus was largely a feline issue – not one in the mainstream’s consciousness. However, it seems the employment terms expected by veterinary practices have not shifted in a similar fashion.

A quick look at any veterinary forum yields a wealth of posts from practices that are saying they are struggling to find vets, but always have the option of locums who are available and are wanting to work with them. This should be a big red flag for the recruiter and the many other practices that are feeling similar pain. The practices themselves seem to be attracting people to work for them – the fact that locums are lining up for shifts proves this beyond reasonable doubt.

A lack of appealing positions must be a contributory factor to the seemingly poor interest in salaried roles. Commitments such as childcare or caring for others take precedence in people’s lives and dictate the times when they are available for work. Gone are the days where employers could demand certain hours be worked; nowadays, hours and work pattern are open for negotiation – especially in the veterinary community, as the number of positions with no OOH commitment is staggeringly low.

Any position of this type must be agreed through the application process; however, some businesses place mandatory limits on employment terms of this type, creating a vacuum of jobs without OOH commitment. The only way to turn if you cannot commit to 40-plus hours and a number of OOH shifts is to locuming.

The economy is false

If you are an owner or practice manager, I’m sure you understand the economics of this situation. The additional outlay when employing locum staff can have serious repercussions on the liquidity of a business – especially if this scenario continues indefinitely due to a lack of interest in permanent positions.

There was a time when locum vets and nurses were in the vast minority. This may still be the case, but the inescapable fact is the number of people shifting to self-employment is on the rise.

Many articles have attempted to understand the reasons for this trend, with many concluding that the obvious financial benefits of locuming do not necessarily materialise into an increased total remuneration.

Something else is at play: the freedom of choice that is available. Although these freedoms have the potential to be impacted by modifications to laws and legislations, such as IR35, the perceived benefits are still a greater draw for those seeking a more flexible approach to working time commitments. In fact, the balance of power is firmly sitting with those choosing to move from permanent staff to locum work as practices, large or small alike, need their services to plug gaps caused by their inflexible approach to recruitment.

Something, somewhere in the life cycle of veterinary employment is not currently working. According to the RCVS’ survey of the profession in 2019, only 48 per cent of people who responded would choose to become vets if they could choose again1. Less than half. This is a big issue. While I understand the reasons for this will be vast and varied, some of this animosity will invariably be due to the expectations around employment terms.

My wife, a six-year qualified vet surgeon, is one of these people. I have lost count of the number of times she has mentioned that she “should’ve been a dentist” or wishes she “did an architect’s degree instead” and, although a small amount of this has to do with higher earning potential, the majority of this feeling is due to the expectations of the role.

Available positions need to reflect the intricacies of modern life. It is no longer the dark ages where lifelong employment is the ultimate goal. People are no longer willing to sacrifice their free or family time in the pursuit of work, but are currently forced into a position where they have little say over working times – especially if moving into locum work is not viable for the individual.

The expectation to give up your life for work still exists in the veterinary world, and is pushing great, passionate people out of the profession. Again, I turn to the RCVS’ survey of the profession in 2019 that told us “the most frequently cited reasons for planning to leave the profession, other than retirement, are poor work-life balance, not feeling rewarded/valued (non-financial), long/unsocial hours and chronic stress”1.

It’s not a coincidence that the profession is struggling to fill permanent positions requiring long working patterns, OOH and regular weekend commitments, at the same time people quoting reasons for leaving as poor work-life balance, unsocial hours and stress.

The benefits are real

The benefits of altering the mindset of the profession run a lot deeper than reducing levels of attrition, however. Companies are increasingly realising the importance of well-being in their employees. Discussions around mental health are becoming more common, and rightly so.

It is understood now, more than ever before, that an engaged workforce produces far better outcomes than that of unhappy or disengaged workers. Human beings are much more likely to go that little bit further to get the best outcome if they feel their value is being noted.

Let’s be honest, the people who enter veterinary medicine are kind, caring and compassionate individuals. The lengths most vets will go, in both time and effort, to ensure their patients are healthy, safe and protected are above and beyond what is seen in other professions. Patients are welcomed into practices moments before closing time, surgeries carry on into the night and lost or vulnerable animals are delivered to rescue centres outside working hours.

Let’s be the change

It is time to clearly understand and appreciate this as work above and beyond, and not par for the course. Veterinary staff need rewarding for their commitment, not used as an infinite resource.

The benchmark of a working veterinarian needs updating. In fact, I can’t help but think a proportion of the locum community would welcome the security, benefits and greatly reduced travel that a permanent position has the potential to provide – so long as the expectation of them is more aligned to the modern paradigm of life.

However, until recruiters, owners, practice managers or other decision-makers understand it is the terms of their employment offers that are stunting their ability to recruit, nothing will change. Great vets will continue to be haemorrhaged from the profession, practices will fail to recruit permanent staff and the continued reliance on locums will indefinitely increase.


1. RCVS (2019). The 2019 Survey of the Veterinary Profession,ιC46