2010: Recruitment odyssey

State of the Profession, 2006: Practices maintain the struggle to find and retain quality staff as baby boomers continue to retire
Jul 01, 2006

NATIONAL REPORT — Good employees are hard to come by, and it won't get easier any time soon.

National employment projections indicate that with baby boomers planning to retire, businesses will struggle to find enough help as early as 2010, when the country's largest generation will be age 46 to 64.

Many practices already feel the employment pain. Employee retention is the No. 2 most-pressing issue facing veterinary medicine, veterinarians report in the DVM Newsmagazine 2006 State of the Veterinary Profession Survey. About 14 percent said employee retention was the most pressing issue facing veterinary medicine — almost half indicated rising costs was the profession's most pressing issue — and about 13 percent said staff turnover is their greatest professional concern, behind work/life balance and money.

"We're in a stable phase right now, but staffing is probably the biggest practice concern for all practices, and it has been that way for years," says Dr. Timothy Howell, owner of the Cat Care Clinic in Indianapolis.

It could get worse before it gets better as many economists predict that an impending shortage could prompt wage wars as large and small businesses alike compete for fewer prime-aged workers.

"Moving into the next three to five years, you are going to see some labor shortages, much like we saw in the late 1990s," says Chad Moutray, chief economist for the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration. "You are going to see a massive increase in the number of workers that are going to be required to fulfill that turnover as the baby boomers leave the workplace, and that's going to create a large labor shortage, and you already see it today in some of the specialty fields."

Veterinarians are not alone. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) makes absolutely no mention of a labor shortage in its biennial labor report: "Labor Force Projections to 2014: Retiring Boomers," the report says labor-supply growth is shrinking, and the workforce is increasingly gray. "The result is a decrease in the overall labor force participation rate and a slower rate of growth of the labor force," reports BLS Economist Mitra Toosi.

BLS projects that between 2004 and 2014, 39 million workers will enter the labor force and more than 24 million will leave. These figures compare with nearly 33 million entrants and more than 19 million who exited in 1994 to 2004.

Table 1 Can you find registered veterinary technicians in your area?
"Small firms are at a large disadvantage there because we don't have the benefits of some of the larger firms, so they really don't have the capacity to compete in some of those areas, and so it's going to be a real challenge to fill those jobs," Moutray says.

Private practices likely will feel a sting, especially in the already-tight market for credentialed technicians.

Fewer veterinarians report being able to find qualified technicians in their area compared to 2003 (Table 1).

Table 2 The average number of existing positions filled in 2005 was 3.1
And finding them is just the beginning. Retaining staff remains a major operational concern, DVMs report. About two-thirds of respondents filled at least two existing positions in 2005, and on average, practices needed to fill 3.1 positions; just 16.5 percent had no turnover (Table 2).

The average length of a veterinary technician's tenure is 5.2 years, and about 22 percent stay at a practice for more than eight years (Table 3).

Table 3 Average length of employment for veterinary technicians is 5.2 years
That's a little better than the national average of about four years, says Gregory P. Smith, founder of Chart Your Course International, a management-consulting firm, and author of "Here Today Here Tomorrow: How to Transform Your Workforce from High Turnover to High Retention". But it's more difficult to replace highly skilled workers than, say, hospitality workers.

"It's becoming more and more true in specialized businesses; employees are more difficult to keep," Smith says. "Part of the driving force in healthcare and veterinary medicine is that you are getting a younger workforce, and the work ethic is different. They are not going to break their back for the clinic, so you have to depend on doing other things to attract people and engage them."