On the homefront
New practice owner Susanna Aldridge, a 2001 graduate of the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, knows firsthand
some of the pitfalls of being an associate.
After graduation, she says she worked for two years as an associate at a private practice. She left for better compensation
at a corporate-owned veterinary hospital, but says she didn't get the mentoring she had hoped for in her first job experience.
At the practice, Aldridge says she was transferred to three different hospitals and never got any paid vacation time. Raises
and vacation time were granted based on production, and some of the hospitals she worked in were very slow.
When she made suggestions to bring in more business, they were ignored, she says.
"I have a couple of friends, one who just recently opened a practice also, with the same problems. It was the same type of
"You don't have the ability to impact the way things are run, you don't get much say in the business and the medical side
of things, yet you are limited to what you can bring in production-wise because of the way things are done," Aldridge says.
Aldrige purchased her own practice, Tender Loving Care Animal Hospital in Martinsville, Ind., in January 2008 and just hired
her first employee.
Her recent experiences as a frustrated associate will help her manage her part-time associate, she says.
"It was kind of good I had all these associate experiences," she explains.
"And being a recent grad myself, I understand the frustrations of an associate, so I think, hopefully, I'm a more fair owner/boss."
But not all practices are experiencing high turnover. At Amber Leaf Veterinary Hospital in suburban Chicago, most of the four
associate veterinarians have worked at the practice for at least five years, says owner Dr. Steven Rohrback, and one is about
to become a partner. The employees who left departed when spouses were transferred or to start families.
With more female veterinarians than males, Rohrback says he thinks the desire female associates have to take time off to start
a family is a big factor in departures.
That aside, Rohrback says he strives to keep his practice competitive in many ways, from salary to hours, to keep his associates
Communication is open, and he tries to give everyone's opinion consideration. He also loves to act as a mentor and encourage
his associates' specialty interests, Rohrback says.
"Mentoring's important. I can't imagine why a veterinarian wouldn't mentor young people," he says.
"That's one of the best parts of the practice and it increases the effectiveness of your practice."
Though he is willing to be flexible and offer his employees a lot, Rohrback admits it sometimes it hard to get everything
he wants in a new hire.
His clinic used to offer late night and weekend hours and emergency services, but he has cut back substantiallly because he
couldn't find anyone who wanted to work those hours.
"Try to hire a new veterinarian nowadays and tell them we do our own emergencies. It's not going to happen," Rohrback says.
"It used to be the clients who dictated what the veterinarian's hours were. Not any more. Veterinarians coming out of school
dictate where veterinary medicine is going."
Attitudes like Rohrback's aren't always commonplace, though, and owner veterinarians often are not taught leadership and management
skills, Brogdon explains.
This often results in new employees, whether they are doctors or technicians, feeling unwelcome and not a part of the overall
While they might not have the clinical experience of owners, new employees can bring a lot of ideas and a fresh perspective
to a business, and that should be encouraged, she says.
Employees who feel valued and (feel) like they are learning are more likely to stay at a business, even if they aren't entirely
happy with their pay, Brogdon adds.
"The right mentoring can help turn a doctor into more than a doctor," she says.
Still, Brogdon agrees that salaries can be a big part of one's decision to leave, and the economy certainly isn't making it
easy for owners facing a crunch to offer highly competitive benefits. But allowing employees to leave because owners can't
afford to pay more is "penny-wise and pound-foolish," Brogdon says.
"The rule of thumb is, it takes one-and-a-half annual salaries to replace somebody," Brogdon says, adding it is cheaper to
pay an employee more than to lose them, and owners should review their own fees before letting an employee jump ship.
"The vets aren't taught how to value their own services. Fees are too low, or they are not good enough at communicating value
to employees," Brogdon explains.
It sort of trickles down. If the fees are not appropriately set, they can't afford to pay doctors and other levels of staff
what they should be paying."