Where have all the technicians gone?

Where have all the technicians gone?

Many practices are finding it difficult to hire—and keep—credentialed veterinary technicians. Learn why are there so few of these elusive creatures and what can we do to help them flourish.
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Sep 14, 2017

Shutterstock.comUntil recently, I was the hospital manager at a small clinic in Phoenix. Part of my job was interviewing and hiring veterinary technicians. When I advertised for a full-time veterinary technician position, I only received three resumes in a month. Only one of these applicants was credentialed. The other two had no veterinary experience beyond owning pets. Conversely, when I placed an ad for a receptionist, I got more than 100 resumes in a week and ended up canceling the ad because of the overwhelming response.

What gives? Where are all the credentialed technicians?

According to the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board, there are a little more than 1,000 credentialed technicians in Arizona. That sounds like a lot until you consider that there are about 1,000 licensed veterinary premises in the state. Sixty-six certified veterinary technician licenses were issued in Arizona at the end of June 2017, which is down from the 79 that were issued at the same time last year.

Credentialed technician vs. veterinary assistant

To get a handle on this, let’s first talk about what a credentialed technician is. I live in Arizona, and according to the Arizona State Medical Examining Board Arizona Revised Statutes (commonly referred to as the veterinary practice act), a certified veterinary technician is either a graduate of a two-year veterinary technology program who has passed a veterinary technician examination or a person who was certified on or before December 31, 2010. A veterinary assistant is an individual who provides care under the direct or indirect supervision of a veterinarian or certified veterinary technician.

So, it’s fair to say that in Arizona you are either a certified veterinary technician or a veterinary assistant. There is no such thing as a noncredentialed veterinary technician. But every hospital I have worked in my more than 12 years in practice uses the term “veterinary technician” for both credentialed and noncredentialed. Huh?

Kelly Smith, hospital manager at Arrowhead Ranch Animal Hospital in Glendale, Arizona, says, “When we talk about technicians, we don’t differentiate between any of them. Even in training, they are all basically required to learn the same thing. There is no ‘get one of the assistants or techs to do that.’ We’re working to get them all up to the same level, and we don’t differentiate between them.”

That seems to be a common theme among veterinary clinics. Tammy Sweet (name has been changed for anonymity), a CVT in Phoenix, says, “I worked hard to earn my title, and it bothers me to see someone who just walked in off the street getting the same title with the same pay. Part of the reason I’m thinking about leaving my clinic is a lack of respect and recognition for the credentialed techs here.”

The National Association for Veterinary Technicians in America has recently introduced a national credential initiative that would create a standard credentialing requirement, title, and scope of practice for technicians in all 50 states (in addition to changing the term “veterinary technician” to “veterinary nurse”). The goal is to help pet owners understand what patient-care-credentialed technicians provide. Sweet says of this initiative, “It’s a good place to start.”

Do credentials = more professional respect?

Desiree Jordan, DVM, clinical director and attending veterinarian for Pima Medical Institute’s veterinary assistant and veterinary technician programs, says she feels more comfortable working with credentialed technicians than with veterinary assistants because she’s “able to trust them to make decisions and judgment calls, to ask me the right questions in order for me to make those calls, or to notice things that an assistant might not.” When asked how other veterinarians at her previous hospital felt, she stated that they also preferred working with technicians who had attended school.

Stephanie Huss, program director for the veterinary assistant and veterinary technician programs at Pima Medical Institute, says she’s seen a huge shift in her students’ ideas about credentialing. She says that practices are starting to realize the value of having credentialed technicians, “especially these young, new vets,” and says area hospitals have been calling the school looking for educated technicians.

“I feel like I have an opportunity to impact the industry with our graduates and raise the bar on what veterinarians think we can do,” Huss says.

Huss is leading the way for this program, as her campus is new and has only had one small class of graduates so far. However, all of those graduates secured jobs in the field and half of them will receive raises immediately upon becoming credentialed. On the topic of hospitals hiring more credentialed technicians, Huss says, “If we have more people banding together saying the same thing, they [hospitals] are not going to have a choice.”

But not all credentialed technicians are as hopeful. One of my classmates from veterinary technician school who requested anonymity says, “I have worked in the same practice for almost 11 years, despite poor management and less-than-desirable coworkers. But I’m thinking of a career change. I'm burning out, losing my compassion for the animals and my drive to help. I love that I'm good at my job. I feel I'm great at it, and I still enjoy the variety and skills involved. I'm nervous to go from something I'm good at and have some seniority in to something brand new, but I'm starting to think it might be worth it.”

Kayla Goldberg, CVT, of Phoenix Dog Cat Bird Hospital, says, “Some techs wonder, why become credentialed when they’re only going to make a tiny bit more than they were before? Or they feel like someone else can do a nine-month vet assisting program and be called the same thing as someone who has a degree and has passed the boards.”

Josh Esquivel, medical career specialist at the Pima Medical Institute, says only about 40 percent of veterinary assistant students move into the veterinary technician program. “They find out the pay isn’t much different, if at all, for a vet tech vs. a vet assistant and they see no incentive to take on the extra school debt.”

Rachel Schultz, CVT, scheduling coordinator at the College of Veterinary Medicine Companion Animal Clinic at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, says, “I could have done everything I have done in all my jobs except for teaching and spared myself the $30,000 in student loans. We have a long way to go before CVTs will get the recognition with the pay. Even at Midwestern, we have techs that are not CVTs and they can still do everything a credentialed tech can do.”

Leaving the profession

Diana Brown graduated from a veterinary technician school and became credentialed in 2006. Three and a half years later she left the field and let her license expire. “After daycare, driving expenses, lunches, et cetera, I was making $35 a week,” she says, “and I was not able to attend my kids’ events and was always worrying about arranging childcare around my weird hours. I loved my job, but it wasn't worth the stress it was putting on my family. And there were no other jobs that paid better or had better hours.”

Although Brown had a two-year degree, national and state certification, a few years of experience, and was helping the clinic with marketing, she was only making $11 hour. Unsurprisingly, when I asked a group of veterinary professionals why they or their technicians left their jobs, low pay was the most frequent reason given.

Stefanie Perry, CVT, works at the Animal Health Institute Companion Animal Clinic at Midwestern University. She has 13 years of experience but almost left the veterinary field. She says, “Loving medicine and animals makes it [veterinary medicine] a no-brainer for me. But I couldn't find a private practice that offered the benefits I get at Midwestern.” Perry’s husband is chronically ill, so health insurance is a major deciding factor in where Perry works. If it weren’t for the benefits she receives at Midwestern, “I might have had to leave the industry to find better insurance just to stay above water in medical bills.”

Bridget Heilsberg, DVM, owner of Crown 3 Equine Veterinary Services in Whitesboro, Texas, says “not being able to pay them what they’re worth” keeps her from hiring credentialed technicians. She says, “I have one credentialed tech that is waiting for me to be able to hire her, but she needs full time with benefits and I can't do that.”

In addition to low wages, credentialed technicians often leave the field because they feel there is no opportunity to expand their knowledge base and skill set. Karen Marcus, CVT, instructor at Ridgewater College’s Veterinary Technology Program in central Minnesota, solved this problem by becoming an instructor. She says, “I worked 20 years in emergency but love teaching. I like the challenge of learning new things.”

Working in an academic environment has given Perry the opportunity to learn new skills. She says, “Working in a teaching hospital affords me the opportunity to get my VTS in dentistry. It has shaped my career path. I'm pretty sure I'm a lifer now.”

Boosting our profile—and earnings

Esquivel says most of the people he speaks with about a career in veterinary technology think the job entails only about half of what a technician actually does. “They don’t know about doing labs, taking x-rays or assisting in surgery,” he says.

Esquivel points out that he has never personally witnessed a technician on the job. When he takes his dogs to the veterinarian, team members take the dogs out of the room for diagnostic testing. Then the veterinarian comes in and gives the diagnosis. If owners like Esquivel don’t see what a technician does, how can they know how valuable a technician is? That feeds into an incomplete or incorrect perception when people consider a career in veterinary technology.

Veterinarians can help educate the public on their techs’ expertise by using phrases such as “Carrie is going to scrub in on Fluffy’s surgery today.” Veterinarians and credentialed technicians spreading awareness of the vast skills that a technician has may help educate the public.

In my experience, most veterinarians would like to have credentialed technicians who can calculate drug doses, induce anesthesia and intubate patients, but they don’t want to pay for it or feel they can’t afford it. But several analyses have found that credentialed technicians will pay for themselves if allowed to work to their maximum potential. Allowing credentialed technicians to work to their fullest ability will not only increase the technicians’ level of satisfaction in their jobs, it will free up veterinarians to do what only they are licensed to do: diagnose conditions, prescribe drugs and perform surgery.

Julie Carlson, CVT, is the winner of the 2015 Hero Veterinary Technician Award from the American Humane Association and is the Founder of Vets for Vets’ Pets, a nonprofit organization providing medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans. Julie has five cats and two Chihuahuas and lives in Phoenix.

burned out tech

Many reasons for burn out. I graduated in 1984, and lic in 1987. I am in Georgia, where there is a practice act that defines what a Tech is and what tech can perform with different types of supervision. But since there are no "practice police" nothing will ever be done. New hires off the street with no training or schooling get to do whatever is needed at the time. They don't respect the profession and think being a tech is no big deal. In the article it states DVMs would rather have schooled/lic techs, but they won't pay like they should.

Interesting...

An interesting look at the subject.

I have been credentialed for several decades and have never perceived a lack of respect for credentialed techs - in fact, my perception was quite the opposite.

That being said, the push for a nomenclature change to 'nurse' seems counterintuitive given that most credentialed techs want to be recognized for their superior medical and technical skills. It also creates confusion where none currently exists: currently, a nurse is presumed to be a medical nurse. With a change in nomenclature, this will be unclear, and every nurse - veterinary or medical - will need to add the appropriate descriptive to their title. Why not just call veterinary assistants what they are - assistants - and reserve the title of 'veterinary technician' for those who are credentialed?

Where we've gone ...

I am a RVT who left working the profession FT after experiencing my listed reasons for too long. I now work FT in industry and PT at a SA 3 vet practice. I spent over a decade working CC/ER and academia in both LA and SA. Leaving wasn't an easy decision, but I had to do something because I felt like I was drowning. My reasons are:
1) Burn out and compassion fatigue,
2) Sense of lack of appreciation, and
3) Salary.
I was burned out from the long hours, the heavy/hard cases, the trying clients, and the vets who had a difficult time trusting me to do my job. To top it off, in order for me to make a decent hourly rate with a decent salary to care for my daughter and me, I had to work extra shifts, overnights, weekends, and all holidays. Made for no life and what llittle life I had, very difficult to enjoy. Sadly, I still feel some of these feelings working my PT job, but I work it because I miss so many things about the profession. If I could find a good balance, I'd go back FT. As for now, I enjoy a set 8-5, weekday only, all holidays off schedule and tolerate the things in my PT job that pained me for so many years.

Techs --- a dying dinosaur

16 years in the profession. I've attained managerial experience, specialty certification, and a slew of skills that include advanced imaging, endoscopy/fluoroscopy training, and ability to float from ICU to surgery to emergency medicine. I can anesthetize a patient, monitor, recover, and then console a client when I am discharging the patient after the overworked, debt ridden veterinarian juggles a myriad of minutia. I am paid way less than my human medicine counterparts, who are amazed when I say, yes I can place a double lumen in the jugular, run a MRI and identify appropriate studies to perform while awaiting a callback from the radiologist who is desperately shoveling out referral reads on X-rays from GP that are not collimated, contain human appendages, and poor quality. All in name of the mighty dollar since the price of vet training has reached the glass ceiling but broken through but not in the way you think. I hold hands while clients cry about their financial woes while my own pet is currently crossing his legs because I am 2 hours past my scheduled shift. Not because I don't want to decompress and unwind, but more so I love the technicians around me and doctors as well. Let's identify that why so many people leave this industry (burn out, suicide, vs. whatnot) is that we are not managed well. Either a doctor is doing medicine while trying to juggle the business aspects (one inevitably suffers) vs. the promotion of technicians or those not experienced with the nuances of veterinary medicine become managers. Either way, the root of the problem becomes that the expectation of production of staff exceeds their emotional, physical wellbeing that is devised on metrics of a group of people who meet yet who don't actually work as a vet staff; take the kennel attendant dealing with 40 plus barking, crying patients trying to keep up and not have them lay in their own excrement. The technicians /nurses who are mandated to not only chart treatments, but take on a slew of communication calls for the doctor because they feel bad that the owner (who they can identify/sympathize with) is crying not only because they are concerned with how to pay the vet bill, but because they haven't every left Snoopy before. And lastly, the doctor who is usually handing a large caseload that unless they are specialized or in that type of hospital,need to be able to be able to wear a variety of hats and unfortunately they all don't wear well. Yes, I am underpaid considering my skills. I knew that about 10 years ago. It still holds true throuh getting a specialty credential, more skills I pay for to learn out-of-pocket because I am given a mediocre CE limit of $500 dollars (which let's be honest, any specialty conference is running about $200 or more not including lodging and travel) . My reward, is lots of doctor praise, because I make their job easier, catch mistakes that they may make, and maybe a special sticker of appreciation from my management team with a $5 gift card for coffee. That bothers me the most. Don't treat me like a kindergartner earning a kudos to show my parents when I jump off the bus. They are exploiting my skills and talents that I should rightly get paid more for. So in the words of Jack Nicholson "I would rather you just say thank you and went on your way".

Where have all the techs gone

Very good article that points out many of the dilemmas of the profession in general. As a veterinarian and owner of a small animal hospital for 20 plus years I can testify to all of the following: the difficulty of finding registered techs, importance and benefits of a knowledgeable and competent technician, difficulty in compensating appropriately (not so much from a dollar per hour but benefit package as most all W-2 employees are required to be treated equally by the law), and the lack of preparedness for the "real world" upon graduation. I think the comment concerning a bachelor's degree or a further degree program would go along way in the improvement of the "system" we presently have in place. I think we should only consider the change in terminology from technician to nurse if we embrace and understand the concepts of "nursing" in human medicine. Most RN's are required to be managers of the lower certified or noncertified care staff in the facility they are employed. Their role is different and often somewhat managerial in nature. Their position often allows "management" to hire "less expensive" employees to perform what was once considered only "nurses" jobs. It is my belief that our profession will only financially succeed when we understand that we can't raise prices indefinitely but rather learn to provide care in a more cost efficient manner with less DVMs per facility, more highly educated paraprofessionals, and well-trained, highly functional noncertified (i.e. no school debt) staff. Like it or not we will find out how this works sooner then later with the large number of cooperate practices entering the market. It will only take them a brief period of time to realize the inefficiency of our present system.

Would have been.. but...

When I was actively looking to be a Veterinarian (the younger, healthier me), I considered Vet Tech school down in SoCal. I was essentially told, if I want to be a Vet, don't go to VetTech school. (I could have gotten funding to go there too, but not to a 4year+ program) That was more than 10 years ago and I wish I had gone. I won't be a vet, I physically can't. But I could have had 10 good years as a tech, and might have finished off as a Vet proper. Who knows, I might not have been injured the way I was if I had been instructed on how to properly handle animals. (Shoulda woulda's...)
But I never followed up being a tech because I was told going to the school was a waste of time. Perhaps that would help if these schools had not only a Vet Tech program but a Vet Tech to a Veterinary program. It makes so much sense. Already surrounded by those who are in the field, and getting the prereqs to transfer to the bigger schools.