By Dr Dave Nicol
Let’s talk about the issue of wage stagnation in the veterinary profession. Is our profession harming itself by not offering the higher salaries that qualified candidates expect, especially at a time when there’s a recruitment crisis?
To be clear, it seems wage stagnation among vets is real. Based on my own experience, new hires are being compensated at about roughly the same level I was, two decades ago, at the outset of my career. My basic was lower but I benefited from the addition of a car and a house in which to live, rent-free. Plus, I got a bonus cheque on top of that. Factor in inflation over the past 20 years and you quickly realize that new hires are receiving, a lot less than new vets did circa 1998. Their buying power has been degraded by approximately 25%.
As if that were not bad enough, you also have to factor in student debt. Our current graduates are carrying a lot more debt than I had to deal with. And that affects financial planning for the future. When you’re young, this can seem like a minor hurdle, a theoretical and distant problem, but it’s really not. Carrying a heavy debt burden out of the starting gate will hurt you in the long run. So it’s absolutely in your best interest to retire that debt as quickly as possible.
The question is, how do you get out of this situation?
Career choices for the young veterinarian
Here’s where good decision making and patience come into play. Whether you’re concerned about it or not, there’s no question that, compared to previous generations, you are definitely facing wage stagnation and a deeper well of debt.
One strategy many new vets consider is to start working as a relief or locum vet, or a locum vet, early in their career. Not necessarily a bad play, if you have the skills. But there’s a big problem with this decision; many new vets don’t yet have the experience or confidence to perform much of the role expected in an unsupervised setting. Doing dentistry at a high level, for instance, takes considerable practice. Same with surgery. Typically, new vets will need a great deal of supervision.
And, frankly, this has an impact on your market value. Much of which depends on your ability to generate billable work for the host practice. While the practice may very much need you as a body, you need to provide reasonable value in return for your compensation. So, this model is flawed, because, while it seems like a good way to make significant money quickly, it can get you into an uncomfortable trap. To justify your high cost to the practice, you’re likely to encounter pressure to perform procedures you simply don’t feel comfortable doing yet.
This is a recipe for trouble, the sort of trouble that causes conflict and complaints. Possibly very serious ones. All of which creates pain for you and the practice.
The reality is that this route is most likely a poor long-term strategy for any vet who does not yet have a great skillset.
Develop A Plan, Be Patience and Find Mentors
What you probably have as a young veterinarian is high enthusiasm, coupled with a fledgeling low skill level. That’s not a criticism of you, or your education. It’s just a statement of reality. Becoming a skilled, well-rounded vet takes time, patience, and lots of practice. Fortunately, as a newly minted vet, you have lots of time. That’s your other big asset, and it balances out your relatively low skills quotient.
So, it’s helpful to realize that as a new vet, any given practice is unlikely to generate much income from you at this stage. Rather, they will be investing resources into your ongoing, on-the-job training. You’re going to need practice and progress your communication skills; your ability to build trust and rapport. These skills are the key to unlocking a steeper career acceleration because vets who have good “bedside manner” and some commercial awareness are going to be more capable of generating a higher case volume and so grow faster due to having more cases to practice on!
This is the secret sauce to having a happier career and being capable of serving your debt. Get good at what you do as quickly as possible.
The hard part is that it’s easy to get frustrated during this on-the-job learning phase of your career; to encounter defeat and not feel your enthusiasm and confidence flagging can be challenging. Which brings us to mindset.
Scaling the Heights With A Positive Attitude & Growth Mindset
A setback can, well, set you back. Or it can serve as a teaching moment, which inspires you to try again. And again, and again, if necessary, until you get it right. Of course, you could also choose to get discouraged, decide to host a pity party in your head and simply give up. But did you really come this far to stop when things got a little tough?
I certainly hope not.
Think of it like rock climbing. Whether you’re learning to scale a certain route up a rock wall, or striving to become a well-rounded, confident vet, you’re always going to encounter obstacles and setbacks. The only difference between someone who gives up and someone who reaches the pinnacle is perseverance. Fueled by a growth Mind-set. The mind-set that recognizes that growth and learning can seldom be plotted as a smooth curve upwards. Rather, they consist of a series of jagged up and down moves, like an ECG trace, albeit with an overall upward trend.
Like a climber struggling to find the right combination of handholds and toeholds to make it up a difficult climbing route, you’ve got to be willing to take your mistakes — and even your failures — in stride. And to keep trying. Each time, you will have learned something you can build on. How does this analogy apply to your career? When climbing, it’s always good to have someone on belay; a person on the ground who can essentially catch you if you slip, so you don’t crash to the ground.
In veterinary medicine, you need a mentor. Someone who can stand by, provide reassurance, and answer questions, but let you take reasonable risks on your own. So you can learn and increase your ultimate value to the practice.
If you’re a vet, the way you build value in your career and move out of wage stagnation is to build value in your skillset. That is the biggest challenge for this generation; to recognize that wallowing around, feeling bad for yourself, blaming other people for not providing the support you need, is going to get you exactly nowhere. Except, perhaps, to the exit door from this career you’ve worked so hard to attain. But guess what awaits in any other career into which you decide to step…. Yup, you guessed it. More of the same. More things you don’t know how to do and need to practice to get good at.
The takeaway is this: Make a plan and find a mentor who can help you get where you need to go. Someone who is willing to invest the time and patience to train you properly, so you can scale the intimidating heights of veterinary competence without losing your confidence, your nerve; your passion for veterinary medicine. Find someone who will allow you the time to learn from your (minor) mistakes.
So let’s end with some thoughts on how to fight wage stagnation.
1. Find a practice with a mentoring scheme and understands the importance of helping you to develop.
2. Find a home where a senior vet will hold your hand (metaphorically) as you take your early surgical steps or is present to answer your questions. Vets typically LOVE doing this if they can do so without having to do it on top of an unmanageable case volume as well.
3. Make a plan and own it – understand that you are the person with the responsibility for your growth and development. Not your boss. They are only responsible for helping you to achieve your goals.
4. Get busy “getting after it”. Do the work.
5. Check your self at the door to the pity party when it doesn’t go right.
6. Leave relief work for a later stage in your career. Don’t chase the dollars too early. Be patient, you have time.
7. Focus on getting good at building trust so clients accept your advice more readily, this will increase your case volume and production – which will allow you to negotiate a better wage in due course.
If you can out some of this into action then your wages and more importantly, your happiness, will progress on an entirely different trajectory.
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