I just renewed my California State Licensed Veterinary Technician license online. The biennial fee of $350 may not seem like a huge sum. But along with national and/or state exams, continuing education, and uniforms, it’s one of the many regular expenses that can break licensed vet techs.
The median wage for a veterinary technician in the United States is $17.43 per hour, according to the most recent statistics from the United States Department of Labor. This salary is not enough for anyone paying off a student loan or a car, has children or wants to contribute to a retirement plan.
Even though I keep renewing my license, I quit clinical practice. I now run a student outreach program for an animal welfare organization. Other than volunteer work and the occasional spaying project, I no longer regularly use my hard-earned skills with a team of veterinary professionals. I had no intention of quitting the career I loved – a career that gave me great joy and sorrow, a bad back and a dark sense of humor – but I did. , largely because of my low wages and overwork. According to a 2016 survey by North American Veterinary Technicians in America, I am not alone.
We come into veterinary medicine because we love working with animals, helping clients care for their furry family members, and the camaraderie of a team dedicated to improving the lives of our patients. But I’ve seen a lot of great vet techs quit because they were burnt out. They are not just tired of long hours or lack of free time. They are tired of the veterinary profession sacrificing their basic needs in pursuit of profit.
The profession is going through a crisis. A shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians puts too much work on too few shoulders. This, of course, was exacerbated by the pandemic and early veterinary clinic closures, but that was on the horizon before COVID-19.
Many veterinary organizations see promise in improved utilization, which translates into the freedom given to veterinary technicians to perform the full range of tasks for which they are trained and authorized to perform. Full utilization, it is believed, will keep them engaged and challenged in the profession and better able to support the vets and clinics they work for. The American Veterinary Medical Association has created a task force to “identify potential solutions” for the use of veterinary technicians. The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges recently held a virtual conference on the matter. (There were surprisingly few vet techs present.)
This focus on how the profession can better utilize the skills of technicians or raise their skill level to ease the burden on overworked veterinarians is not a new idea, nor a bad one. However, it does not address the fundamental factors contributing to the loss of technicians: low wages and lack of basic benefits.
For many years I worked in a large 24 hour small animal clinic. Most of my time was spent in emergency hours and my skills were put to good use. In addition to patient care, my duties included acting as a nurse consultant, triaging emergency cases, monitoring hospitalization cases and discussing patient care with clients who called about their hospitalized animal or picked up an animal after a long hospital stay.
I felt that my colleagues greatly valued me and my contributions to our highly respected clinic. However, I would say that on paper I was not a valued member of the team. I was living paycheck to paycheck and constantly worried that an unexpected expense would put me deep in debt. I took all the overtime I could get to keep this anxiety at bay. I was engaged in a job that didn’t allow me time to rest emotionally or physically.
While I was not living below the federal poverty level, I struggled to earn a living wage. Living wage is the minimum income required to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, transportation and clothing. It does not cover restaurant meals, pet care, vacations, entertainment, contributions to personal savings or retirement, investments such as buying a home or paying debts. I guess I was lucky that working the night shift and lots of overtime to make ends meet didn’t give me time to ruminate about not being able to afford a vacation or not having enough paid time off to indulge in such a luxury. The few paid days I accumulated were inevitably used to fight illness, injury or family emergencies.
In a profession that exposes us daily to the risk of being bitten, scratched, bruised, pricked by used needles, exposed to zoonotic diseases, radiation, chemicals, etc., is it too much to ask to benefit from adequate paid sick leave and paid time off to recover from a job that pushes us to the brink of mental and emotional exhaustion?
I haven’t even mentioned the leave needed to take care of a child or another family member. (Dr. Megan Andeer did a great job of addressing this in her commentary, “How Family-Friendly Is the Veterinary Profession Really?”, published June 21, 2021.) Veterinary medicine has become a profession to female predominance, but she struggles with deep-rooted gender biases. Many clinics today ignore the fact that the majority of their employees will inevitably need time off to deal with family situations. I’m confident assuming that back when most vets were male, they weren’t the ones responsible for a sick child who had to stay home after school. They were free to work 12 hours without interruption, which is always expected of veterinary teams with more than 50% women. It feels like the profession is unwilling to acknowledge this change, as it would mean giving many of its employees more paid time off or offering to subsidize expenses such as childcare.
Before the underutilization problem can be addressed, practice owners and clinic operators need to recognize that vet techs are barely surviving on their current salaries.
Some veterinary clinics will invariably say that they cannot afford to raise salaries for veterinary technicians, although we have known for many years that each credentialed technician employed by a practice brings high monetary value. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that these staff members have a significant positive impact on gross practice revenue.
To compensate for a higher salary for licensed technicians, clinics could schedule appointments with technicians for services such as vaccine boosters, suture removal, and nail clippings, allowing the veterinarian time to perform and charge for specialized tasks that improve clinic results.
It would seem that the veterinary medical business is very profitable, at least for the large business consolidators. Since 2007, Mars, Inc. has acquired Banfield, BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospitals and VCA Animal Hospitals in North America, as well as several overseas veterinary groups. They have invested billions of dollars in a company that continues to grow.
A significant salary increase for certified technicians seems doable and smart. Not only would this keep them in the field, but it would incentivize unlicensed vet assistants to become licensed, increasing the pool of qualified and experienced vet techs who can help solve the current workforce crisis.
As part of the focus on utilizing and improving the job satisfaction of vet techs, at least one vet school is launching a master’s degree for credentialed techs as a pathway to a future mid-level professional position, similar to medical assistants in the field of human medicine. While I don’t deny that a mid-level position can one day implement better utilization and provide job satisfaction for vet techs, it could take decades to become a reality. And even then, I would argue that people in the new position will face the same hurdles PAs have had to overcome, such as pushback from physicians who were unwilling to relinquish control of some of their duties or feared that PAs would not operate at a high enough level. level.
The veterinary profession needs to show it is willing to invest in vet techs by offering better compensation before credentialed techs go into more debt for a master’s degree and the promise of something better in the future. Now let’s talk about what we know will keep vet techs in their jobs: better pay.
There are moral implications involved. There is a saying floating around online that does a brilliant job of underlining the crux of the matter for me:
If you can’t afford to pay a living wage, you can’t afford to be in business. You are asking human beings to use their lives to subsidize your desire to own a business. If a job is worth doing, it is worth getting paid enough to live on.
The demand for accredited veterinary technicians is irrefutable. It’s high time we got paid what we’re worth.
Heather Schrader has been a Certified Veterinary Technician since 2002. She earned her BSc in Marine Science and her MSc in Criminal Justice from Boston University. For 4 1/2 years, she was the Student Outreach Program Manager for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, working with student vets and vet techs to raise awareness of animal welfare and advocacy issues through education and the service. Heather recently launched a satellite in Sacramento of the Colorado-based Street Dog Coalition, which provides free basic veterinary care to pets owned by homeless people, as well as other social services, in partnership with organizations local.