Photo by Jeffrey Schrader
Heather Schrader, shown here with her dog Wilma, is a licensed veterinary technician. She left clinical practice in large part due to poor pay. Schrader believes that paying technicians better is the most effective way for veterinary practices to attract and retain skilled, experienced staff.
I just renewed my California state registered veterinary technician license online. The biennial fee of $350 may not seem like a huge sum. But along with national and/or state examinations, continuing education and uniforms, it is one of several regular expenses that can break licensed veterinary technicians.
The median pay for a veterinary technician in the United States is $17.43 an hour, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. This wage is not enough for anyone who makes student loan or car payments, has children or wants to contribute to a retirement plan.
Even though I keep renewing my license, I left clinical practice. I now manage a student outreach program for an animal welfare organization. Other than volunteer work and the occasional spay/neuter project, I no longer regularly use my hard-earned skills with a team of veterinary professionals. I didn't plan to quit the career I loved — one that gave me great joy as well as great sorrow, a bad back and a dark sense of humor — but I did, in large part due to low pay and overwork. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the North American Veterinary Technicians in America, I am not alone.
We enter veterinary medicine because we love working with animals, helping clients care for their furry family members and the camaraderie of a team dedicated to making our patients' lives better. But I have seen many great veterinary technicians quit because they are spent. They are tired not just of the long hours or lack of adequate time off. They are tired of the veterinary profession sacrificing their basic needs in the quest for profit.
The profession is going through a crisis. A shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians is putting too much work on too few shoulders. This, of course, has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the shutdown of veterinary clinics early on, but it was on the horizon before COVID-19.
Several veterinary organizations see promise in improving utilization, which translates into veterinary technicians being given the freedom to perform the full array of tasks they are trained and licensed to perform. Full utilization, the thinking goes, will keep them engaged and challenged in the profession and better able to support veterinarians and the clinics they work for. The American Veterinary Medical Association has created a task force to “identify potential solutions” for utilization of veterinary technicians. The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges held a virtual conference recently that focused on the issue. (There were shockingly few veterinary technicians presenting.)
This focus on how the profession can better utilize the skills of technicians or elevate their skill level to ease the burden on overextended veterinarians is not a new idea, nor is it a bad one. It fails, however, to address the fundamental factors that contribute 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 working emergency hours, and my skills were pretty well used. Besides patient care, my tasks included acting as an advice nurse, triaging emergency cases, monitoring in-patient cases, and discussing patient care with clients who were either calling about their hospitalized pet or picking up a pet after a lengthy hospital stay.
I felt like my colleagues greatly appreciated me and my contributions to our highly respected clinic. However, I would argue that on paper, I was not a valued member of the team. I was living paycheck to paycheck and in constant fear that an unexpected expense would send me deep into debt. I took on all the overtime I could get to keep that anxiety at bay. I was committed to a job that didn't allow me time to rest emotionally or physically.
While I was not living below the federal poverty threshold, I struggled to make a living wage. The living wage is the minimum income required to meet basic needs such as food, housing, transportation and clothing. It does not cover dining out, caring for a pet, vacations, entertainment, contributing to personal savings or retirement, investments such as purchasing a home, or paying off debt. I suppose I was lucky that working the graveyard shift and many extra hours to make ends meet didn't give me the time to brood over 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 accrued were inevitably used to battle sickness, injury or family emergency.
In a profession that puts us at daily risk of being bitten, scratched, bruised, poked by used needles, exposed to zoonotic disease, radiation, chemicals, etc., is it too much to ask to be provided with adequate paid sick leave and paid vacation time to recover from a job that pushes us to the brink of mental and emotional exhaustion?
I haven't even touched on time off needed to care for a child or other family member. (Dr. Megan Andeer did a great job addressing this in her commentary, "How 'family friendly' is the veterinary profession, really?" published June 21, 2021.) Veterinary medicine has become a female-dominated profession, yet it struggles with deep-rooted gender bias. Many clinics today ignore the fact that the majority of their employees will inevitably need time off to deal with family situations. I feel confident assuming that back in the day when most vets were men, they were not the ones responsible for a sick child who needed to stay home from school. They were free to work 12 hours uninterrupted, and this is still expected of veterinary teams that are more than 50% female. It feels like the profession is not willing to acknowledge this change because that would mean giving more paid time off for many of its employees or offering to subsidize expenses such as childcare.
Before we can solve the underutilization problem, practice owners and clinic operators must acknowledge that veterinary technicians are barely surviving on their current wage.
Some veterinary clinics will invariably argue that they can't afford to increase veterinary technician wages, although we've known for many years that every credentialed technician employed by a practice brings high monetary value. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found these staff members have a significant positive impact on gross practice revenue.
To offset a higher wage for licensed technicians, clinics could schedule technician appointments for services such as vaccine boosters, suture removals and nail trims, leaving the veterinarian time to perform and charge for specialized tasks improving the clinic's bottom line.
It would appear that the veterinary medical business is highly profitable, at least for the large corporate consolidators. Since 2007, Mars, Inc. has acquired Banfield, BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospitals and VCA Animal Hospitals in North America, along with several veterinary groups overseas. They have invested billions of dollars in a business that is steadily growing.
A significant pay increase for credentialed technicians seems feasible and smart. It would not only keep them in the field, it would incentivize noncredentialed veterinary assistants to become credentialed, increasing the pool of qualified, experienced veterinary technicians who can help address the current workforce crisis.
As part of the focus on utilization and improving veterinary technician job satisfaction, at least one veterinary school is launching a master's degree for credentialed technicians as a pathway to a future midlevel professional position, similar to physician assistants in the human medical field. While I don't deny that a midlevel position might someday implement better utilization and offer job satisfaction for veterinary technicians, it could take decades to become a reality. And even then, I would argue that those in the new position will face the same barriers PAs had to overcome, such as pushback from doctors who did not want to relinquish control of some of their duties or worry PAs would not perform at a high enough level.
The veterinary profession must show it is willing to invest in veterinary technicians by offering better compensation before credentialed technicians take on additional debt for a master's degree and the promise of something better in the future. Let's address what we know will keep veterinary technicians in their jobs now: better compensation.
There are moral implications at stake. There's a saying circulating online that does a brilliant job highlighting 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 being done, it's worth being paid enough to live.
The demand for credentialed veterinary technicians is irrefutable. It's long overdue that we are paid what we're worth.
About the author: Heather Schrader has been a registered veterinary technician since 2002. She received a bachelor's in marine science and master's in criminal justice from Boston University. For 4½ years, she has been the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association program manager of student outreach, working with veterinary and veterinary technician students to raise awareness of animal welfare and advocacy issues through education and service. Heather recently started a Sacramento satellite of the Colorado-based Street Dog Coalition, which brings free basic veterinary care to pets belonging to people experiencing homelessness, along with other social services, in partnership with local organizations.