The issues surrounding staff retention and vet shortages throughout the profession have been a constant topic of discussion in recent years. It is no surprise, therefore, that a session dedicated to this crisis took place during this year’s online Official Veterinarian (OV) Conference.
After the triple threat of avian influenza, Brexit and coronavirus, which led to CVO Christine Middlemiss referring to 2021 as the profession’s “ABC year” in her opening address, the issue of retention has become more apparent than ever. But how have the “ABCs” of this year affected OV shortages and staff retention, and what can we do about it?
In his session entitled “Vet shortages: where are we up to and what can you do? A discussion”, British Veterinary Association (BVA) Senior Vice President James Russell evaluated the Association’s thoughts on several reasons for OV shortages, and suggested solutions to increase staff retention.
Reasons for vet shortages
James asked delegates to vote in multiple polls throughout his presentation and, in the first poll, delegates were asked whether they felt that the profession was seeing fewer vets joining from the EU. The response showed that 77 percent of delegates felt that this was the case, 2 percent felt that this was not the case and 21 percent felt unsure about the number of EU registrants.
The general feeling among the delegates mirrored the statistical data presented by James, who stated that there have been only 250 vets registered from the EU in 2021 so far, which is less than a third of the number expected in comparison to previous years. It is even more challenging to see if those who have registered in the past are leaving, as people do not tend to de-register from the RCVS immediately after they stop working as a vet or leave the country, says James.
But why are these numbers down?
James suggests that this decrease in EU registrants is due to a combination of coronavirus and Brexit, and the issues and changes they have brought. In 2019, vets were placed on the Shortage Occupation List to help tackle the decrease. But this, although helpful, has “not been a panacea”, declared James: people come into the UK as a qualified vet but not as a member of the RCVS, working instead in a non-veterinary capacity. “The way sponsorship arrangements are set up now,” says James, “it’s very difficult – I think possibly impossible – to change that registration when you are here to become a registered vet doing veterinary work. So that work visa is not going to survive and become a part of that shortage occupation list statistics.”
James suggests that this decrease in EU registrants is due to a combination of coronavirus and Brexit, and the issues and changes they have brought
Furthermore, it was decided post-Brexit that all potential EU registrants must demonstrate a high technical level of English language skills by achieving Band 7 in the IELTS exam. It is hard to tell if this is directly causing a decrease in EU registrations, however, due to COVID-19. No matter the exam level, if you cannot get to the centre where you can take the exam due to pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions, you cannot take the exam, stated James.
In 2018, the Major Employers Group (MEG) highlighted that there was an 11.5 percent vacancy rate across the profession, and the initial suggestion from recent data is that this number might have risen slightly. James stated, however, that anecdotal comments regarding this number have been along the lines of “we have the same number of vets we had this time last year, it just doesn’t feel like it”. Though the government has subsidised the cost of training export OVs, which saw a leap from 600 (in 2019) to 1,800 (early 2021) product export OVs in Great Britain qualified to sign export health certificates (EHCs) for animal products, this number seems to have plateaued.
In 2018, the Major Employers Group (MEG) highlighted that there was an 11.5 percent vacancy rate across the profession, and the initial suggestion from recent data is that this number might have risen slightly
In light of this data, through another of his polls James put the following to delegates: “There is more work to do at the moment: true, false or unsure”. The response leaned heavily towards “true” with 85 percent agreeing with the statement, and only 2 percent disagreeing. Looking at the number of EU EHCs issued by APHA in 2020 vs 2021 (Table 1), it is clear to see the large increase in demand of OV work. With a cumulative total of just 1,761 EU EHCs issued in 2020, rising to almost 214,000 in 2021, this represents a 12,152 percent change. Assuming the rest of the year remains in line with these figures, this could be estimated to require an additional 245 years of certifier time compared to 2020.
James also observed that there are more demands to come of OVs in regard to EHCs, with a potential to increase by between 70,000 and 150,000 per year, with the need for up to 70 full-time equivalent (FTE) OVs being required. Yet, he observes, FTE does not actually equal the required vet numbers; in fact, a 2019 survey found that the average proportion of time an OV spends certifying is approximately 15 percent. On top of this, there will also be controls at ports and the undertaking of document, identity and physical checks coming into play as a result of Brexit.
“We are not aware of any consignment failing to leave the UK for a lack of an OV’s signature,” says James, but he believes that EHCs are pulling OVs away from other vital work. “We’re doing this well, we’re doing it every time, but it is leaving us short at home.”
What can we do and what is being done?
Use of non-professionals
A temporary registration contingency has already been implemented in abattoirs throughout England and Wales in order to help decrease workload and bolster the workforce. This has been a great help, observes James, but is not a solution on its own, as ultimately temporary registered OVs are not MRCVS and therefore still require OV supervision and sign-off.
Certification support officers are also being considered and utilised, with 490 trained so far. This does, however, involve some weakness as the import/export process is driven by the demands of the importing country. We must, therefore, work in conjunction with the European Commission (EC) to find them appropriate places in the export chain as they must be able to fit into the bigger picture of the vet team, explains James.
Discrimination versus good workplaces
In 2018, the BVA, along with Michelle Ryan and Christopher Begeny of the University of Exeter, undertook a study entitled “Motivation, satisfaction and retention: understanding the importance of vets’ day-to-day work experiences” to gauge the ways in which work culture could be improved to increase staff retention in the veterinary profession. The results of the study suggested that “fitting in was one of the lead factors when it comes to recruitment and retention”, according to James.
If a profession can “implement practices that facilitate feeling valued [and] fitting in” the study suggests it could lead to “cultivating a cohort of vets who are strongly motivated in their careers, who are satisfied with their jobs, and who are keen to stay within the profession” (Begeny et al., 2019).
James suggests that eliminating this discrimination, being aware of mental health and well-being, and building up a good workplace culture will go a long way towards increasing retention
Recent studies from the BVA Discrimination Survey (2019) and Voice of the Veterinary Profession Survey (2021) reveal that discrimination is still a problem in the profession with:
- Twenty-four percent of people witnessing or experiencing discrimination
- Sixty-three percent of incidences not being reported
- Only one out of ten incidents being dealt with satisfactorily
- Two and a half times more women in part-time work than men, despite women making up 59 percent of the workforce
James suggests that eliminating this discrimination, being aware of mental health and well-being, and building up a good workplace culture will go a long way towards increasing retention.
The collaborative approach
In the final leg of his discussion, James encouraged people to look at how collaborative working, with clients, the government, exporters and each other, is essential in the future of OV work.
He argues that it is precisely because OVs are highly trained professionals that they are necessary, that they are “the final arbiter of food safety and confidence in the food that we are exporting”. OVs should be part of making policies and sharing concerns with the EC to help identify solutions which meet their needs while being achievable to us as well.
[James Russell] argues that it is precisely because OVs are highly trained professionals that they are necessary… OVs should be part of making policies and sharing concerns with the EC to help identify solutions which meet their needs while being achievable to us as well.
Collaborating with clients and asking them to “respect your vet” will help to rebuild an environment where there is respect both ways, says James.
Christine Middlemiss in her opening address commended the communication between different sections in combating the effect of this year’s “ABCs”, consistently referring to the way in which teamwork, “from farm to fork”, had been a critical factor in the success of this tumultuous year.
“I am really pleased with how, in really pressured circumstances, we worked really well together,” said Christine. “I was pleased in the first week of September to be able to declare [the] UK avian influenza-free again and that’s due to the huge amount of work all across the system from vets on the ground, vets certifying, everybody supporting [the] disease status system that we have, the vets in the laboratories that provide us with information and vets working in policy. Thank you very much for that.”