YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In response to a staffing shortage, two local colleges are working to enroll more veterinary technician students.
Kent State University Trumbull and Eastern Gateway Community College are beefing up their efforts after receiving many requests from animal clinics who urgently need help.
Vet techs assist veterinarians, like a nurse assists a physician, says Dr. Mike Sabihi, director of the veterinary technician program at EGCC, and a veterinarian at Angels for Animals. The vet techs draw blood, collect samples, take patient history, and sometimes do injections under the supervision of a veterinarian with client permission, .
There are eight students in EGCC’s two-year vet tech program, which began in January. After graduating and passing the veterinary technician exam, they will be ready to work, Sabihi says.
It’s anticipated there will be 10 to 14 students enrolling in August. Typically, the program at EGCC begins once a year, but this year it will be twice, Sabihi said.
“Angels for Animals wants a pipeline of students right into their practice. The other vets in the area are also interested,” said Gina Augustine, dean of health, science and public service.
For the third year in a row, vet tech students at KSU Trumbull earned the highest three-year average passing rate of 100% in Ohio on their exam, which is administered by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards, says Melissa Best, program director.
“This is an incredible accomplishment,” she adds.
Best partially attributes the shortage of vet techs to low wages but says that is being addressed.
Before COVID-19, vet techs averaged $12 to $14 an hour. To attract more to the field, wages have since risen to $18 to $20. “It was a big jump,” she says.
Graduating students and current vet techs should take advantage of the shift in the industry. This is the time to negotiate wages and benefits, Augustine says. She’s also anticipating sign-on bonuses as well.
Low pay can cause people to leave the industry, says Kourtney Nelson, a registered vet tech at Niles Veterinary Clinic.
“The shortage, in my opinion, is because of how badly the pay is,” Nelson. “It’s maybe $14 an hour.”
Because of the high volume of work, vet techs do as much, if not more, than a registered nurse who treats humans, according to Nelson.
The volume is causing people to “burn out and leave,” she says.
As a result, some people leave the industry and “work at the hobby store that pays $18 an hour,” Nelson says.
Still, many continue because they feel a sense of duty to care for helpless, scared animals.
“This is a calling,” Nelson says. “You have to love what you do to show up to work every day.”
At KSU, administration and educators are trying to brainstorm ways to bring new students to the college. Veterinarian clinics call and ask Best if she has leads on applicants, and she usually has to respond with a no.
“It’s a two-year program. I can’t speed it up, but I can do my best to get students to enroll,” she says.
To alleviate staffing stress, schools that offer vet tech certifications need to find ways to bring students in the field, Best and Augustine agree.
On the other hand, burnout is real and clinics need to be creative in keeping their staff, Best says.
“It’s a five-year burnout. There’s neglect and abuse with animals we see, and lots of euthanasia we see daily. Without offering pay and great benefits and perks to keep employees, I think we’re going to continue to see staff shortages,” she says.
Adding to the existing burnout, and a major contributor to why animal clinics have been booked solid for years now, is what Nelson called “pandemic pets.”
As more people were able to stay home for work, many got a pet. That created steep demand for vaccinations and wellness checkups. Add to that the rise in elective surgeries that had been put off because of the pandemic, she says.
Pictured: Taylor Ball, left, and Julia Beasley treat a Golden Retriever at the Kent State Trumbull Campus in Champion.