Colleges, animal shelters in Minnesota offer programs to address vet tech shortage

Jen Charewicz was determined to be a medical technician, but when she walked into an interview for a training program, she had her dog with her. And a query from the interviewer sent her down a different path: veterinary technician.

"Some people go in thinking it's just puppies and kitties all day," Charewicz said. "But it is that aspect of helping to take care of something, helping something get better, helping [with] the connection of an owner and their animal."

Charewicz, who has been a vet tech at the Animal Humane Society for 10 years, started her training at the now-closed Argosy University and finished it at the Animal Humane Society. The nonprofit animal welfare organization has launched programs in recent years to prepare more vet techs to address a staff shortage as Minnesotans face extensive wait times to bring their pandemic pets in for care.

In the state of Minnesota, veterinary technicians are not required by law to be certified. This opens the door for programs like the unaccredited options being offered at the Animal Humane Society, where students can learn veterinary skills through supervised hands-on experience instead of having to pay for classes and their certification.

Dr. Sara Lewis, a managing shelter veterinarian with the Animal Humane Society, said understanding the "why" of veterinary procedures is a big emphasis in their educational programs.

Some argue that having a certification requirement would help vet techs who do go to school in traditional programs to be paid more and have more stable jobs.

At least one recent report, from Mars Veterinary Health, found a need for tens of thousands of certified vet techs nationwide.

Dr. Kim Rowley, a veterinarian and program leader of the veterinary technology department at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC), says that the entire country needs more vet techs and veterinarians, but the economy has discouraged people from pursuing the career. And despite the need of vet techs rising, she hasn't seen a noticeable increase in applicants for the program at RCTC.

"Unfortunately, veterinary technicians, depending upon where they go into practice, aren't paid very well," Rowley said. "And right now the economy is such that people can graduate from high school and get a job at Costco making around $20 an hour, or they can go to school for two years, make just barely more of that than that, and have to pay off their loans."

Charewicz of the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, is also pursuing more veterinary education through an online program. She said she enjoys the flexibility of being able to work and continue studying at the same time.

Dave Burklund, Chavewicz's coworker in Golden Valley, was a certified vet tech working in private practice before his certification expired when he took time off to be a stay-at-home dad. When he wanted to get back to working with animals, the Humane Society's program was more appealing than paying to get his certification again.

"Here, you're actually on the job while you're training," Burklund said. "Certainly you have class instruction or you have a trainer helping you with the skills, but you're clocking in, it's your job."

At the end of the day, Lewis said both accredited programs and the programs at the Animal Humane Society address the need for more veterinary staff throughout the entire state.

"I hope that we can all understand that we're in it together, and that we're really trying to train individuals to be fully informed as they're going out and have those skill sets that can benefit our community," Lewis said. "The more knowledgeable staff we have to care for the animals who don't necessarily have anyone else to take care of them, the better."