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Community Voices: Shoring up the animal welfare workforce

Karen Chassin

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The animal welfare field has a diversity problem, but the industry is looking for ways to address it. According to a landmark, nationwide 2021 study by the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, 82% of employees are white and 81% are women. There is very limited representation of people with disabilities, those whose first language is not English, or those who identify as something other than heterosexual.

In pursuing ways to broaden the spectrum of people entering the profession, forward-looking nonprofit animal welfare organizations like SPCA Tampa Bay want to do the right thing. But they also seek to address a range of business problems that compromise their success, beginning with chronic staff shortages.  

From medical positions to personnel who support the human side of the animal/pet partnership, such as intake counselors for those surrendering pets and adoption counselors for those taking them home, jobs take an uncomfortably long time to fill. Competition is fierce from for-profit veterinary practices and other nonprofit organizations and businesses that rely on people with strong customer service skills as well as operational capabilities in finance, HR, and communications.

“The key to keeping pace with the staffing needs of this growing field is to encourage new people who care about animals to learn more about the variety of jobs in the profession,” says Howard Qualls, chief human resources officer at SPCA Tampa Bay. Since joining the organization in November 2021, he has been on a mission to form community partnerships that will help spread the word about good jobs and accessible career pathways in animal care among underrepresented groups.

“We have formed a very active Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee made up of staff members who are passionate about creating a more inclusive organization. We are working with schools, colleges, career fair organizers, and community organizations like the Urban League and CareerSource, to help more people visualize themselves in the field,” said Howard. “We’re offering externships. We’re hiring people based on their interests, rather than solely on experience, and training them for the available jobs. We’re working to attract more men and people of color to join our organization. Over time, we hope that they will help attract others to animal care and veterinary work.”

Jae Jamieson is a new vet assistant at the SPCA Tampa Bay Vet Center in St. Petersburg. After a career training path that included criminology, special education and animal studies, Jae has reconnected with her passion for animal rescue and rehabilitation, something fostered early in her life by a grandmother who was an inveterate wildlife and stray rescuer.

The on-the-job training Jae is gaining as a vet tech will help prepare her to apply for veterinary school just as soon as she finishes her degree in Biology.

“We need people from all walks of life in animal health and welfare and the veterinary medicine field,” says Jae. “I have always loved animals and it is gratifying to return to this lifelong interest in my professional career.”

The benefits of a diverse workforce extend beyond an expanded talent pool. When different kinds of people are represented in an organization’s workforce, service and mission delivery improve as well. 

In the field of animal care, this translates into greater empathy and understanding of the connection between animals and people, and what people need to support their pets, according to SPCA Tampa Bay CEO Martha Boden. She said that the field is evolving to understand that supporting the humans at the heart of the people/pet relationship ultimately best serves both sides of the equation.

“Many people face barriers to caring for themselves – things like transportation, limited income, insufficient housing, and a lack of preventive medical care, which in turn can make it difficult to prioritize it for their pets. When our staff can relate to these challenges, we become better at problem solving and serving the community’s needs. Staff that understand a variety of life circumstances help reduce the tendency to judge and instead they focus on solutions,” she said.

“SPCA Tampa Bay is the region’s only For-All shelter,” Qualls added. “That means we care for every species. We strive to be a For-All employer, too—a place where anyone who cares about animals can consider working.”  

According to the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement’s DEI Cultural Audit, many survey respondents recognize that they serve diverse communities but have not historically done enough to bring community perspectives to the table. They also see a need to intensify outreach so that people who could use their programs and services know about them and find them accessible and welcoming.

Having staff and leadership that more closely mirror community demographics is an important step, but culture change matters as well. That means helping new staff understand how to make someone feel welcome when surrendering a pet. A pet owner who feels welcome and safe will share much more information about their pet, giving SPCA Tampa Bay crucial data to support that pet’s journey to a new home. Guiding pet adoptions by getting to know families through supportive conversations, rather than lengthy applications or assumptions based on appearance or demeanor, is also essential in a For-All shelter.

Like many other fields, the animal welfare profession is at the start of this DEI journey, according to Boden. Understanding the work is about animals AND people, demonstrating a commitment to diversity through programs and partnerships, and creating career paths that make it easier for people to grow in the profession – all these steps will ultimately benefit our entire community.

What’s the key message for this moment, however? There are many good jobs, training opportunities, and career paths for those interested in a job working with animals. For more information, contact SPCA Tampa Bay.

 

 

 

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