When it comes to recruiting for underserved segments of veterinary medicine—such as public practice, research in academe and
industry, rural practice and food safety—leaders of the profession are "fishing for bass in a pool full of goldfish," says
Ralph Richardson, DVM, dean of the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "We have to go back and see what
we stock the pool with."
Dr. Ralph Richardson
A recent study by the National Research Council (NRC) titled "Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine" asserted that there
is no present or impending shortage of veterinarians in the United States. There is, however, a maldistribution of veterinarians.
Richardson agrees. In his analogy the goldfish are companion animal veterinarians—with whom veterinary schools are stocked
to the gills—while qualified candidates in areas such as research and industry, food safety and bioterrorism are the bass.
But veterinary medicine's dual problems of crushing student debt and uncompetitive salaries keep most of the profession's
trainees swimming in the direction of private companion animal practice, where the greatest potential for higher income exists,
if not the reality—especially in what many believe is quickly becoming an oversaturated market.
To stretch the piscine analogy even more, there are ideas out there on how to better stock the veterinary pond, but the jobs
have to be worth the hook.
For veterinary schools, the abundance of companion animal veterinarians is evident with each student acceptance. "Most students
go in with the idea that they're going to practice," says Karen Felsted, DVM, CPA, MS, CVPM, president of Felsted Veterinary
Consultants in Dallas, Texas. She thinks the ability to recruit students to areas outside the realm of private practice comes
down to exposure to possibly unknown opportunities beyond dogs and cats.
Dr. Karen Felsted
Richardson agrees, but he says it's important to identify those students interested in science and research early—before veterinary
school. "I think that needs to start at the high school and undergraduate levels," he says. "By the time they get admitted
to veterinary college, they are pursuing a specific career." And that specific career is traditionally private practice. He
says young people don't always know about the opportunities that are emerging in the veterinary profession. He hopes that
if he and other recruiters catch prospective students early, it will pay off in a more diverse enrollment.
Exposure to jobs in research, public safety and rural practice can also come through professional modeling, internships and
externships. "We have a high presence for role modeling in the practice field," Richardson says. "We need that in other fields."
Veterinary students are expected to do an externship, but as most are on the companion animal path, they don't necessarily
seek opportunities outside that area. "It's by choice that they decide to go to one of the underserved areas," Richardson
says. "Perhaps we can do a better job of encouraging that from an educational perspective."
But Richardson acknowledges that it can be a hard sell. It's difficult to get students to "take the bait" when graduates entering
the workforce are already on the hook for an average of $142,613 in student debt (according to the American Veterinary Medical
Association) and face salaries—especially in rural jobs—that can't compete.
"Exposure's not going to do anything unless people are going to make a living wage," Felsted says. "And the debt makes everything
harder. It narrows peoples' options." For example, Felsted says, it's not necessarily that there aren't "enough" veterinarians
to fill shortages in rural practice, but that veterinarians can't make a living wage in those positions.