Imbalanced veterinary workforce highlights opportunities as well as challenges

Imbalanced veterinary workforce highlights opportunities as well as challenges

Veterinary workforce study's maldistribution findings put a spotlight on profession's economic difficulties.
Sep 01, 2012

Dr. Ralph Richardson
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."

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.

Dr. Karen Felsted
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.

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.