On the surface, the job outlook for veterinarians has never been better. The human-animal bond is stronger than ever, and a federal report outlines a veterinary workforce shortage. Veterinary colleges are answering the call, increasing class sizes and offering loan repayment programs to the next generation of DVMs.
But on the practice side, visits are decreasing and competition for jobs, especially among new graduates saddled with debt, is on the rise.
Some blame veterinarians themselves for not putting enough value on their services and failing to grab their share of the ever-growing pet market. But others say increasing pet dollars don’t always translate to more veterinary spending, and that the number of veterinarians are increasing far more than the DVMs’ market share.
“The market has grown in real dollars by about 26 percent since 1991, and the number of veterinarians has grown by 78 percent,” says James F. Wilson, DVM, JD, a veterinary consultant who now serves on the VetPartners Career Development Committee, Veterinary Pet Insurance’s (VPI) Veterinary Advisory Board, and as a national advisor for the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA). “The market’s not growing at anywhere near the pace as the people entering it.”
Federal economists, using increasing pet spending and pet-ownership figures, predict that DVM jobs will grow by almost 9 percent over the next seven years. Federal and state governments are offering loan-repayment programs to veterinary students who commit to working in shortage areas, like rural, large-animal medicine.
There are about 12,000 more veterinarians than there were five years ago (not accounting for retirees), but the unemployment rate among veterinarians is 1.4 percent—almost a half percentage more than in 2005, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The unemployment rate for veterinarians was at 0.5 percent or less for the last three years.
Even as BLS reports unemployment rates are rising among veterinarians, it also predicts that from 2008 to 2018, job opportunities for veterinarians will “increase much faster than average,” at a rate of 33 percent.
The bureau predicts a total of 79,400 veterinarians by 2018 based on increased pet ownership and spending. Today, there are 73,000 veterinarians by BLS’ count and 90,201 by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA).
“Recent trends indicate particularly strong interest in cats as pets. Faster growth of the cat population is expected to increase the demand for feline medicine and veterinary services, while demand for veterinary care for dogs should continue to grow at a more modest pace,” BLS explains in projections for the veterinary profession. “Furthermore, the number of pet owners purchasing pet insurance is rising, increasing the likelihood that considerable money will be spent on veterinary care.”
BLS also predicts that jobs for veterinary technicians will rise 36 percent by 2018.
But while predictions based on increased pet spending (read more about pet spending trends in the June issue of DVM Newsmagazine ) and pockets of workforce shortages place veterinary medicine in a cycle of continuous growth, Wilson contends there is little evidence to back up those claims. The problem of the “feline decline” has frequently been documented, yet is clearly part of the basis for BLS’ projection of growth in the veterinary profession. Additionally, filling the need for veterinarians in underserved areas, such as rural and large-animal medicine, will always be a problem, but it doesn’t mean there is a shortage across the profession, Wilson argues.
“Too many have their heads in the sand, not wanting to see the bad news, hoping it will go away. Except for a very few of us, no one’s doing their homework to calculate any true financial reality,” Wilson says.
Paul Pion, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, co-founder of VIN, says there has always been, and always will be, areas in the country and segments of the profession with veterinary shortages, but that represents a small slice of the entire profession. “In hopes of filling that small slice, we’re overfilling the rest of the pie,” Pion says. “To make things worse, no one seems to know how many veterinarians are needed to fill that slice, but leaders in the profession claim veterinary medicine needs to grow by another 20,000 in the next decade.”
Retirements have leveled off since the recession has forced many practice owners to delay retirement. As a result, Wilson says, young veterinarians who want to own their own practice can’t find any to buy. Wilson says a colleague in practice sales recently told him 300 veterinarians were looking to buy practices, but no one wants to sell.
“Instead of buying a practice, they start their own,” Wilson says. “That dilutes the market even further.”
Median new client visits have dropped from 271 in 2001 to 218 in 2009, according to recent figures from the American Animal Hospital Association. Patients per veterinarian per year dropped from 4,588 to 4,356 during the same period.
A recent study by National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, Brakke Consulting and Bayer Animal Health reports that 56 percent of veterinarians reported a drop in visits from 2009 to 2010.
The joint study outlined several reasons for a decline in veterinary visits, but some say the blame, looking at the bigger picture, lies with DVMs.
The profession’s failure to promote its own value is keeping owners from being able to expand their practices, leaving job-seeking veterinarians debt-ridden and out of luck, according to some with their eyes on the veterinary job market.
”We know what good medicine is, but we’re not doing good client education and telling them what good medicine is,” says industry consultant Nan Boss, DVM, owner of Best Friends Veterinary Center in Grafton, Wis. “It’s our own fault. People literally don’t understand their pet will live longer and be healthier if they visit their veterinarian.”
Boss says if veterinarians were better at communicating their value to pet owners and promoting routine care, vaccines and preventives, they would have the revenue they need to hire more doctors and enjoy a better work/life balance. Instead, she sees practice owners and new graduates running in circles, working themselves to death.
“We haven’t broken through that cultural barrier that says pets don’t need care. Practices aren’t offering everything they should to a client and the pet who comes in the door. There’s all this revenue they’re losing out on, and then they complain they aren’t making enough money,” Boss says. “It’s a shame because it’s the pets that don’t get the right treatment. We just let the money and the products and services walk right out the door.”
And ultimately, fewer client visits is a root cause to a tight labor market.
While the economy surely hasn’t helped, Boss says problems in the veterinary profession started long before the recession. Veterinary visits have been in decline for some time, and the profession has not stepped up to the plate to reverse that trend. Fewer visits and lost revenue during the visits that are being made are lost opportunities on the part of the veterinarian and translate to less money for the practice and for hiring new doctors, she says.
Others with eyes on the veterinary job market agree that veterinarians need to learn to sell their skills better but are more optimistic about the job outlook.
“Last year, we were very busy, and 50 percent of search firms went out of business because of the economy. So there must be something going right in the veterinary industry,” says Stacy Pursell, founder and president of the veterinary job-search firm, The Vet Recruiter. “I feel like the future for veterinary medicine is bright, but I think the industry will have to better educate the public.”
Pet spending is unquestionably on the rise, and more companies are venturing into animal health. Whether that translates into more spending on veterinary care remains to be seen, says Pursell.
Is there really a shortage of veterinarians?
More than 2,000 new veterinarians are produced by veterinary colleges accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association each year. Those who doubt the profession is in a cycle of growth say plans to increase enrollment further may be a mistake.
“What I’m seeing is, unless there’s a remarkable turnaround in the economy, we’re looking at a really serious oversupply of veterinarians in the next five to six years,” Wilson says.
Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, says, “There’s a feeling by many that the floodgates are open and we have too many veterinarians,” but refers back to federal reports that cite a national shortage of DVMs.
In contrast, postings on the AVMA job boards are believed to have declined over the last few years. Although AVMA would not confirm a number, the association had 265 active listings for DVM jobs in mid May.
Wilson says he has been tracking AVMA’s job listings, and says listings have dropped 23-35 percent from the levels experienced during the more robust job market from 2002 to 2008.
Across the country, the veterinary job market is highly dependent on what is happening in geographic regions and communities as it relates to population growth, economy and pet owner trends.
A veterinary search firm based in Oklahoma recently conducted a job search on behalf of a practice owner who received 400 applications for one veterinarian posting’though the majority of the applicants didn’t even possess a DVM degree.
Wilson says a practice owner he recently spoke with in the Northeast had 40 applications for one DVM position.
Karen Morris, who handles human resources for Munster Animal Hospital, located about 30 miles outside Chicago, says the practice’s search for a new associate is going well. They received about 10 resumes in the two weeks after the job was listed. Some of the applicants were local, but Morris says the majority were new graduates from all over the country.
Eastwood Animal Hospital in Orlando hasn’t been so lucky, with the receptionist commenting that the practice is ‘struggling to get applications.’ In the meantime, a long-awaited national study on this topic from the National Academies of Sciences still has no release date, and its release has been delayed for several years. Still many people in the market are unsure which way it’s heading.
“I’ve been sitting here reading both sides of the story and haven’t been able to put it all together,” Pursell says. “I’m hearing from employers that can’t fill positions, and then I hear from candidates that have been looking for a job for three months—so there’s a disconnect there.”
The recovering economy should provide a boost in job openings, Pursell speculates. Her firm mostly focuses on specialized searches and is often sought to recruit doctors from other practices rather than placing the unemployed, she notes, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t seeing a lot of opportunities for veterinarians who want to work.
On the practice side, companion-animal medicine dominates in terms of both job-seeking and job-filling inquiries to her firm. But more practitioners are looking to leave clinic life and join the ranks of DVMs in industry positions, she says.
“There seem to be more vets who are wanting to leave practice to go into industry,” she says. “Everyone has a different reason, but I hear most that they’re tired of doing the same thing every day. They feel like they’ve done all they can do at this point in their career. They’re just kind of burned out and want to move to the business side.”
However, industry jobs aren’t what they used to be, Pursell cautions.
“When I first started recruiting, there was a bigger salary difference for practicing versus industry. It’s not as big of a difference anymore,” she says.
While Pursell focuses on opportunities for DVMs with career experience, Boss says new graduates are in an entirely different situation. dvm
Coming next month—veterinary students caught in the crossfire.