Imbalanced veterinary workforce highlights opportunities as well as challenges


Veterinary workforce study's maldistribution findings put a spotlight on profession's economic difficulties.

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.

Employers such as Pfizer Animal Health and the United States Army do offer scholarships to help recruit candidates. There are also state government debt forgiveness programs to encourage veterinarians to accept rural positions. But while these programs are "great," Felsted says, she doesn't necessarily think debt forgiveness fixes the problem. "I struggle with anything that tries to make something work financially that's not working financially on its own."

Plus, says John Volk, senior consultant at Brakke Consulting, despite the massive loans acquired by veterinary students, student debt is not a company's problem; it's a student's problem. "I think it's the company's responsibility to offer a job with competitive salary and benefits," Volk says. "In the broad scheme of things, the amount of debt a student carries just isn't their problem."

John Volk

However, he says veterinarians are at a disadvantage compared with other health professionals. "(Take) a new DVM with $150,000 in student debt and a physician with $150,000—the physician with his starting salary is going to make a lot more money," he says. "That's the dilemma with veterinarians. The relationship between salaries and amount of student debt is not very favorable." (For a chart detailing the differences in student debt and starting salaries among various healthcare professions, see page 16.)

The NRC study did find that the highest salaries for veterinarians are in industry. Yet many research jobs require advanced education. And of course, more education also means more debt. Despite the possibility of a higher salary, Richardson says obtaining advanced education may be cost-prohibitive for some.

What's more, financial support—even when coupled with the warm and fuzzy memories of Grandpa's practice—still may not be enough to lure veterinarians into rural practice. Richardson believes that the factors keeping veterinarians out of rural practice are social, not professional.

As rural America shrinks and urban America grows, rural areas may not have the jobs to support veterinarians' spouses' careers or schools to provide opportunities for their children. And in the rural deserts of veterinary care where there may not be enough business to earn a living wage Felsted says she can understand why people aren't filling those jobs. "I think some of it is money," she says. "And I think some of it is that not everybody wants to live in a rural community."

To Felsted, the problem isn't hard to identify and the result is not unique to veterinarians. "If the salary of any job doesn't pay what somebody wants to earn and live the way they want to live, that's very hard to get past," she says.

While the veterinary profession works to manage the long-term problems of educational cost and professional maldistribution, veterinarians may have to look inward to navigate the waves caused by the massive school of "goldfish."

Felsted says practicing veterinarians need to do everything they can to generate success for themselves and others. This involves creating a healthy practice that pays good salaries and attracts high-quality candidates.

Volk also sees opportunities to grow veterinary practice to create greater demand and earning opportunities. "The veterinary profession as a whole does not operate as profitably as it could," he says. "It's going to take improved management, and I think that's something the schools can work on."

Felsted notes that in the last 10 years there has been an increase in communication, business and life skills classes in veterinary schools. "As [better business practices] become adopted, they will increase salaries and demands for more veterinarians," Volk says.

New federal centers for bioscience and research on the campuses of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, should also create highly visible opportunities for qualified candidates. "Our students have a much greater interest in infectious disease research, food safety and public health because we have those conversations going on around us all the time," Richardson says of the anticipation surrounding the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility planned for Manhattan (For more on the facility in Kan., see page 35).

But he doesn't want students at the forefront of their careers to make decisions solely based on economics. "There's no better time than in the university experience to find where your passions lie," he says. "Students need to sample as many career pathways as possible, find the opportunities that are really rewarding. "

Creating these opportunities and making them appealing to the proverbial pool of goldfish just may—with more economic security and the right exposure—allow the profession to catch more bass.

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