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Veterinary students are entering a tight job market


National Report - Thomas Bauman, a native of California's central valley-home to the state's $63 billion dairy industry-grew up around dairy cows. He worked on famrs and progressed to veterinary school, following a food-animal track at UC-Davis. A 2011 grad, Bauman says he never imagined he would have trouble finding a job.

NATIONAL REPORT — Thomas Bauman, a native of California's central valley—home to the state's $63 billion dairy industry—grew up around dairy cows. He worked on farms and progressed to veterinary school, following a food-animal track at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis). A 2011 UC-Davis grad, Bauman says he never imagined he would have trouble finding a job.

But it took him six months to land his first position, and he says he's not alone.

Although veterinary schools are increasing enrollment to match a predicted veterinarian shortage, especially in large-animal and rural medicine, and offering loan-repayment program to lure students into underserved areas, those on the front-lines of today's veterinary job market are saying there is a disconnect between what industry leaders are saying and what is happening on farms and in clinics across the country.

"For the past six months, the topic of whether or not you have a job yet is what you talk about with your classmates, and it's been a problem for everybody," Bauman says.

It used to be common for new veterinary school graduates to have jobs lined up, and sometimes even have several to choose from, but times are changing.

Some leaders in the profession say the market is not growing fast enough to absorb the number of new DVMs entering it. The veterinary market as a whole has grown in real dollars by about 26 percent since 1991, while the number of DVMs has grown by 78 percent, according to James F. Wilson, DVM, JD, a veterinary consultant who serves on the VetPartners Career Development Committee and as a national adviser for the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA).

Veterinary shortages are not widespread, but more of a distribution problem, some say, yet enrollment is still on the rise and is expected to increase by about 11 percent over the next few years—much higher than the 2 percent annual increase the job market must now absorb.

While the veterinary unemployment rate is still under 2 percent and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 9 percent increase in veterinary jobs over the next seven years, additional data to affirm a healthy job market is difficult to pinpoint. Several career counselors at veterinary colleges contacted by DVM Newsmagazine say they post job listings on school websites, but don't track graduate placement. The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) also doesn't track the career path of new graduates. The American Veterinary Medical Association is reportedly the only entity with an eye on those figures, according AAVMC, but requests for information by DVM Newsmagazine were unanswered at press time.

Bauman began his job search in January 2011, around the same time as many of his classmates. Numerous cold calls and nine applications later, Bauman says he received just one job offer, and that didn't come until June. He accepted a job at a Lander Vet Clinic, a food-animal exclusive practice serving the San Joaquin Valley in California, but he says many of his classmates are still on the hunt.

"I would estimate that probably only about half of the food-animal people in my class have jobs," he says. "There's a lot who don't have jobs who are very actively looking for them."

Part of his problem, Bauman says, is that many of the practices to which he applied wanted someone with some small-animal experience. Students on a food-animal track at UC-Davis have a hard time fitting that into their schedules, he says. He might have had luck with applications in Illinois and Kansas, had the job at Lander not worked out, but Bauman says he was hesitant to pick up and move himself and his wife across the country, uncertain of what success he might find.

"My perception overall is that there is a demand in some areas, but it's a demand that is kind of counterbalanced by the fact that wages are often low in those areas and it's also kind of in the middle of nowhere," he says. "If you want to be close to family or a major town, that's probably not a good option for you."

The job he considered in Illinois offered a starting salary of $40,000, Bauman says, which is hardly enough to support a family carrying $150,000 worth of student debt. He landed the job at Lander for $75,000. Loan-repayment programs seemed like a promising option, but there are so many uncertainties, Bauman adds.

Loan-repayment programs provide students with maps of shortage areas, but don't give them much more guidance about how to get there and set up a practice.

"As a new grad, you're not just going to move into a shortage area and set up. You're looking for mentorship."

Plus, many of the rural areas advertised through the loan-repayment programs can't support a veterinarian, which is why they are shortage areas, he says.

"The other compounding challenge is, even if you move out there, there's no guarantee you're going to get the money. You're competing against other people who are applying for it," Bauman says. "So basically, you really need this program if you're going to make it in these areas, and you don't even know if you're going to get the money or not. To me, that was a big obstacle in applying for some of these areas."

Veterinary schools could do a better job of helping students navigate these programs and making sure the training they receive prepares them with the skills they will need to actually secure a job, he says. It wouldn't hurt to give students fair warning and teaching them to be realistic, Bauman adds.

"Probably what would help the most is raising the awareness of students starting vet school thinking it will be easy to find work," he says.

Krissy Netherwood, who will be starting her second year of veterinary school this year at UC-Davis, is already taking a hard look at the job market and trying to prepare herself the best she can. While her passion is equine medicine, Netherwood says she is so worried about finding a job after graduation, she is also taking courses in small-animal medicine.

"I have to make a living somehow. The debt we're supposed to have is roughly $200,000 and how are you possibly going to pay that back?" asks Netherwood, the daughter of a prison guard who makes $85,000 per year and never went to college. "It's kind of like a joke to me, but I feel like I'll never make as much as my dad does. You might as well have done something else."

"I think there's a big disconnect between the students and the schools. I wish the universities would do more to help us out," she says. "They're investing more in the future generation, but they're not here now. Why not help the people who are struggling now?"

Netherwood says she suggested UC-Davis institute mentorship programs between recent graduates and current veterinary students at the school, but nothing has taken shape yet. There are few resources in terms of job placement and career guidance—or at least that students know about and regularly use, she says.

Students who want to round out their education may have to look beyond university borders to professional groups and student organizations.

Ashley Craig, national president of the Veterinary Business Management Association, says in today's job market, new graduates need to set themselves apart with special expertise to make themselves more marketable. Having general business knowledge, for example, can help increase the amount of revenue a new graduate can bring into a practice and boost productivity, she says. Craig, who is going into her fourth year at Tuskegee University, is preparing for a career in equine medicine and says she's working toward securing an internship now in hopes the practice might like her enough to hire her afterwards.

"You really have to have a niche for yourself, something you can offer and bring to the table," she says. "It's not about being an average practitioner anymore; you have to be an exceptional practitioner."

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