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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

More Bad News For Veterinary Jobs. What Now?

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) just released its 2013 Veterinary Workforce study.  There are several conclusions that the study made, none of which should be a surprise to anyone who has been following the profession in recent years.
  • The supply of veterinarians in the US exceeds the demand by about 12.5%
  • An excess of 11-14% annually is expected through 2025.
  • There is little evidence of widespread workforce shortages in the profession
  • Annual growth in new graduates from 2004-2013 averaged 2.6%
  • Projected mean annual growth in new veterinarians (including foreign graduates) from 2012-2015 is 4.5%
So essentially the supply of veterinarians in the US exceeds demand, and we're putting an increasing number of vets into the workforce.  Simple math would indicate that this would decrease salaries (since practice owners can hire desperate vets for less) and decrease the number of jobs available.  Combine a less-than-rosy job prospect with skyrocketing costs of a veterinary education, and it's not a good time to be a new vet.  According to this study that will continue for the next 10-15 years. 


But none of this is really "news".  While we might have some quantifiable numbers now, the trends have been there for years and anyone watching the data or reading my blog for the past year won't be shocked.  And hopefully this is is being discussed in veterinary colleges.  So what is to be done?  It's all well and good to know this information, but then what can we do about it?

This is where I get very frustrated by the leaders in our profession.  The study continually talks about needing more research.   "Identify", "Implement", "Research", and "Collect" are frequent words thrown around.  Here are some quotes.

The AVMA should identify and implement strategies to increase the demand for veterinarians and veterinary services and provide an annual update on the estimated current and projected supply of and demand for veterinarians and veterinary services.

A program should be implemented to collect and analyze data that provide reliable information on the number of veterinarians entering the US workforce each year including specific data related to geographic region and practice sector.

A system should be developed to assess the number of veterinarians changing employment sectors or becoming temporarily or permanently inactive in veterinary medicine and their reasons for doing so.

Research should be performed to better understand how demand for veterinary services is related to the overall US economy, consumers’ disposable income, and the price of veterinary services.

Really?  That's it?  Those are the things the "great leaders" of our profession are stating in order to handle a legitimate crisis?  All they are saying is "we need to do more studies".  

Um, hello....haven't be been doing studies for years?  Haven't we seen this trend coming for many years?  Personally I've been reading reports like this going back four to five years.  When are we going to stop studying and start acting?

This is where I get upset with the leaders in the AVMA and the veterinary colleges.  The solutions are out there but nobody seems to want to make those tough decisions.  First would be stopping any planned new veterinary schools.  If supply already exceeds demand, why are we graduating more vets?  We don't need new vet schools and it's only going to worsen the problem.  Second is to stop increasing class sizes.  I know that the existing colleges need the tuition for survival during budget cuts, but once again we are already a saturated market and don't need even more vets.  These two solutions could be implemented immediately and give a quick fix pending further decisions. 

Then we need to strongly educate people considering a veterinary profession on the realities of the financial prospects.  How realistic is it to pay back $200,000 or more of student loans on a $60,000 salary?  We need to give the hard facts to the point of virtually discouraging students out of the field.  This is a very touchy-feely profession where people go into it for the love of the animals rather than the money.  But loving animals and wanting to take care of them doesn't pay the rent, car loan, or grocery bills.  I think that anyone accepted to veterinary school should be required to take a one-time class on personal finances before they start classes.  This information would go over their expected starting salaries, how much student loans they can expect, and how difficult that is to pay off.  Some students would drop out then, and that's a good thing for them as well as other students.  Does this sound harsh?  Good.  There needs to be a strong dose of reality thrown at students very early on, because dreams and good wishes don't pay the bills.

We also need to toughen the requirements to get student loans.  In many ways it's far too easy for veterinary students to get the loans to accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt in only four years.  Part of the reason for the housing crisis in the US over the last several years is because mortgages were too easy to qualify for and people ended up in loans they couldn't repay.  That same problem is happening with veterinary students, where new graduates are ending up with debt burden that they have difficulty repaying.  If it was more difficult to get loans we would screen out some of the people trying to enter vet school, which does help.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm not trying to be elitist or think that being a vet is only possible for the wealthy.  In fact, I'm trying to consider the difficulties that new vets face and save them that burden and challenge.  Anyone who has graduated in the last few years can attest to how hard it is to simply make ends meet.  But there are realities to loans and salaries that our leaders have noted but don't seem to be able to do anything about. 

Rather than more studies, the AVMA and others need to start acting and be willing to make tough decisions.  The solutions exist, but nobody seems to have the guts to actually do them.  Until then everyone who is considering or is in veterinary school needs to look long and hard about their fiances and chances of employment.  If the veterinary leaders won't take action it's up to the individuals to have responsibility for their own futures.