Where have all the vets gone?

Despite a steady supply of new vet graduates, practices across Australia are finding it hard to fill job vacancies. What is going on and what can be done about it? Merran White investigates

In the past decade, the number of Australian universities offering veterinary courses has jumped from four to seven; collectively, they churn out an estimated 500-550 graduates a year.

Even accounting for the fact that some are overseas students who return home post-graduation, you would think there would be enough vets to go around. Yet many practices are having trouble attracting suitable candidates to veterinary jobs.

For Dr Debbie Delahunty, owner and head vet of Horsham Veterinary Hospital in regional Victoria, recruiting vets to her small-animal practice was never an issue—until last year. And she is not alone; at the 2016 Australian Veterinary Business Association (AVBA) conference, where she hosted dozens of delegates at roundtables on recruitment, Dr Delahunty was “really surprised” at the number of city practice owners expressing similar problems.

“While [most] seeking new graduates have few issues filling positions, employers in some regional areas in SA, the ACT, Perth and outer Sydney metropolitan areas have reported difficulties finding suitable veterinarians with three to five years’ clinical experience seeking full-time employment,” confirms AVA policy manager Dr Debbie Neutze.

What’s causing the vet drought?

Several potential contributing factors have been proposed to explain the recent recruitment squeeze in regional and, increasingly, some urban practices. They include:

l changing industry demographics—notably, more women entering the profession, which likely means more vets seeking work in city-based small-animal private practices; taking time off for child rearing (typically five to 10 years post-graduation), then transitioning to part-time/flexible hours;

  • a desire for better work/life balance, with vets less prepared to work long and irregular hours;
  • an ongoing dearth of vets with five-plus years’ experience working in regional (mixed and production-animal) practice, despite demand;
  • vets jettisoning clinical practice for more lucrative industry roles in pharmaceuticals, or pet food—or exiting the profession entirely.

Changing demographics and career paths

Since the 1990s, the gender make-up of the profession has shifted dramatically. The ‘Australian veterinary workforce review report’ (June 2013, AVA) estimates that the proportion of female vet graduates nationwide will likely “remain at above 70 per cent for the foreseeable future”; by 2022, the report predicts, female vets will comprise more than 60 per cent of Australia’s veterinary workforce.

“The effect of this on the pool of vets available for full-time practice will depend on the rate at which female vets enter the life stage where they have small children, the hours they are then willing to work, and for how long they remain unavailable for full-time practice,” states the AVA report.

Some researchers contend the influx of women could lead to an oversupply of vets in city small-animal practices and a corresponding undersupply of vets in non-metropolitan areas, “[based on] the assumption that female vets will be more likely to spend part of their career not working or working part-time [and] the belief that female vets are (partly as a result of anticipating childcare responsibilities) less interested in rural and production animal practice”.

The quest for work/life balance

The new generation of (predominantly female) vet grads is less likely to prioritise work over family time, leisure and sleep.

“The long, irregular hours many veterinarians work has long been an issue,” says Dr Neutze. “[But] where previously the veterinarian was the primary income earner, this now is often not the case. Many more recently graduated veterinarians are looking for more balance.”

Vets’ career paths are also shifting, notes Dr Neutze. “Previously, after three to five years as an employee in clinical practice, the next career step was to become a practice owner. [Now] more practices are owned by corporates and fewer graduates are interested in being tied to owning
a practice.

“This means more veterinarians […] will remain employees throughout their careers. They will be seeking higher financial returns, as employees, compared with those of the past. They’ll want to work in practices that offer these and other benefits, or—as a significant number are now deciding [to do]—leave clinical practice altogether.”

“Many more recently graduated veterinarians are looking for more balance.”—Dr Debbie Neutze, AVA policy manager

Vets who do stay will likely be seeking jobs that offer better work-life balance; proximity to urban centres; opportunities for specialist training/mentorship and career advancement; and—if larger paychecks aren’t forthcoming—compensatory perks (parking spots, paid study/family leave).

The issue of salary

Tegan McPherson, head of People and Culture at RSPCA Victoria, thinks money is the root cause of many recruitment problems.

“Our experience is that veterinarians with greater levels of experience, five years-plus, are more difficult to recruit,” she says. “We believe it’s a pay issue. [According to Australian taxation statistics], the average total income for veterinarians in 2012-13 was $79,152, compared to those with similar degrees, such as dentists, at $144,749, and medical GPs at $153,7003.”

Veterinarian remuneration is a key component of AVA’s five strategic priorities to ensure the profession’s economic sustainability, she adds.

“It probably is about the money—and other perks,” concurs AVA’s Dr Neutze. “If practices are to attract and keep experienced veterinarians, it may be that they’ll need to review what is being offered.”

Regional cringe

Retaining experienced vets in rural, particularly production-animal practices, is an ongoing challenge.

Charles Sturt University (CSU) academics, J. Pratley and K. Abbott, cited in the AVA’s workforce review report, concluded in their own study that despite an oversupply of vets that is set to increase in coming years, rural mixed and production-animal practices are under-serviced. They further found that “job advertisements for rural vets, continued pressure from livestock industries seeking an increase in supply, and the experience of Charles Sturt University’s graduates converge to confirm that there is a shortage of rural vets willing to undertake practice with production animals.”

It is hoped that initiatives aimed at boosting the number of vets seeking rural and ag-based careers—such as CSU vet school’s preferential intake of students with farming and country backgrounds—will help redress regional shortages and take advantage of the reported demand for vet services in production-animal areas, notably intensive-livestock operations such as dairy farms.

While some contend more female vets will exacerbate the regional vet drought, CSU says its female vet graduates are as keen on production-animal work as the guys.

Only time (and follow-up data) will tell whether this new crop of ‘true-blue’ vets stays in regional practice beyond the first few years.

“If your practice is [one] where employees are supported, happy and well remunerated, recruitment and retention will be much easier.”—Dr Debbie Neutze, AVA policy manager

“The feedback we’re getting from universities is that recent vet grads taking jobs in rural areas now want to do large animals,” Dr Delahunty says. “So much so that being a country small-animal practice—an asset in past years—could be a deterrent now.”

Whether they are treating cats or calves, few new-gen vets are keen on the after-hours shiftwork rural practices typically require, contends Dr Neutze. “Many graduates are opting to work in metropolitan practices, where they can avoid being rostered on after-hours [thanks to the increasing number of after-hours emergency practices], and where there are [more] work opportunities for their partners.”

Pay cheques, perks and posts

Graduates’ unrealistic expectations of the industry may partially explain vet shortages in some areas. “Many veterinarians enter the profession with the hope of working in general/private practice,” McPherson says. “While they’re made aware [in training] that roles within the industry are more diverse than this, their expectations are still out of alignment.”

That said, practices may need to offer more to attract and retain good vets.

“If the employer is […] after a more experienced veterinarian, they may need to look at increasing the wages and offering better conditions to attract the right employee,” Dr Neutze advises. “Job shares; regular, consistent days off, and other innovative job arrangements can also assist in keeping that good employee.

“Many graduates are keen to increase their qualifications, and real, genuine support to achieve this is highly valued—both paying for the course, and time off to study,” she adds.

Dr Delahunty accommodates her staff’s needs with four-day weeks (albeit longer days), part-time roles and industry-competitive rates, and shares after-hours work with a neighbouring practice. An ASAVA (Australian Small Animal Veterinary Association)-accredited veterinary ‘centre of excellence’, she is also well-equipped to mentor new graduates.

Meanwhile, says Tegan McPherson, RSPCA Victoria, boosts its appeal to veterinary candidates by:

  • offering greater professional and career development opportunities;
  • benchmarking vets’ salaries “to ensure we’re competitive with the market”; and
  • widely promoting the RSPCA’s “team-oriented environment”, broad-ranging caseload and diverse array of industry professionals.

“If your practice is [one] where employees are supported, happy and well remunerated, recruitment and retention will be much easier,” says Dr Neutze.

“In the world of social connectivity, getting current and previous employees to tell their colleagues what a great place to work it is can be a very persuasive marketing tool.”

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1 Comment

  1. This is a great article that highlights a number of causes for the current “drought”​ of veterinarians in the job market. The issue of vets being a low-salaried profession raises two questions:
    1. When faced with a low-salary job or no job, what would a vet seeking employment choose? The argument that low salaries are the cause of a lack of candidates is spurious, unless most vets are moving out of the veterinary sector entirely and into one that is better paid.
    2. Rather than employers bemoaning the high cost of employed vets, should they not be managing their productivity to reap a greater return on their investment? Our veterinary management company has noted that many employers struggle with the basic monitoring of average transaction fees, missed charges and capacity of their employed vets. Well-managed veterinary businesses ensure employed vets turn over at least five times their salary.
    The moral of the story – manage your veterinary business better so that you can afford to pay vet salaries commensurate with skills, productivity and HECS debts. We need to entice and retain these amazing people who have so much to give to the welfare of animals.

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