With more qualified veterinarians and declining rates of pet ownership, newly graduated Australian vets are struggling to find work. By Jiyan Dessens.
Even before she had finished her degree in veterinary science from the University of Sydney, newly graduated veterinarian Dr Shali Fischer knew finding a job would be a challenge. “Many students feel they’ve just been pumped out of a system and they’re so enthusiastic to start off with, but the pressure gets to them and they feel disheartened,” says Dr Fischer, who graduated in December 2013. “I’ve got friends who are still looking for jobs. They’re working in non-veterinary jobs while looking and it’s hard not to give up, even though we all love what we do.” Unfortunately this is common among new graduates and the pressure is always on to start looking early. “I started applying for work as I was finishing my rotations,” Dr Fischer continues. “However many people started applying months before me, and I too would browse the veterinary employment sites weekly There’s a lot of pressure with graduates looking for jobs. I know this from my own experience and talking with classmates.”
This boom in graduates is an outcome of the establishment of three new veterinary schools that were built against the advice of the Review of Agricultural Services Report in 2003. As a result, the Australian Government’s Job Outlook reports a projected 59 per cent increase in the number of veterinarians practising in Australia between 2008 and 2017, which prompted the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) to call for a cap on places for those studying veterinary science.
“[It is] in the interest of the taxpayer, the universities, veterinary graduates and students, that a cap be placed back on the number of veterinary science student placements,” the AVA states in a submission to the Federal Government. “The risk of oversupply is very real,” says Dr Deborah Neutze, national strategy and services manager for the AVA. “Recent research by CSU [Charles Sturt University] academics showed that Australia needs around 400 veterinary graduates per annum while we are presently producing around 550 graduates per year.”
And the effects of this oversupply are starting to become apparent, with GradStats data stating that at least 21.2 per cent of these graduates were still seeking full-time employment four months after graduating in 2013. As a result, the AVA states that Australia is already producing more than enough veterinary graduates and that “the perceived or actual shortage of veterinarians in rural practice relates to issues of business sustainability, lifestyle, partner employment, education access for children, working hours and remuneration.”
It is certainly true that the veterinary science degree is an expensive one with comparatively low rates of pay, with GradStats putting median starting salaries at only $44,000—and that’s for a six-year degree. Many new veterinarians also tend to look for positions in small animal practice in densely populated areas, meaning that a large number of graduates is concentrated in Australia’s cities, not in the regional and rural areas where veterinarians are reportedly in short supply.
Additionally, while the number of vets has been increasing, there has been a corresponding decline in the number of companion and agricultural animals in Australia, according to a 2010 report by the Australian Companion Animal Council, suggesting that while the number of veterinarians is increasing, demand for the profession as a whole may decline. Despite these issues, the veterinary science degree is not short of applicants, with Dr Neutze stating that “the percentage of first-preference offers is around 20 per cent.”
These applicants are often unaware of the issues before commencing study, but Dr James Cooper, who graduated in December 2013, says they are “very much aware by the time we graduate. Before commencing the course I was unaware but it is the type of profession where such negatives are outweighed by the positives if it’s something you love. “Metropolitan small animal jobs seem harder to find for new graduates, but those willing to move to regional or rural areas have many more opportunities,” Dr Cooper continues. “The large universities seem to be more focused on producing graduates and collecting undergraduate fees to fund academia and research than consider[ing] the economics of the profession.” A sentiment echoed by Dr Wendy Nathan, partner at Kookaburra Veterinary Employment, although she believes that there are definite advantages to the veterinary profession. “Practices that we talk to in the course of promoting their vacancies like having some choice in candidates at the moment, compared to 10 years ago when many practices had just one or two applicants for their vacancy,” she says. “Some practices this year have commented that they have had up to 25 applicants, and one even had over 40,” Dr Nathan continues. “However, these applicants are, in the main, new and recent graduates (2012 and 2013 graduates)—probably up to 90 per cent.
Only 20 per cent of the jobs currently listed with Kookaburra (www.kookaburravets.com) are suitable for new graduates. This produces a relative oversupply of new/recent grads and a relative shortage of experienced vets.” New graduates are certainly struggling and Wendy believes that, although regional and rural practices are no longer short-staffed for extended periods of time, something needs to be done. “Decreasing the numbers of veterinarians graduating in Australia may be only part of the solution. Better support for new graduates entering the workforce and support for practices employing these new and recent grads would help,” she says.
With a rapidly expanding workforce and increasing numbers of veterinarians joining the ranks of unemployed, the Federal Government, the colleges and other industry stakeholders definitely need to take the situation in hand. In fact, retention in rural areas and improved on-the-job support and training are very real issues for the profession and ones that may hold the solution to the current job shortage, something that is acknowledged by the AVA. “The challenge is to retain them in the rural areas,” the Association says. “Rural practice can be difficult even for experienced practitioners and can be extremely demanding for new veterinarians.”