If there are so many vet graduates in Australia, why the vet shortage? Merran White investigates
According to the federal government Department of Employment’s most recent veterinary labour market survey (March 2017), the new supply of veterinarians “has increased substantially in recent years”, with seven Australian universities now producing an estimated 500-550 vet graduates a year.
Despite this influx, Australia is experiencing a serious shortage of qualified practitioners, the report suggests, “with the proportion of vacancies filled and the average number of applicants per vacancy falling substantially from [2014’s] peak levels”.
Kookaburra Veterinary Employment co-owner Dr Wendy Nathan is certainly aware of the discrepancy: “Workforce surveys and AVA papers insist [we’re] heading towards an oversupply per head of pet-owning population,” she says. “Yet practices at the coalface tell us every day that they cannot find vets.”
The number of applicants “varies enormously”, Nathan says, “with maybe one to three suitable candidates when the applications have been filtered”. And, depending on the practice location and specific skill set required, “it’s currently taking an average of 11 to 12 weeks to fill a job”.
Dr Mark Eagleton, veterinarian and owner of Vetlink Employment Service, has seen supply and demand fluctuate in recent years. “In 2015, we saw an oversupply of new graduates,” he says. “In 2016-2017, we definitely didn’t.”
There has been and continues to be an ongoing shortage of vets with more than two years’ experience.
Currently, Dr Eagleton’s seeing a “patchy oversupply of new graduates. In Perth, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane and attractive areas such as the Sunshine Coast, you’ll get a number of good applicants. Almost anything outside that, you have to work reasonably hard.”
Job applicant mismatch?
Part of the problem, says Wendy Nathan, lies in the current mismatch between listed jobs and jobseekers. While most practices seek experienced vets to fill full-time positions, those more likely to apply for full-time jobs—especially outside of big cities—are recent grads.
“Probably up to 90 per cent” of Kookaburra’s vet applicants are graduates from 2016 and 2017, Nathan says; however, “because only around 36 per cent of the jobs currently listed with Kookaburra are suitable for new or recent graduates, this produces a relative oversupply of new/recent grads and a relative shortage of experienced vets.
“And this is the time of year when many practices seek to fill new-grad vacancies, just prior to graduation”, she notes; at other times, it can drop to around 25 per cent.
Changing demographics, changing life paths
In contrast to the career-driven, mostly male vets of earlier generations, today’s vet grads, 80 per cent of whom are female, are seeking ‘work-life balance’.
More female vets also means more vets taking time out of the workforce to have and raise children, typically five to 10 years post-graduation. They are also more likely to seek part-time/flexible hours.
According to some industry observers, this is one factor contributing to the shortage of vets with more than two years’ experience.
This is supported by the AVA’s latest workplace survey, which found that:
- In 2015, female vets worked an average of six hours less than men.
- 26 per cent of female vets compared with 17 per cent of males were working part time.
- Of the 43 per cent of clinicians who reported being on call (an average 30 hours weekly), 53 per cent were male, only 37 per cent female.
According to the Department of Industry’s veterinary labour market report, there’s an oversupply of vets seeking work in big-city practices; a shortage in rural areas.
“While unfilled vacancies are widely distributed across industry sectors and states and territories, employers in New South Wales and regional Australia have the least success in filling positions,” the report states.
Dr Debbie Neutze, policy manager for the AVA, sees a similar trend. “While those seeking new graduates have few issues filling positions, employers in some regional areas [and outer Sydney] have reported difficulties finding suitable veterinarians with three to five years’ clinical experience seeking full-time employment,” she says.
“Many graduates are opting to work in metropolitan practices, where they can avoid being rostered on after-hours and there are work opportunities for their partners.”
Anecdotal evidence indicates that for non-urban practices, attracting even recent graduates can be difficult.
“There are very good small-animal veterinary jobs in country areas—not the ‘poor cousins’ of city practices; extremely good purpose-built practices where recent grads would get a really good grounding—and they’re struggling to fill those jobs,” says Dr Eagleton. “A lot of vets nowadays are attached to city living; they have partners, commitments, mortgages. They’re less inclined to ‘up sticks’, even for their first jobs.”
Wendy Nathan sees no such reluctance in vets starting out. “New grads in rural mixed and equine practices are perfectly happy to do on-call rotations; it’s part of the job,” she says. “And with wonderful small-animal emergency clinic services in many locations now, fewer practices require associates to be on call, so this is much less of a problem.”
Nor are country practices alone in finding recruitment challenging, she adds. “We’re seeing a vet shortage across the country, irrespective of location [and]across all types of practice.”
Dollars and sense
Compared to those in other professions requiring similar levels of skill, stress and specialised training, vets are underpaid significantly.
The median starting salary of a general medical practitioner in Australia is $115,422 a year, with specialists earning far more. By contrast, average entry-level salary for vets in Australia is $59,007, with some new grads on as little as $40,000 p.a.
Most respondents in the AVA’s 2016 veterinary workplace survey were on either $60,000-$80,000 or $80,000-$100,000 a year, with 53 per cent of male (mainly older) vets and just 16 per cent of females reporting annual salaries over $100,000 (partly because more were working part-time).
Along with low remuneration, challenging conditions induce some recent grads to quit the profession, Eagleton contends, compounding the ‘experienced-vet’ shortage. “In some—but not all—areas, very poor working conditions for new graduates means some just give up and go do something else.”
What’s the solution?
Better support for vet graduates entering the workforce—and practices employing them—could help correct the mismatch between vets and jobs, suggests Nathan, as could “more refresher courses for vets re-entering the profession after time out”.
For Dr Eagleton, it’s about “better working conditions, hours, money, backup and support—all those obvious things”— especially outside of big cities.
“As it is so hard to find vets, it make sense for employers to have staff retention and engagement strategies in place,” he says. This applies to both city and country practices.