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 issueâuntil 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 âreally surprisedâ at the number of city practice owners expressing similar problems.
âWhile [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 yearsâ clinical experience seeking full-time employment,â confirms AVA policy manager Dr Debbie Neutze.
Whatâs 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:agriculture,
l changing industry demographicsânotably, 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 yearsâ experience working in regional (mixed and production-animal) practice, despite demand;
- vets jettisoning clinical practice for more lucrative industry roles in pharmaceuticals, or pet foodâor exiting the profession entirely.
Changing demographics and career paths
Since the 1990s, the gender make-up of the profession has shifted dramatically. The âAustralian veterinary workforce review reportâ (June 2013, AVA) estimates that the proportion of female vet graduates nationwide will likely âremain at above 70 per cent for the foreseeable futureâ; by 2022, the report predicts, female vets will comprise more than 60 per cent of Australiaâs veterinary workforce.
âThe 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,â 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, â[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 practiceâ.
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.
âThe long, irregular hours many veterinarians work has long been an issue,â says Dr Neutze. â[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.â
Vetsâ career paths are also shifting, notes Dr Neutze. âPreviously, 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
âThis means more veterinarians [âŚ] will remain employees throughout their careers. They will be seeking higher financial returns, as employees, compared with those of the past. Theyâll want to work in practices that offer these and other benefits, orâas a significant number are now deciding [to do]âleave clinical practice altogether.â
âMany more recently graduated veterinarians are looking for more balance.ââDr 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; andâif larger paychecks arenât forthcomingâcompensatory 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.
âOur experience is that veterinarians with greater levels of experience, five years-plus, are more difficult to recruit,â she says. âWe believe itâs 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.â
Veterinarian remuneration is a key component of AVAâs five strategic priorities to ensure the professionâs economic sustainability, she adds.
âIt probably is about the moneyâand other perks,â concurs AVAâs Dr Neutze. âIf practices are to attract and keep experienced veterinarians, it may be that theyâll need to review what is being offered.â
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 AVAâs 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 âjob advertisements for rural vets, continued pressure from livestock industries seeking an increase in supply, and the experience of Charles Sturt Universityâs graduates converge to confirm that there is a shortage of rural vets willing to undertake practice with production animals.â
It is hoped that initiatives aimed at boosting the number of vets seeking rural and ag-based careersâsuch as CSU vet schoolâs preferential intake of students with farming and country backgroundsâwill 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 areÂ as keen on production-animal work asÂ the guys.
Only time (and follow-up data) will tell whether this new crop of âtrue-blueâ vets stays in regional practice beyond the first few years.