Make no mistake, we are making more veterinarians. Already, the industry supports 12,000 more practicing veterinarians than we had five years ago. And academic institutions are still taking on more students.
Add into this mix a stagnant retirement rate (now that tough economic times have made a career’s graceful exit an uncomfortable non-reality) and you’ve got a recipe for too many cooks in the kitchen. So is it any wonder some sit idly by—if you consider a never-ending search for employment an idle respite—while the rest of us tarry on?
What’s our problem? If we know our unemployment rate is on the rise, and meanwhile the retirement age creeps inexorably upwards … why is it we insist on taking on more veterinary students?
The simplest answer to the conundrum lies in our reliance on the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), its findings and our academic institutions’ willingness to accept these stats’ veracity. After all, this federal organization prides itself on its ability to track labor statistics and predict demand so that any industry can make judicious choices.
So when BLS predicts veterinary doctorate demand to grow by almost 9 percent over the next seven years and that job opportunities for veterinarians through 2018 will increase at a rate of 33 percent (huge!), it makes sense that cash-strapped veterinary schools might respond with correspondingly increased, coffer-enhancing enrollments.
Problem is, BLS has a way of being inaccurate. For example, BLS is convinced that practicing veterinarians number only 73,000. Meanwhile, the AVMA counts more than 90,000, a discrepancy that calls into question BLS’s credibility on the stat front—and, by extension, our fundamental rationale for bringing so many new grads into the marketplace.
Add that to BLS’s reliance on the growth in cat ownership for the bulk of that double-digit spike and its vet industry cred really starts to take a hit. Think about it: We’re pumping out new grads faster to meet what the U.S. federal government predicts is a soon-to-be-surging demand for feline services? Call me crazy but I’m less than convinced this makes any sense whatsoever.
Moreover, when you consider that the market for vet services has grown by 26 percent since 1991, while the number of veterinarians has burgeoned to a disproportionate 78 percent (according to James F. Wilson, DVM, JD, a veterinary consultant who serves as national adviser for the Veterinary Business Management Association), you’ve got to start wondering: Are we really doing the right thing?
Who to Believe?
To be sure, there are two sides to this coin: Heads we win, seeing as some of us have our pick of new grads at a low price-point in this crumbly economy; tails we lose, should you A) happen to rank among the professionally disenfranchised and chronically underemployed or B) buy into the big-picture vision of a profession whose inability to support its most at-risk members bodes ill for the success of its collective constituency.
So who’s making sure we’re on track? Because if BLS is our only hope, we’re in pretty sad shape from the look of its analytics.
Ideally, of course, the organization most of us support with our membership dues should be keeping its finger on the pulse of this issue so things don’t go horribly awry. Unfortunately, the AVMA announced in late October that it is postponing a study on the vet workforce because of “the inherent difficulties of undertaking such a broad analysis.” And the National Academy of Science’s long-awaited report on the subject? It’s been tabled seven times since its proposed due date in 2009. Seven.
Does all this conflicting, unconvincing and delayed data alarm you? It absolutely should.
While a wide variety of market sources report that our industry should remain relatively well-insulated relative to others (because pet ownership remains on the rise, a reality that offsets stats describing an impressive decline in veterinary visits), nothing can possibly insulate new grads from a dearth of available positions.
Sure, some of us remain out of work because employers are too scared to hire—a fact that makes all kinds of rational sense in this economy. After all, while economic indicators are generally positive, they paint the picture of an economy moving uphill at a turtle’s pace. And with wild cards like Greece, Italy and Spain still blowing in the wind, is it any wonder some of us are so edgy?
No doubt individual veterinary hospitals deserve to act conservatively given the prevailing economic winds, but what about the profession at large? What are we doing to address a pressing problem with potentially disastrous consequences? As far as I can tell, we’re doing almost as much as some of our least fortunate recent graduates.
Dr. Khuly is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at Vetstreet.com.