Some veterinarians want to work in cattle practice but can't find jobs that will both support them and let them make payments on their college debt, Dr. Roger L. Saltman said.
Others factored the value of their practices into retirement plans but are unable to find buyers, he said.
"Many veterinarians, they've always assumed that the way they would retire was that they would be able to sell their practice and enjoy retirement based upon what they put away plus additional revenues from the sale of their practices," he said.
Starting incomes, educational debt, generational expectations for practice and home life, and changes in regional animal populations are among factors potentially connected with difficulties in matching veterinarians who want jobs in rural practice with areas that need animal care or have openings for veterinarians, Dr. Saltman said.
The former president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners announced Sept. 22 at the AABP annual conference in St. Louis that the organization was establishing a practice sustainability project that is intended to develop business-focused education for veterinary students, practitioners, and retirees. Those tools could help veterinarians develop consultative services, learn how to improve inventory management, or plan for retirement, for example. Such education could become part of AABP meetings, Dr. Saltman said.
Dr. Christine B. Navarre, immediate past president of the AABP, hopes the project will help veterinarians start, operate, and retire from their businesses. For young veterinarians, that help could decrease the difficulty of simultaneously developing as a practitioner, starting a business, and paying off educational debt, she said.
"Their chances of staying in practice longer will be better if we get them off to a better start," Dr. Navarre said.
The project could potentially provide resources such as practice models, access to people with success in businesses outside the veterinary profession, and financial planning services, all of which could help veterinarians in any stage of their careers, Dr. Navarre said.
Dr. M. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president of the AABP, said the veterinary profession also needs to give livestock owners evidence that veterinarians are valuable to their operations. Without such evidence, agricultural industries could support further efforts to allow nonveterinarians to perform animal care traditionally considered to be the practice of veterinary medicine.
Dr. Riddell said the sustainability project will include hiring a part-time employee who will work with a new committee of 10 to 12 veterinarians.
AABP report suggests shortage may have ended
Reports from the 1990s and 2000s had largely indicated that too few students were interested in pursuing careers in rural food animal practice to fill demands for care, Dr. Saltman said. But AABP officials have recently heard from those interested in such careers that they were having difficulty finding suitable jobs.
In a May 2011 report, members of the AABP Ad Hoc Committee on Rural Veterinary Practice said they do not think the U.S. has a shortage of veterinarians in private rural food supply practice. Efforts to increase interest in the field had been successful, and remaining underserved areas may be unable to sustain a veterinary practice, the report states. Responses to the report included praise for addressing the issue, but also, calls for further study to make sure any workforce-related decisions are based on evidence and thorough research. (See JAVMA, July 15, 2011, about the report and responses.)
Veterinarians with an interest in cattle practice can't graduate with $130,000 in debt and take a job with a starting salary of $65,000, Dr. Saltman said. While such debt limits options, he also thinks those graduating from college have different expectations about their professional and personal lives than did graduates of previous generations.
The AABP report notes that many rural practices are operated by one veterinarian each, but younger veterinarians, particularly female veterinarians, are less likely to want to enter solo practice. Such veterinarians are looking for mentorship, along with the amenities found in large towns and cities, shared emergency duties, flexible work schedules, and, often, employment opportunities for their spouses.
Consolidation in livestock industries, while slowed because of consumer interest in locally grown food, has also removed large numbers of livestock from many rural areas and led large enterprises to hire caregivers who treat sick animals that would have traditionally received veterinary care, the report states. The remaining small producers are often unable to support veterinary practices.
Advisers hearing of graduates' difficulties
Dr. Meredyth Jones, a faculty adviser for Kansas State University's student chapter of the AVMA, knows of highly recommended and qualified recent graduates who have had difficulty finding jobs in rural practice within the past two years. One such student who graduated in 2010 wasn't able to find a suitable job until five months after graduation. Although he received an offer from one prospective employer, that veterinarian would not offer a sufficient salary, she said.
Another such student graduated in May 2011 and was still searching by late October, Dr. Jones said. The woman was treated "horrendously" by prospective employers, one of whom indicated the recent graduate was not "country enough" to hire, she said.
"She very much wants to be a rural practitioner," Dr. Jones said. "But because of her background of not having grown up on a farm, it appears as though people are unwilling to take a chance on her even though, if they call any of us here at the school, we will tell them she can handle it."
Her former student's troubles were personally upsetting to Dr. Jones, who also didn't grow up on a farm before entering food animal practice. If some mixed animal practitioners will not consider hiring those who did not grow up on farms, they are hurting themselves by limiting their prospects to a small percentage of students, she said.
She also agreed with the assessment that veterinarians in the newest generation of graduates are more likely to seek work in multiple-doctor practices than in solo practices, a decision based on quality-of-life expectations. She described her father's 25 years in solo practice as brutal.
"The idea that you could go into a practice and have other doctors to share calls with you and provide mentorship so that you're not out there on your own is what our students really want, and they're having significant trouble finding it," Dr. Jones said.
Dr. Christopher W. Olsen, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said data gathered from the AVMA annual survey of fourth-year veterinary students show that many Wisconsin students approaching graduation in 2011 had accepted jobs in varied fields, but it was clear that fewer of those surveyed had locked in jobs than in previous classes. He attributed the change to national economic conditions. He has personally heard in the past few years, however, from students who have had difficulty finding jobs in food animal or mixed animal practices that were in desirable locations.
The survey results (JAVMA 2011;239:953-957) indicate that, among graduating students from 28 schools and colleges, about 74 percent of those seeking jobs had received at least one job offer at the time of the survey in 2011, down from 79 percent in 2010. The mean full-time starting salary among graduates not pursuing advanced education was about $66,500, down about 1.3 percent from 2010. Among those with educational debt, the mean debt was about $143,000, up 6.5 percent.