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December 01, 2021

Fierce competition over veterinary labor

Practices compete over veterinarians inclined to work fewer hours
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Veterinary medicine is in the midst of a tight labor market for a highly sought-after workforce for which striking a work-life balance is of supreme importance.

This and other nuggets about the U.S. market for veterinarians were presented by Charlotte Hansen, AVMA assistant director for statistical analysis, during the AVMA Veterinary Business and Economic Forum, held virtually Oct. 14-16.

Although most male and female veterinarians currently work in companion animal practice, the AVMA Census of Veterinarians and other sources show that the field attracts slightly more women (70%) than men (61%). The continued concentration of veterinary services in a single sector is understandable, Hansen said, but ultimately it deprives the nation of needed animal care.

“Our profession struggles with getting the necessary veterinarians out to rural America,” she said, “and the increasing share going into companion animal medicine makes it difficult for these other areas to retain veterinarians. Chasing higher salaries to address debt is a reason that this is happening. It is important to diversify and specialize in other areas. However, it is difficult to compete on wages and quality of life.

“What we will most likely see is that when there isn’t a role in providing veterinary services that the public needs, the government steps in, like what we see with the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program.”

Hansen said the U.S. veterinary profession has a score of 0.26 on the Simpsons Diversity Index. The index measures the number of racial and ethnic groups represented and their distribution across the profession. As Hansen explained, a score of 0 on the index equals complete lack of diversity, while a score of 1 signifies infinite diversity. For comparison, MD residents (0.61), physicians (0.53), pharmacists (0.51), and dentists (0.47) scored higher than veterinary medicine.

The U.S. population has a score of 0.60. While the veterinary profession is making strides to achieve a higher number on the diversity index, Hansen said, the profession must not overlook creating an environment that is inclusive, equitable, and safe for all.

Veterinary unemployment climbed to 1.8% in 2021, up from 0.7% in 2020, according to the AVMA census. This means that 1.8% of veterinarians are looking for employment or enrollment in an internship or residency or working outside of veterinary medicine.

This does not include those who are sitting out of the workforce. “In fact, 63% of those unemployed veterinarians said they were not seeking employment or enrollment. About 46% of unemployed who are seeking employment or enrollment are currently not working in another job. So, we have a labor force that is there, but just not working,” Hansen said.

Regarding job listings on the AVMA Veterinary Career Center and other job sites, 70% come from corporate or consolidated practices, and 30% percent from independently owned practices, according to Hansen. Relatedly, about 35% of veterinary associates are employed by corporate practices, while the remainder work for independently owned single or group practices.

Professionwide, mean income for veterinarians was approximately $120,000 in 2021. Mean incomes were highest for companion animal–predominant and –exclusive practice and in industry and commercial organizations.

Hansen also touched on the growing discontent among veterinarians, calling on leadership to step in and address the problem. For instance, 44% of veterinarians have considered leaving the veterinary profession, up from 38% last year. Moreover, 39% of veterinarians said they have considered leaving the veterinary profession within the last five years; 23% said they have considered leaving within the last year, and about a quarter are serious.

“The way we measure seriousness here is on a scale of one to a hundred, asking ‘How serious are you?’ Responses over 50, we mark as being serious, so that is 25% of the veterinarians,” Hansen said.

Approximately 26% of veterinarians in 2021 indicated they want to work fewer hours, citing such reasons as better work-life balance and mental health issues including stress, anxiety, and burnout, followed by feelings of being overworked and issues relating to child care and childbearing.

The AVMA Census of Veterinarians also shows that 40% of practice owners are planning on selling their practice within five years, the most cited reason being retirement (70%). Approximately 36% of associates expressed interest in purchasing or co-owning a practice. Reasons for low interest in practice ownership include educational debt and risks but also work-life balance and low interest in practice management.

“The consolidation of veterinary medicine is happening, good or bad,” Hansen said. “When we think of sustainability, of leaving veterinary practices to the next generation, if fewer veterinarians are interested, when owners retire and associates don’t buy, the practice will go to a consolidator,” Hansen said. “If you are someone who stands by the need for independent practices, start instilling the importance of leadership and management in our associates.”