Why Young Vets Can’t Find Jobs — and Why I Think You Should Care

Vet holding a kitten
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Have you ever tried to make an appointment with your veterinarian only to be told that she’ll be out of town for the next two weeks? If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will.

And it will probably be for the best, because you’ll get to meet Dr. Just Graduated. And Dr. J.G. has some new tricks up his sleeve that may just hook you for life –– or until the next Dr. J.G. comes along.

This is how every profession works: Established members pass on their accumulated wisdom — along with access to their clientele — to new grads who offer minty-fresh perspectives, curiosity and the gung-ho pluck that only youth can provide.

It’s a win-win. Nonetheless, I do accept the fact that it’s not always easy for a one-vet pet owner to switch to a newbie, especially when that new veterinarian is someone you have no choice but to accept when Vet No. 1 is out of town.

Dr. Marty Becker’s recent article on how best to integrate different veterinary perspectives into your pet's health care regimen got me thinking about this topic. After all, one big reason for doing this is to introduce you to the up-and-coming generation of veterinarians. And there’s been much to fret over on this front. More than ever before, young vets are finding themselves bereft of jobs — as in unemployed.

After eight to 12 years of training, you would think that you’d be a prime pick for the job of your choice. But now that the economy has tanked, and the vet market appears to be unduly flush with candidates, finding a place to call home is no longer as easy as it used to be.

Here’s a stat for you: The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the employment rate among veterinarians is just 1.4 percent. Unfortunately, that’s a more than 50 percent increase from 2005, which can’t be a good thing — especially if we’re making more veterinarians than we can employ. And make no mistake, we are making more vets: The industry already supports 12,000 more practicing vets than it did five years ago, and vet schools are still accepting students.

If we know that our unemployment rate is on the rise, why is it that we insist upon taking on more students? Great question! The explanation lies in our reliance on Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on veterinary employment rates and our willingness to accept these stats as gospel. When BLS predicts that veterinary doctorate demand will grow by almost 9 percent over the next seven years, and that job opportunities for vets through 2018 will increase at a rate of 33 percent, it makes sense that cash-strapped veterinary schools will respond with increased enrollments.

The problem is that the BLS has a way of being wrong about these things. And if there’s no other source of information (shamefully, our profession has dropped the ball on mining this crucial data for itself), we’re likely to find out too late that we’ve got more cooks than we’ve got kitchens. Meanwhile, the economy is in the loo, which means that fewer older vets are retiring, pet visits are down and hospital owners are scared to hire.

So why is this a bad thing for you? On the one hand, it’s actually a good thing, if you assume that more vets flooding the market means cheaper services, but this hasn’t happened as much as you'd expect. And that’s because it’s hard to borrow, start a hospital and compete based on lower fees.

Plus, vets who already own hospitals aren’t flinching when it comes to offering former fees. In fact, you may have noticed an uptick in hidden costs as established vets try to offset ways in which they’ve been squeezed by the economy. Not out of greed, mind you, but just to maintain their standard of living.

Ultimately, I believe this means that a large percentage of young vets will be skills starved, demoralized and debt ridden. I predict depression, divorce and a less enthusiastic contribution — now and in the future — to a profession that has effectively failed them.

So what does this mean for you and your pet’s health care? Unless veterinary medicine can turn things around in less than five years, we'll have a generation of less-effective health care providers. It also means that potentially wonderful Dr. Just Graduated may not be looking so shiny by the time you finally meet him.

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