Report reflects tough times ahead for veterinary workforce needs

The condition of the present academic veterinary community may be leading research, food security, and public health needs to a train wreck if the current course is not altered, according to a new report from the National Research Council, released May 30, 2012.

At the present rate, the academic veterinary community will not produce enough veterinarians for faculty teaching and research positions, nor for jobs in federal research and regulatory agencies, the pharmaceutical and biologics industry, and state diagnostic laboratories, according to the report.

The report notes that though the supply of veterinarians is growing, more than half of veterinary students are pursuing training in companion animal or pet medicine rather than the research, food security and public health sectors.

The economy has also handicapped students who may have gone on to seek Ph.D. training for faculty teaching and research positions, burdening them under massive student debt and keeping them from pursuing further education and key jobs in the public sector.

The 2012 study was initiated by a 2006 request from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), with support from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), Bayer Animal Health and the Burroughs Welcome Fund in response to concerns about West Nile, BSE, HPAI, 9/11 and the security and safety of the food supply.

Over time, the nature of the study changed as the state of the economic recession in 2008 led to severe cuts in funding, and projections began to suggest a shortfall of 15,000 veterinarians by 2025.

"The report became a continual work in progress," said Alan Kelly, BVS, MRCVs, Ph.D., chair of the committee tasked with assessing workforce trends. "The long delay in the completion of the report was in response to constantly changing dynamics."

Kelly said the report is historic in its in-depth analysis of the profession.

"The study is the first attempt to provide a detailed, inclusive analysis of every major sector of the profession," Kelly said. "The report includes history, trends, economic forces and demographics for each sector."

Little evidence of widespread shortages

Overall, the report found little evidence of widespread workforce shortages, according to economist Malcolm Getz, Ph.D.

Getz reported that well-paid jobs are going largely unfilled, with earnings growing slowly, if at all (with the exception of the industry sector).

With lower earnings, Getz said, it is difficult to attract top talent for research opportunities.

The report did reveal shortages of veterinarians with advanced training in the industry sector and some areas of academic veterinary medicine.

However, there are very few or no jobs or no sufficiently paying jobs in some sectors, including environmental science, One Health and global food security.

Getz also said employers are reporting a mismatch of skills in new hires, while an expansion in admission slots and an increasing number of accredited schools are increasing supply of veterinarians.

Profession will struggle to serve societal needs

The decade-long decline in funding of education and research has jeopardized the profession’s future capacity to serve societal needs, according to Bennie Osburn, DVM, Ph.D., DACVP.

Reduced public funding for veterinary medicine and research have led to cuts that make it difficult to make new hires or replace retiring faculty.

"This reduction results in a vicious cycle," Osburn said.

New hires will be needed to address the new issues that society is facing, the committee said. However, without new faculty members to write grants, serve as mentors, and recruit the next wave of faculty members, the future of veterinary medicine and research will struggle to meet the needs of society.

"The profession will not be able to fulfill its responsibility to society without maintaining robust research programs," Osburn explained.

Unsustainable cost of veterinary education

According to the report, the return on investment for veterinary education is unsustainable and the cost of veterinary education is at a crisis.

"The return on investment of a vet education for students and the public is lower relative to other health occupations with the same time period required to obtain the degrees," Osburn said.

With more and more veterinary colleges opening their doors, the committee worries the profession will face a decline in the quality of a veterinary education.

"The profession is at risk for lowering the quality of applicants to the profession and the quality of veterinary education," Osburn said. "The veterinary profession has been slow to respond to these challenges."

On top of cuts to public funding, student tuition costs have also increased, making it increasingly difficult for students to crawl their way out of debt after graduation.

"At current tuition and starting salary levels, students will be in debt for much longer than previously," Osburn said.

Veterinary medicine must make a better case to the public as to its value in order to secure funding, the committee recommended. In the future, veterinary colleges will have to be creative in finding funding to sustain its programs.

Lost presence in food-animal production and care

While there may be a surplus of students, the profession is facing a shortage of those wanting to work in food-animal services.

The economy may be to blame for cost-cutting measures at universities that have been forced to scale back hiring of faculty in less popular fields of veterinary medicine such as food-animal.

Consolidation in food-animal production has decreased the demand for food-animal veterinarians in recent years, Kelly said.

Comparative value of livestock has declined by about 50 percent between 1980 and today while the price of corn has increased dramatically.

The report also revealed that the food animal veterinary workforce is aging, with nearly 50 percent of the food animal veterinarian population over the age of 50. With rising debt, food animal salaries are too low to attract graduates who aren’t very interested in a food-animal career in the first place.

The pressing challenge of global food security

Global food security and One Health will challenge not only the veterinary profession, but other health and industry players in the coming years, according to the report. Moving forward, the veterinary profession will need to engage in interdisciplinary One Health solutions, Kelly said.

"Global food security is the defining challenge of the 21st century," Kelly said.

Kelly said almost all of the population growth will be in the developing world, and that most of that growth will be increasingly urban.

Demand for food-animal veterinarians is being met by increasing animal numbers, rather than by increasing productivity, a model that is unsustainable, according to Kelly.

The committee suggested using the veterinary profession in North America to help build veterinary capacity in the developing world in order to achieve sustainability in food-animal production and care.

The final product of the Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine report will be available through the National Academies press in summer 2012.

The study was funded by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, Bayer Animal Health and the Burroughs Welcome Fund.