Labor Department job outlook for veterinarians: 'Overall ... good'

New occupational profile less upbeat on small-animal practice, however

Published: March 29, 2012
By Edie Lau

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A new Occupational Outlook Handbook released by the U.S. Department of Labor includes an assessment of career opportunities for veterinary doctors.
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A U.S. Labor Department outlook for veterinarians casts the occupation in overall positive terms but subtly outlines differences in job opportunities among the profession's various sectors.

Released today, the assessment states that “overall job opportunities for veterinarians are expected to be good,” but draws a distinction between small-animal practice and other areas of veterinary medicine:

“...most veterinary graduates are attracted to companion animal care, so job opportunities in that field will be fewer than in other areas.

“Job opportunities in large animal practice, public health and government should be best. Although jobs in farm animal care are not growing as quickly as those in companion animal care, opportunities will be better because fewer veterinarians compete to work with large animals. There also will be excellent job opportunities for government veterinarians in food safety, animal health, and public health.”

The occupational profile is among hundreds contained in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, a widely used reference for careers in America.

The handbook expands upon job projections released last month by the bureau. In that report, “veterinarian” came in No. 30 on a list of occupations projected to have the highest percentage growth in jobs from 2010 to 2020.

The bureau forecasts that the number of jobs for veterinary doctors will reach 83,400 by 2020, an increase of 22,000 over the course of a decade, a growth rate of nearly 36 percent.

The bullish forecast has caused some consternation and contributed to debate within the profession in light of multiple, frequent anecdotal reports in recent years from veterinarians in private practice that revenues are tight and jobs even tighter.

New veterinary school graduates in particular report difficulty finding work, a problem intensified by their increasingly onerous educational debt. Even graduates searching for jobs in large-animal medicine have reported trouble, the Labor Department outlook notwithstanding.

While the economic slowdown that began in 2008 has taken a decided hit on the profession, as it has throughout society, other factors also contribute to a squeeze on veterinary private practice — declines in patient visits, for example, and increased retail competition in sales of veterinary drugs and therapeutics.

Meanwhile, American veterinary schools are in expansion mode and have been for some time. Figures compiled by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service, show that the number of people graduating each year from accredited veterinary schools in the United States rose 25 percent over the past 20 years, reaching 2,618 in 2011.

School enrollment expansion continues apace, as documented in recent news reports from Inside Higher Ed and the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In addition to more students being accepted into existing programs, new programs are in the works.

Many in the profession have become deeply concerned that the market for veterinarians quickly is reaching saturation, especially in companion-animal private practice, the single largest sector in the profession and the most popular among new graduates.

Dr. Paul Pion, president and co-founder of VIN, observed that existing output of veterinary students easily will fill the additional jobs projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and then some — without further enrollment increases.

“With increasing class sizes, new schools coming online and considering that the reported statistics have generally not included the increased and increasing production of colleagues from Caribbean and overseas schools,” Pion said, “I fear that although our profession has historically absorbed all that we produce into the job market, that may no longer be the case.”

Dr. Bennie Osburn, interim executive director of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, told the VIN News Service he believes the supply of small-animal veterinarians “has met current needs” but that a need exists for more veterinarians in public health, academia and the food industry.

A former dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, Osburn said veterinary schools could help direct veterinarians to those areas by more carefully considering the students they accept.

“The largest segment of individuals coming to veterinary schools have grown up in urban areas, and their association with veterinary medicine is with their pets,” he said. “They have a need, or feeling of a need, to service those types of pets.”

Osburn said only 2 percent of veterinary school applicants today have a rural background.

At the same time, veterinary schools are experiencing their own crisis: trying to operate in the face of huge reductions in financial support from their respective states.

Increasing tuition revenues by expanding enrollment is one tactic to survive, Osburn said. “It’s not the deans that make that decision,” he said. “It’s the higher administration. Most of the colleges now are saying, ‘We have to take (more) students in if we are to maintain our programs.”

Furthermore, he said, the programs must be maintained in a fashion that enables them to continue meeting accreditation standards. “So it’s not a simple thing,” Osburn concluded.

Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said assessments of job prospects for veterinarians need to recognize that opportunities differ depending on the segment of the profession.

Referring to the Feb. 1 Labor Department job projections in which “veterinarian” was ranked among the fastest-growing occupations in the country, DeHaven commented by email:

“... It is misleading to simply ‘lump’ all veterinarians into one ‘bucket’ and draw any meaningful conclusions. Given the diversity of disciplines within the profession (companion animal, food animal, public practice, rural mixed animal practice, laboratory animal, etc.), the status of the workforce in any one of these disciplines likely varies tremendously from the workforce status of other disciplines. For example, there might be a significant surplus of veterinarians in one area, e.g., companion animal practice, while at the same time a shortage in another, e.g., laboratory animal medicine.”

He added: “Based on the BLS report as written, the average person is likely to assume that all of veterinary medicine is going to be in a growth phase in the foreseeable future when, in fact, some disciplines within the profession may already be in a state of surplus. The devil is in the details. ...”

Responding to DeHaven’s concern, Megan Sweitzer, the BLS economist who developed the jobs projection and the new Occupational Outlook Handbook veterinarian profile, said by email that the bureau is unable to project jobs for specialties within occupations, owing to the way employment data is collected.

“Information on specific specialties is taken into account when making the projections (e.g. that one specialty may be declining, reducing the overall rate of growth),” she said, “but BLS is unable to project employment more specifically ...”

She added: “In any occupation, projected employment growth is not an indication of how any one jobseeker will fare in their job search. Many Handbook profiles offer a ‘Job Prospects’ section, which may provide more context about factors behind the growth of the occupation or a difference in growth among specialties. ...”

It is within the “Job Prospects” section of the Handbook released today that the distinction is drawn between job opportunities in companion-animal care versus other areas of veterinary medicine. The distinction is not prominently highlighted — it’s located deep in the occupational profile — but it differs notably from the discussion of small-animal practice in the 2010-11 edition of the Handbook, which read in part:

“Veterinarians usually practice in animal hospitals or clinics and care primarily for small pets. Recent trends indicate particularly strong interest in cats as pets. Faster growth of the cat population is expected to increase the demand for feline medicine and veterinary services, while demand for veterinary care for dogs should continue to grow at a more modest pace.”

The old version of the Handbook also stated:

“New graduates continue to be attracted to companion-animal medicine because they usually prefer to deal with pets and to live and work near heavily populated areas, where most pet owners live. Employment opportunities are very good in cities and suburbs but even better in rural areas because fewer veterinarians compete to work there.”

That language no longer is in the occupational profile. The rewritten and updated version does give this positive analysis of the need for companion-animal practitioners:

“The need for veterinarians will increase to keep up with the demands of a growing pet population. Many people consider their pets to be a part of their family and are willing to pay more for pet care than owners have in the past. Also, veterinary medicine has advanced considerably, and many of the veterinary services offered today are comparable to health care for humans, including cancer treatments and kidney transplants.”

DeHaven noted that whether a surplus or need exists in any sector of veterinary medicine is, at this point, speculative and anecdotal. He said the AVMA is considering commissioning a comprehensive analysis of the veterinary workforce, at the same time that it anxiously awaits a long-overdue study on the subject from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Originally scheduled for publication in 2008, the NAS study release has been postponed several times since. Its latest prospective release is next month.

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