Photo courtsey of Noah's Animal Hospitals
Dr. Mark Petersmann, 27, sent out 20 resumes after graduating from Purdue University in 2011. He took a job at Noah's Animal Hospitals, a chain of veterinary practices in the Indianapolis area. Owner Dr. Mike Thomas said Petersmann is one of three new graduates he hired last year, without advertising a position. That's a deviation from years past, when a strong U.S. job market made finding an associate difficult. "Flat is the new up, and that certainly applies to veterinary medicine right now," Thomas said of the profession's economic health.
Job projections released today by government analysts place veterinarians on a list of 30 occupations in America expected to enjoy the highest rate of growth over the decade to 2020 — an assessment that contradicts the observations and experiences of many practitioners and raises eyebrows among leaders of the profession.
The new projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are similar to the agency’s last job forecast for veterinarians developed in 2008, which predicted a 33 percent increase in employment from 2008 to 2018. That forecast led to the frequently cited conclusion that “excellent job opportunities are expected.”
The declaration is baffling to many in the business.
“It’s been a concern for many of us for quite some time now, trying to (determine) ... where these wild (Labor Department) projections for needs of veterinarians are coming from at a time that the market is shrinking,” said Dr. Mike Thomas, owner of several companion-animal hospitals in the Indianapolis area.
“This is just my clinical impression, but I watch this industry pretty closely,” said Thomas, who has held leadership positions in a variety of veterinary organizations during his 44 years in practice. “I know a lot of practice owners. My sense is that jobs are going to be shrinking. Certainly salaries are going down.”
Thomas and others’ sense that tough times for veterinarians are an enduring reality is fueled partly but not entirely by the overall slow economy.
For example — not surprisingly in a nation in which unemployment averaged 9 percent last year — new graduates report that securing a job requires extreme effort. The struggle exists in large-animal medicine and small-animal medicine alike.
In a trend unrelated to the country's economic condition, veterinarians are facing stiff competition in pet medication sales by Internet and brick-and-mortar chain pharmacies.
And even as the pet population expands, visits to veterinarians are in decline, according to a study last year sponsored by Bayer Animal Health.
While young people considering a career in the field may not be aware of these factors, they might well have read or heard the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ occupational forecasts. Enormously influential, the veterinary outlook has been repeated and cited by a multitude of sources — from U.S. News and World Report in its list of “50 best careers” to the popular online reference site ehow.com; and by a student group, a cat advocacy website, a career website and a blog, to name a few.
Schools, meanwhile, citing the perceived need for veterinarians, have stepped up their output of graduates.
Figures compiled by the staff of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service, show that between 1991 and 2011, the number of graduates from accredited veterinary programs in the United States rose by 25 percent, from 2,092 to 2,618.
Within that period, the rate of increase accelerated: Between 1991 and 2000, the number of graduates increased by 7.2 percent, from 2,092 to 2,242.
The following decade, 2001 to 2010, the number of graduates grew by 13.2 percent, from 2,255 to 2,552.
Further, in 2011, three veterinary programs in nearby foreign countries achieved U.S. accreditation: the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, or UNAM; Ross University on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts; and St. George’s University in Grenada, also in the Caribbean.
These developments have led veterinarians across the profession to question the mantra that more veterinarians are needed.
Asked earlier this week for his opinion of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ much-cited outlook for veterinarians, Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), noted that data underlying the outlook was several years old.
“In the meantime, AVMA’s own thinking about the status of the veterinary workforce has evolved significantly ...” he said by email. “We are acutely aware of anecdotal information circulating among our members that suggests a surplus of veterinarians in certain veterinary medicine disciplines; the most commonly being companion-animal practice.”
DeHaven said the AVMA is looking forward to seeing a long-awaited veterinary workforce study by the National Academy of Sciences. The AVMA also is considering commissioning its own national veterinary workforce study, he said, “in order to take actions/make recommendations based on current, solid data.”
Reacting today to the Labor Department’s updated job projection for veterinarians, DeHaven wondered what data the projection is based upon, given the absence of a comprehensive workforce study.
Henry Kasper, a supervising economist in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Office of Employment Projections who wrote the 2008 veterinary analysis and oversaw the 2012 update, said much of the data is derived from Labor Department research and surveys.
That information is supplemented by interviews with and information from outside organizations, including the AVMA, the American Animal Hospital Association and American Pet Products Association, he said.
In an interview today with the VIN News Service, after hearing a summary of practitioners’ concerns, Kasper said: “All the things you stated in terms of ... current opportunities being a little tough, that’s spot-on and we agree with that.
“What people have to keep in mind is that, although the current job situation might not be that favorable, these are 10-year forecasts. We’re not saying that there’s going to be a healthy demand for veterinarians every year for 10 years," he said. "... We’re anticipating a bounce back (in the greater economy) over the next half-decade to decade, and veterinarians will benefit from that.”
Kasper noted that occupational employment surveys conducted by the Labor Department show that wage-paying jobs for veterinarians (not including positions held by self-employed practitioners) did not decline and usually increased in every year from 2002 to 2010, right through the recession.
“They did not take a hit,” Kasper said. “These are actual positions. So based on historical trends, we are expecting that over the next decade, (jobs for) veterinarians will continue to grow at a very similar rate as in the past decade.”
Jobs held by self-employed veterinarians are assessed through a different survey and are included in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ tally of total number of jobs filled by veterinarians, which came to 61,400 in 2010. The bureau projects the number of jobs to reach 83,400 in 2020, an increase of 35.9 percent.
Another source that suggested to labor analysts that veterinary medicine will enjoy a robust future was information from the American Pet Products Association on consumer expenditures on pets, which includes veterinary services.
“If you look at the expenditures through the recession (2007 through 2009), it has increased consistently every year,” Kasper said. “... You cannot say the same about retail sales. ... That, to me, shows that even during hard times, people are still going to spend money on their pets.”
Underscoring the point, Kasper related an anecdote from his personal life.
“I have neighbors who are getting hip replacement for their dogs and they’re willing to spend any amount of money to save little Fido,” he said. “...This is the human-animal bond, people placing (pets) at a higher value, considering them part of the family.”
One thing about the veterinary occupation that may skew its top-30 ranking is that it’s a relatively small group. Consequently, a relatively small numerical increase in jobs will look large in percentage terms.
On the Labor Department’s list of occupations with the highest percentage growth in jobs projected, veterinarians come in No. 30, with a rate of increase of 35.9 percent.
The actual number of additional veterinarian jobs anticipated is 22,000. By comparison, jobs for medical secretaries — No. 16 on the list — are expected to increase by 210,200 over the same period.
The projections are described and discussed in five articles posted today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top-30 list appears on page 17 of a pdf of “Occupational employment projections to 2020."
Higher on the list than veterinarians are veterinary technicians at No. 6. Their job numbers are expected to boom from 80,200 in 2010 to 121,900 in 2020, an increase of 52 percent.
However, on a list of the top 30 occupations by numeric job growth, neither veterinarians nor veterinary technicians appear.
Also, job projections in a given occupation are measured relative to other occupations. So veterinarians may feel that they’ve taken a blow in recent years, but they’ve done well compared with other lines of work, Kasper said: “Veterinarians relative to many other occupations, particularly those in housing ... have taken nowhere near as bad a hit.”
Finally, the job projections do not speak to demand. Gary Steinberg, a Bureau of Labor Statistics press assistant, noted that the number of qualified job applicants in a given field could well exceed the number of available jobs, regardless of job growth.
“That’s the piece we don’t have,” Steinberg said. “What we’re saying is that there will be job openings, but we’re not saying how many people will be applying for those openings compared with other occupations.”
The job projections posted today are a piece of the bureau's updated Occupational Outlook Handbook, which is scheduled for release in March.