Tough job market compels dogged hunt by new veterinarians

Fewer grads enjoy luxury of multiple offers

Published: May 19, 2011
By Edie Lau

Anastasia Olsen, shown with one of her patients in Grenada where she attended school at St. George’s University, has wanted to be a veterinarian since childhood. A soon-to-be graduate, Olsen had the path to her dream career all mapped out — but didn't reckon on a bad job market. Photo by Kelly Wilson.
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Students entering veterinary school four years ago watched as graduates stepped into a welcoming job market. The majority received multiple offers — often two, sometimes three and even four.

Now it’s the Class of 2011’s turn, and the world is different.

This graduation season, freshly minted veterinarians consider themselves lucky if they land a single offer. This, after months of searching and scores of inquiries.

“I always thought, ‘It’s never a problem getting a job.’ I guess I never thought about how it would be difficult,” said Anastasia Olsen, who has discovered as she completes her DVM degree that landing a position is exceedingly difficult.

Five months into her job hunt and three weeks from graduation day, Olsen is looking still. She’s in good company.

Dr. James Wilson, a veterinarian and lawyer who teaches veterinary law, ethics, business management and career development at some 20 veterinary schools around the country, calls this the “worst job market” for the profession in 30 years. Not since the recession of the early 1980s, marked by high oil prices and double-digit inflation, does he remember a market this bad.

Jon Dittrich, a practice-management consultant in Tennessee who works with 100 practices around the country, said experienced veterinarians are struggling as well.

“All of my veterinarian clients, when I ask them, think there are too many veterinarians in the marketplace already,” Dittrich said. “What hurts is, veterinarian revenues have declined, so the need for veterinarian hours have declined. That has laid off good, qualified veterinarians.”

Belying the mantra that veterinary medicine is a well-paid profession with great growth potential, today’s graduates report having to work their tails off to find anyone who’s hiring; and harder still to find anyone offering salaries generous enough to cover their living expenses, including payments on educational debt that averages more than $133,000 — and double and triple that sum for some individuals.

Olsen is a classic example. She estimates she’s contacted between 30 and 40 would-be employers — mostly cold calls, because she needs to find work in Connecticut, New York City or New Jersey due to her husband’s job. Of the practices she solicited, fewer than 10 responded, and only a couple actually were hiring, she reported.

Although her husband has good employment in investment banking, Olsen feels pressure to contribute to the household income, not the least because she owes more than $300,000 in student loans. “It’s quite a bit,” she allowed with a shaky laugh.

More than three-quarters of the debt was amassed in veterinary school at St. George’s University, located on the Caribbean island of Grenada. The remainder comes from loans acquired at Cornell University where Olsen earned her undergraduate degree.

Not having a job takes a bite not only out of Olsen’s household budget but out of her sense of purpose, as well. Olsen has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child, and set a path toward her goal. “I’ve always had a plan,” she said: “ ‘I’m going to do this, then go here, then there.’ ”

Among the many activities Shannon Skevakis did in veterinary school at the University of Florida was surgery under Operation CATNIP, a trap-neuter-release program for feral cats. A natural go-getter, Skevakis solicited 50 practices in her job hunt, interviewed with 10 and received three offers. Photo courtesy of Shannon Skevakis.
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Suddenly, she’s at a juncture she didn’t plan for. “It’s like, now what do I do?” she wondered.

The job situation has made her wonder also about the number of graduates coming out of veterinary school each year, and whether the volume has become too much for the market to absorb.

Currently, accredited programs in the United States alone graduate about 2,500 new veterinarians each year, and the number is rising. Purdue University, for example, where Olsen has spent her final year of studies in clinical training, plans to increase enrollment in the School of Veterinary Medicine this fall, admitting an incoming class of 84 students, up from 70.

In light of the tight market, Olsen said the plan strikes her and her schoolmates as “weird.” “I don’t know why they’re doing that,” she said.

Purdue Dean Willie Reed said in an interview by e-mail that while he does not yet have specific employment data for the Class of 2011, discussions with new graduates indicate that the job market is better than last year. “For those actively looking for a job, most have found a position,” he said. “Some are reporting multiple offers. I have no evidence to suggest that Purdue University students are having difficulty finding jobs.”

The enrollment increase, Reed said, is aimed at helping to meet “a national need for more veterinarians, especially in areas such as biomedical research, laboratory animal medicine, pathology, public health, production animal medicine and other sectors...”
Private small-animal practice dominates the profession and is the area into which most graduates gravitate.

Reed added: “The need for veterinarians is projected to grow and the current job market is the result of the economy and is expected to improve as the economy improves.”

Fourth-year students who have landed jobs this spring credit luck and aggressive searching.

Lindsey Lucas, for example, began her search in November. Over the course of the school year, she sent out some 60 to 65 resumes, targeting practices within commuting distance of where her fiance works in Illinois. She was invited to one interview.

Fortunately, that single interview led to an offer — a good one. The job met all her hopes in terms of location, pay, practice size and style. “If I could have hand-picked it, I would have,” Lucas said. She accepted; her first day is June 1.

Although things turned out well, when Lucas recounts her journey to becoming a veterinarian, the word “scary” pops up more than once.

“I’m one of those people who wanted to be a vet since I was a little kid working on my stuffed animals,” Lucas said. But in high school, deterred by warnings about how hard it is to get into veterinary school — slightly more than half of applicants are turned down — Lucas decided to pursue nursing.

Then her grandmother, in a conversation shortly before she died, urged Lucas to follow her dreams.

The advice was powerful. Lucas switched back to Plan A, though not without trepidation. “At the time, it was scary,” Lucas recalled. “They put so much fear of God into you about getting into school.”

Getting accepted turned out not to be a problem. She was admitted to the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois in her home state. But when it came time to hit the job market, the fear returned — this time fueled by a student loan the size of a mortgage. “Six months (after graduation), we have to start paying these loans, and if you don’t have a job, that’s terrifying,” she said.

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Now that the fear of debt without an income is behind her, Lucas has much to look forward to: a new career, a wedding and home ownership. In another lucky stroke, Lucas and her fiance received a house as a gift from her future in-laws.

Like Lucas, Shannon Skevakis also beat the bushes hard to find a job. The University of Florida fourth-year veterinary student targeted her search to commuting distance of Melbourne, Fla., where her husband works and the couple owns a house. She distributed 50 resumes and cover letters, delivering most in person while on vacation.

“This allowed me to see what the practices were like, especially the ones with bad websites or none at all,” she related in an interview by e-mail. “It also allowed me to see how far they were, if I could do the drive and maybe meet with the owner or manager when I dropped them off.”

A week later, she followed with telephone calls. Most weren’t hiring. But some were quite kind in their rejection. “I had one owner who said they were so impressed with my resume that they wished they were more established to be able to hire me,” Skevakis said. “They then proceeded to give me advice and encouragement on my search.”

Skevakis also posted her resume on a couple of sites online and requested permission to attend a meeting of her county’s veterinary medical association, where she passed out business cards and resumes.

Like so many of her classmates, Skevakis did not expect when she entered veterinary school to have difficulty finding work. But the experiences of the 2009 and 2010 graduating classes, she said, served as a warning. That's when multiple job offers began to diminish. Yearly surveys by the American Veterinary Medical Association of veterinary school graduates show that in 2008, 19 percent of graduates reported receiving four job offers. That fell to 9.7 percent in 2009 and 6.4 percent in 2010.

Of the 50 practices Skevakis solicited, 20 didn’t respond. Another 20 weren’t hiring. She interviewed with 10, which led to three firm offers, one of which she accepted.

Skevakis said hearing from a classmate who repeatedly bemoaned the lack of jobs galvanized her search. “I had no choice. I had to find a job and I couldn’t complain about not finding anything unless I really aggressively tried to find something,” she said.

For those whose outcome is still uncertain, stress and fear loom large. One student discouraged by an unproductive hunt for work in California declined to be interviewed. “I ... do not want to do anything that might jeopardize my search,” the student said.

For their part, some clinic owners who could use an extra hand are concerned that they can’t pay well enough or offer enough hours to make it worth someone’s while, judging from posts in a message-board discussion of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession.

“Many of us are struggling and can only hire part-time new grads or can’t offer what you certainly deserve,” Dr. Carie Wisell, a practitioner in Albany, Ga., wrote.

Likewise, Dr. Kimberly Harrell, who practices in south Texas, said: “I would love to hire an associate and give them an excellent quality of life working about 3-1/2 days a week. But I don't want to offer a salary that seems very low.”

Other veterinarians expressed support and sympathy for their young colleagues’ plight. Dr. Colin McHugh, a practitioner in North Carolina, wrote:

“I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed by the situation out there. It’s not as if it means someone isn’t going to be a good veterinarian because they don’t have a job offer currently or are having trouble getting interviews. There are some pretty darn good veterinarians in my area with several years’ experience who aren’t getting calls on their resumes, either.”

Dr. Kholood Hassan can attest to that. A 2005 graduate, Hassan recently was in the market for a new job and found the search quite unlike her experience six years earlier.

“When I first graduated the job offers seemed to fall from the sky,” she wrote on March 2. “I couldn’t run into a vet without being offered a position. Not the case now ...”

(Hassan did eventually land a job. Like many of the new graduates, she found her new employer by making a personal visit and leaving an unsolicited resume.)

Dr. Josephine Doo, a 2009 graduate from New Zealand who moved to Australia to find work, chimed in with words of experience from someone who survived three months of unemployment after graduation. “Don’t stress if you can’t find a job from the word ‘go,’ ” she wrote. “The knowledge and skills you’ve gained over the last few years won’t go down the gurgler if you don’t start using them straight away.”

Olsen, the student who’s been looking for work since the first of the year, said she tries not to worry, but it’s hard. “Sometimes I think, ‘I still have time. I know people who graduated six and eight months ago, and they’re just now finding something.’ And then I think, ‘I need money!’ ” she said. “I’ve been working (in school) so hard. I just want to start working.”

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