Reality check

A high school student came to my office the other day to discuss a job shadowing opportunity. In North America students take at least 2 years of undergrad study before being able to apply for the 4 year veterinary program, and most successful applicants have a 3 or 4 year Bachelor’s degree. The screening committees like to know that they aren’t admitting students with unrealistic expectations of what the job involves, so they like to see practical experience on an application as well as the relevant education.

I’ve had many students shadow over the years. They come in and hang out at the hospital mainly to have something to put on their application forms. I don’t think the experience sways them much; if they really want to be a vet, it’s what they want. And at that age it’s difficult for them to realize that this isn’t just “what are you going to do after high school”, it’s about an entire 40 year career.

Most have a very romanticized view of what a vet does. They think it’s like James Herriot or that execrable Nat Geo show about the vet in the States who practices execrable medicine, waltzing from clinic to farm while clients worship you whether you screw up and kill something or not, because they don’t know any better. It’s all grateful clients and laughter and perfect outcomes.

naïveThe time at the clinic dispels that notion somewhat. At least 20% of my day is spent in record keeping, phone calls to clients, staff meetings, case research, and fielding questions from staff, all really boring stuff for them to sit through but I make them anyway. This is what the day is actually like, after all. They go into appointments with me, unless it’s something sensitive. A client distraught over the decision to euthanize a pet doesn’t need a high schooler gawking at them. They watch surgery, which they are convinced is the cool part of the job anyway but comprises, again, a relatively small part of the day.

And lately, we’ve been having The Talk. I find myself more and more sort of discouraging kids from going into veterinary medicine, which saddens me greatly. The profession has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and its viability as a real career (rather than a “job”) has dropped.

The demand for veterinarians in poorly served rural area has not changed. It’s always been high, just as there has perennially need for human doctors in remote areas. If you want to be a large animal vet more than 300 km north of the 49th parallel, you can have your choice of locations. Whether you’ll get paid decently is another question, but in some areas local municipalities and interest groups like cattlemen’s associations or dairy interests are actually offering to be the employers, guarantee a salary, and even build and equip a proper facility.

But if you want to be in small animal medicine, or equine in some areas, the market is pretty saturated. There are far more vets than pets who need them. A new veterinary school opened in Calgary a few years ago, “to train large animal vets”. Eighty percent of their first graduation class went straight into small animal medicine. They’ve increased the number of veterinarians graduating in Canada by 25% without any evidence that these vets are in demand.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, which for some reason Canada has deferred to in regard to veterinary college accreditation, has seen fit to recognize several new universities that are graduating thousands of students a year between them. With our current reciprocity agreements, those new vets are entitled to practice in Canada as well.

There has also been an influx of foreign-trained veterinarians from non-accredited institutions all over the world. Our country appears to have a very lucrative pet market when you come from a third world country. These vets are allowed to practice in Canada after taking testing that attempts (but, some say, fails abysmally) to ensure minimal skills standards.

The Canadian government estimates that 13% of the veterinarians in Canada are immigrants. That same document says that there is no unemployment in the veterinary profession and that demand outstrips supply, implying that Canada can handle all the veterinary immigrants that want to come. But their information is just plain wrong. Down here in the trenches small animal veterinarians are having a hard time finding full time work that pays, and resort to catch-as-catch-can locum work. And the oversupply of veterinarians is keeping salaries abysmally low.

More vet = more practices = fewer clients per practice, since the pet population numbers have not risen at the same rate as the veterinarian population. Fewer clients means either less revenue for the practice or higher charges to existing clients to maintain incomes. (Maybe I need to get a journalist involved in an article about “How Canada’s immigration policies are helping to kill the veterinary profession and raising the cost of veterinary medicine for consumers”.)

The upshot is that anyone graduating now who wants to be a small animal practitioner and work for someone else is looking at a limited salary (some are currently making as little as $45,000 a year in parts of the country with lower costs of living), and those numbers are not likely to even keep pace with inflation. Even practice owners with 20 years of experience are hard pressed to maintain incomes over $80-90,000 a year. These poor students are coming in with stars (or dollar signs) in their eyes and dreams of making MD salaries ($125,000+) as soon as they graduate. Dream on.

A veterinary career has moved from something that you could work hard at your whole life and retire at the end without too much worry to something that is a supplemental income and won’t provide any security at all for your old age. Nowadays a veterinarian has to pair up with someone with a decent job in order to have the wherewithal to raise a family, afford a decent house or car, or do any of the things that used to be within the grasp of a single income household.

So what they hell am I supposed to tell these kids? I love my work. Absolutely love it, wanted to do it since I was old enough to know there was such a thing, and have never thought of doing anything else. It completes me. And for kids who are like me, maybe that’s enough. Maybe, like me, they don’t need the house, the 3 week vacation, or the new car, ever. Maybe, like me, they have a spouse that makes some money so they can both save for retirement. Maybe, like me, they can live on the daily boosts that their patients and work give them. But for others, it will never be enough, financially or emotionally. And they should know that up front.

2 thoughts on “Reality check

  1. Definitely a reality check for a career. You need a real desire to pick your profession. I know this because I was an RN for 32 years before I retired, I didn’t get rich but made a decent living at something I was driven to do by my desire to help others.


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