Recent veterinary school graduates are likely to work in suburban pet clinics. That may be good for Fido, but it’s bad for livestock destined for the nation’s kitchens and restaurants.
The Department of Labor projects 28,000 veterinary job openings by 2012. Currently,universities produce about 2,500 vets each year. The annual shortfall is projected to be about 5 percent, according to Mark Lutschaunig, director of governmental relations for the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The problem goes beyond sheer numbers. If there aren’t enough veterinarians to vaccinate herds, treat diseases, deliver calves safely and ensure that foreign food sources are safe, tainted meat and other toxic products could be the result.
Veterinarians are “critical if we’re going to maintain a healthy food supply and keep foreign animal diseases out of the country,” Lutschaunig says. “This is probably one of the most important issues the profession has faced in the last 30 years.”
The limited labor pool of large-animal veterinarians is addressed in legislation that renews federal farm programs. A provision in the Senate bill would provide $1.5 billion in grants over 10 years to universities to fund research and increase the number of students who will enter agricultural biosecurity.
The broader farm legislation is in House-Senate negotiations. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is working with Capitol Hill leaders to craft an alternative measure that overcomes objections the president has to the congressional versions. The law expires March 15.
A law that hasn’t yet gone into effect addresses a key aspect of the shortage. In 2003, Congress approved a loan repayment program for veterinarians who agree to work in food supply.
The Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet written regulations that would make the program functional. Many veterinary students graduate with more than $100,000 in debt and receive starting salaries of $50,000 to $60,000.
Loan forgiveness is critical to attracting vets to rural regions, and some states have their own programs in place.
“We need some of our graduates to come back, and that’s the only way we’re going to do it,” says Arlyn Scherbenske, who owns a veterinary practice in Steele, North Dakota.
Scherbenske employs two full-time and four part-time vets as well as two technicians. They tend to about 30,000 head of cattle in a 50-mile radius and do two or three small-animal surgeries each day.
Scherbenske filled recent openings through “very aggressive” recruiting that included traveling to Kansas State University. But he says there is a “huge shortage” of vets in rural areas, where most of the food-supply work occurs.
The dearth is due in part to the retirement of solo practitioners and to the trend among young vets to work in group practices to lower costs and achieve better work/life balance.
If they hang out their own shingle, they have to be on call almost all the time, which can require working outside at night in poor weather.
“You are the emergency clinic,” Scherbenske says.
—Mark Schoeff Jr.