Young vets are happy with their career choice – or are they? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Young vets are happy with their career choice – or are they?

Graham Duncanson wonders why so many recent graduates would not choose a veterinary career if they were starting over again and calls for better pay and working practices across the profession.

THE actual statement from the BVA news release was that young vets are happy with their career choice but need support with the challenges of working in practice. I wish I had not read any further as that is the message I wanted to hear.

I am privileged to have been a vet for 48 years and have enjoyed every year of my career. I am lucky to have a daughter who graduated this year. She has been doing a large animal locum for seven weeks and has enjoyed the experience.

Obviously, as she is my daughter she can do no wrong in my eyes. I am truly grateful to all the colleagues at her practice who have been so kind to her and guided her as I am sure she must have made some mistakes.

Recently I have been increasingly worried that I will make an error and be reported to the RCVS and blight her career. It would be extremely sad if in the same copy of the Veterinary Record she was admitted to the RCVS and I was struck off!

Studying the BVA survey in depth does not make encouraging reading. Among 26-34 year olds, 21% of respondents when asked “Knowing what you know now, would you choose to pursue a career as a vet again?” answered “No, I would not still choose to be a vet.”

That means to me that one in five young vets do not now want to be vets. Their reasons were poor pay, long hours and poor work life balance. Those three reasons are very closely linked. If an employer wants to improve the hours and improve the work- life balance then he or she either pays less or makes less profit.

Old buffers like me do not improve the situation by saying idiotic things like, “In my day we all had to work 84 hours every week. That was what was expected.” I actually doubt the truth of this statement and even if it was true it is now totally irrelevant.

Young graduates are not comparing their job with the job they would have done 50 years ago. They are comparing it to the job which comparable professions are expected to do now.

No one will argue with me if I say a 34-year-old doctor works fewer hours, has a better work-life balance and receives approximately twice the salary compared to a 34-year-old veterinary surgeon. Where is the profession going wrong? Are we as a profession in denial?

I would value readers’ views. Are employers, whether corporates or principals, creaming off excessive profits? Are they therefore employing young graduates as slave labour?

I do not think either of these two statements is true. If they were, the inference would be that there are too many young graduates.

This indeed may be the case but the RCVS assures us it is powerless to solve the problem. Is it because there are too many old fools like me still working and therefore taking away the jobs which could be done by young graduates?

It is often cited that part of the financial problem is the high level of capital investment required nowadays in the buildings and facilities expected by the populous. I think there certainly is an element of this. My answer must be, “The populous will only get what they are prepared to pay for.”

Sadly, the profession has somehow got the reputation of being at best over-charging professionals who do every possible procedure to increase the bill, to at the worst money-grubbing charlatans.

I am normally a cheerful happy individual but when I studied the survey further I found a further 32% of 26-34 year olds answered they were not sure that they would still choose to be a vet. This to me means that over half of that age group of vets are not happy in their profession.

The then BVA president, Robin Hargreaves, rightly commented, “More needs to be done. This includes working with schools and universities at the very start of young vets’ careers to ensure they are aware of the challenges ahead and to support them to develop the resilience to deal with those challenges and continue to enjoy and contribute to the profession we love.”

Putting this in perhaps somewhat plainer words, we need to warn young people that the job is rubbish and they will need to be seriously tough to cope with it. That certainly is one approach.

Will it put off young people applying to vet school? Will the lack of applications influence the universities not to build more vet schools? Will the fall in numbers mean we will have smaller class sizes so that students can be taught how to be more resilient?

Maybe I am worrying unnecessarily. Perhaps if you surveyed other professionals who have been in work for five to 10 years over 50% would not be happy with their job. Is this a fact of life that we now have a very mobile work force so everyone is wanting to change jobs?

Are young graduates unhappy because they have got the wrong practice rather than the wrong job? There are definitely practices out there which are very poor for young graduates as the work-life balance and the support is hopeless.

However, there are a large number of practices which are right for some graduates but wrong for others. So we need to teach undergraduates how to select the correct practice for them.

All this waffle is avoiding the fundamental issue. Vets receive an appallingly low salary. I am not sure if there is anything that the BVA or we as a profession as a whole can do about it.

I can’t help but smile when I read about all the tendering for LVI work. I suspect that DEFRA may well be in trouble from the Audit Commission when it finds out the actual cost of the testing. Looking in my crystal ball I see a large number of European vets doing the job for very low remuneration. How does that leave the practices in the yearly testing areas who have to shed professional staff? It will certainly increase the number of vets looking for jobs.

My heart goes out to new graduates who are continually being turned down for jobs because they have no experience. Would a job doing solely TT testing for two years actually be considered as being experienced?

In the equine field, certainly, interns work extremely hard for very little pay but they are considered to have gained experience.

I was very interested in a letter in a recent Veterinary Record (Brentnall, 2014). The author suggests that general practice needs to come up with innovative solutions to assist with funding of the best undergraduates and provide them with a de ned career structure and appropriate remuneration during their early postgraduate years.

In return, this will aid the retention of good-quality, professional staff and instil in them the commercial realities of veterinary practice.

The author promises that this issue will be examined closely by those colleagues who run XLVet member practices. This must be an excellent way forward. I wish XLVet member practices the best of luck.

I spend a large amount of time with veterinary students and new graduates. The vast majority are highly trained and highly motivated. They have spent a considerable time studying the so called “soft skills” of veterinary practice. I am an equine/farm animal practitioner and may be biased but there definitely is a large number who want to go into equine and/or farm animal practice. They are certainly well aware of the commercial realities of general practice.

The large majority of new graduates will be going into small animal practice or mixed practices with a strong small animal bias. I worry about them.

I must admit that being a large animal practitioner, my evidence is hearsay. However, I have gained considerable information from discussions with young graduates through the Eastern Counties Veterinary Society.

It would appear (readers I hope will say I am talking nonsense) that in many practices an evening off starts after the last consult at 6pm. Even if you live over the surgery you are unlikely to actually finish until 6.30pm. To do something constructive, e.g. play sport, go to evening classes, go to CPD, you are not going to be available before 7.30pm.

I am aware that for many the last consult may be much later than 6pm. I know the employers are going to say that they have to have consultations this late as the clients themselves are at work and do not finish until late and therefore would have to leave work early.

I have two points to make: firstly, the clients do not have to go to the vets every night – it is a rare occurrence – but the vet has to work every night; secondly, how many dentists, doctors, solicitors and architects see clients at 6pm? Bear in mind I am not talking about emergency treatments.

I think it is unlikely that we are going to put off A/S level schoolboys and girls from applying to veterinary school by telling them that the pay expectations are extremely low and working practices, particularly the hours, are poor. I doubt if telling them that if they want to be equine practitioners they will be doing the most dangerous occupation other than the armed forces in the UK will deter them.

Naturally, the universities are going to encourage applicants. They must be applauded for demanding vigorous entry requirements.

As a profession, how do we get the message across to young vet wannabes that the job is not what it is cracked up to be? I am sure that TV producers are not likely to run programmes where they follow veterinary students into practice after graduation only to find after eight years that 50% are going to confess that they wish they weren’t veterinary practitioners.

In conclusion, from my own experience I think the answer is that to enjoy one’s life as a practitioner you have to have a passion for the job. You have to enjoy going out on cold dark nights to calve cows. You have to enjoy putting your hand and arm into a horse’s mouth. You have to expect to be very poorly paid.

That is fine for me. However, I am not happy that my daughter will have to do the same. So I say to all the practitioners out there that you are doing a marvellous job but you should be properly paid for it.

Do not be ashamed of charging proper fees. If solicitors get £300 an hour, vets should be getting more. A pet or a horse is a luxury. If you can’t afford the veterinary insurance or proper fees, you should not be keeping it. If you are a farmer and keeping stock is not economic then don’t keep the stock and certainly do not expect your practitioner to subsidise your bad management.

Lastly, I will finish my tirade with a message for DEFRA: “If you want to eradicate TB, you require the best professionals on the case, not the worst. I suspect that trying to get the job done on the cheap will be a total disaster.”

Reference

Brentnall, J. H. (2014) University costs and graduate remuneration. Veterinary Record 175: 258.

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