(This one is a bit long, but the topic is complex, so I didn't try to break up the post.)
Is there a shortage of ag animal veterinarians?
If, so why?
These are questions that I have been mulling over lately, as have many of our colleagues in the college and around the state – the whole country for that matter.
These seem like such simple questions, but in reality they span a very complex set of issues.
No doubt there are some regions of the U.S. that have no ag animal veterinary coverage. Others, perhaps, are under served in relation to the number and quality of producers in that region. There are certainly studies showing this to be the case. But there may be regions where a reasonable livelihood for a new graduate may just not be feasible.
This question of the availability of jobs that lead to a reasonable livelihood is important to us as veterinary educators because if we convince students there is a need, they have an interest in meeting this need, and they align their studies to pursue a career in ag animal veterinary medicine, they must also be able to make a living when they graduate. The fiscal reality for veterinarians who will succeed in ag practice is the need to generate a constant, profitable, stream of business. Indeed, national studies have identified the relative earning potential in relation to educational debt of recent graduates as the key factor in determining how veterinarians choose a practice orientation. To address one side of this economic balance, we hope to continue to develop and fund so-called conditional scholarships. These are essentially loans that are forgiven over time for service in rural/agricultural practice. They are important because they will reduce the high education debt loads (which average more than $100,000 per student upon graduation) so that this is not as much of a consideration in choosing a practice setting. However, this is only one side of the economic picture. The other side is that sustainable, economically viable practice depends on a clientèle willing and able to pay a fair price for veterinary services within the realities of geographic location, density of operations, and commodity prices, among other considerations.
We have dedicated faculty in our college who are making headway on programs to enhance our education of those students who desire ag animal-oriented veterinary practice careers. Among other things, they are developing an array of summer experiences, both here in Pullman and out in regional producer and practice settings, to supplement the academic year education in our program. We will need help to implement some aspects of these programs. We are thus fortunate to also have colleagues in veterinary practice and among the producers who are willing to help develop and implement such programs. Through these efforts we will develop curriculum flexibility and curricular enhancements to provide excellent opportunity for some of our students to pursue ag-related practice interests.
As we succeed with these curricular enhancements, however, we still have to keep our eye on the job market. Will that market provide attractive career options for the students who have the interest and graduate with the skills?