Country vets: thin on the ground

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Australia is at risk of an oversupply of vets, yet rural areas continue to struggle to attract new graduates. Angela Tufvesson asks what can be done to ensure demand matches supply.

When Debbie Osborne from the Alice Springs Veterinary Hospital advertised a position for a graduate vet at her rural practice, she was thrilled to make an offer to a terrific candidate from Sydney. What happened next is typical of the struggle to hire junior vets in country areas—the candidate turned down the job and spent the next 18 months in Sydney unemployed. Osborne was forced to sponsor a graduate from the UK at a significantly higher premium than a local hire.

“We advertised in March and I thought we would be getting applications from Australian residents who had been hanging out for the perfect city job and were starting to get a little bit nervous that it might not appear, and had started to look elsewhere,” says Osborne. “We didn’t, so we employed a graduate from the UK who’s just started and it’s going great.”

This is despite reports that significant growth in the number of veterinary graduates across Australia—attributed to the establishment of new vet schools and growing student intakes in existing schools—is contributing to an increase in unemployment in the profession. Why the discrepancy? As in so many industries in our wide brown land, the allure and safety net of the city often trumps the breadth of professional experiences on offer in the country.

Country versus city

According to the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), there are 360 vets per million people in Australia, which is more than 30 per cent higher than in the UK and USA. Australia graduates about one thousand new vets each year from seven vet schools. By contrast, in California there are just two vet schools producing about 200 graduates each year to serve a population of 35 million.

Back in 2003, the Frawley Report, a government review of rural veterinary services, recommended that no new veterinary schools be established, citing a problem with demand for country jobs rather than supply of graduates. More than a decade later, the profession is a mainstay on the government’s Skilled Occupation List as an occupation open to skilled overseas migrants despite real concerns about the oversupply of new graduates.

AVA policy manager, Debbie Neutze, says many graduates are put off moving from the city to a regional town because of fears their partner may not be able to find suitable employment, especially given veterinary salaries are lower than many comparable professions and most vets are female.

“If they’re married to another professional sometimes the veterinary salary is the second job in the family,” says Neutze. “It’s not the primary income, so if there isn’t a position for the other person to go to, they’re perhaps making the decision based on the person with the higher wage.”

In addition, programs designed to attract doctors and dentists to rural areas often are not available to vets. “Attracting people to the country is difficult for all professions; it’s not just a veterinary issue, but unfortunately for vets, a lot of the programs that attract professionals into country areas are not available to them. For instance, with doctors and dentists the health department supplies different benefits to attract people to country areas.”

Osborne suspects many young vets stay in cities because of a belief that country vets struggle to enjoy work-life balance. “New graduates often want work-life balance, which means they don’t want to do weekends or after hours,” she says. “There’s a perception that they won’t have good work-life balance if they’re having to work in a practice where they have to do after hours or weekends.”

Dr Anne Fawcett, a vet at Sydney Animal Hospitals Inner West who has worked in city and country areas, says the security and more structured scope of city-based work has greater appeal for many young graduates.

“People are increasingly feeling like they need the safety net of the city. Although there are excellent rural practitioners who are very new-graduate-friendly and keen to supervise, people are still a bit worried that they don’t have the backup of as many after-hours emergency centres, and they’re worried about long hours and isolation.”

A regional solution

Rather than trying to lure city folks out of the rat race, regional universities offering veterinary science degrees are concentrating their efforts on educating country people for careers in the country.

Research from Charles Sturt University says this is the most effective way to meet the professional needs of rural Australia.  According to Jenny Hyams, senior lecturer and courses director for veterinary science at the Wagga Wagga campus, most of the university’s vet-science graduates come from the country and about 90 per cent find employment in non-metropolitan areas.

Crucially, she says, salaries are comparable to city areas, dispelling the popular myth that rural vets earn less. “While some students head to the city for internships or family reasons, the vast majority stay in rural and regional Australia, many finding employment at veterinary clinics at which they have previously undertaken a clinical placement,” says Hyams.

“It is apparent from our research that regional veterinary graduates working in regional areas earn a salary comparable, if not slightly higher, than their metropolitan counterparts.”

“Our job is to try to change those perceptions and convince [young vets] that this is a good way to live; it’s a good way to make a living.”—Professor Peter Chenoweth, head of Veterinary Science, James Cook University

Similarly, James Cook University in Townsville prioritises student admissions from rural, remote and regional areas. Head of Veterinary Science, Professor Peter Chenoweth, says this approach, combined with the fact that the university has a younger student cohort who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, creates an environment conducive to young vets staying put in the country.

“Those three things contribute to our student profile,” says Professor Chenoweth. “It means that we spend a lot of effort mentoring and helping the transition to university life, but the bottom line is that the vast majority of our graduates go back to non-metropolitan areas. That’s based on six years of graduates, but the figures are pretty impressive. We can say that we’re fulfilling our vision, our mission, in that respect.”

Agreeing that salary should not be a deciding factor because “salaries for newly graduated veterinarians are not generally good no matter where they go,” Professor Chenoweth believes that rural practices can nevertheless better market the value of living and working in country Australia.

“We’ve got to try harder because we’ve got this bigger population in metropolitan areas that really don’t know a lot about rural living and they’re a bit scared of it,” he says. “Our job is to try to change those perceptions and convince [young vets] that this is a good way to live; it’s a good way to make a living. Being part of a smaller rural community has got so many positive advantages.”

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