PeteThomas, an IowaStateUniversity veterinary student from Camanche, plans to stay in Iowa when he graduates. “I don’t have a whole lot of uncertainty about being able to find a job,” he said.
Research shows that a shortage of livestock veterinarians will result in four in every 100 positions remaining vacant in the United States. NATIONWIDE: While about 2,500 students graduate from veterinary schools each year, fewer than 250 go into livestock jobs. Twice that number are needed. IN IOWA: Of the 106 students who graduated from IowaState’s College of Veterinary Medicine this spring, 22 said they plan to work with large animals and 17 say they plan to stay in the state. Estimates show Iowa needs 25 new food-animal vets annually. DETAILS:
• An article on food-animal vet shortage from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Solutions to the veterinarian shortage: DEBT RELIEF: The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends debt relief for veterinary graduates who work in the livestock industry or areas of the country with shortages. GRANTS:Kansas has started offering some veterinary students $80,000 grants if they agree to work in rural areas after they graduate. LOANS:Illinois veterinary students can qualify for low-interest loans each year they are in school if they agree to work in a livestock practice for a certain number of years after graduation. Officials at IowaStateUniversity are considering asking the state to authorize a similar program. INTERNSHIPS:IowaState has started a pair of internship programs to familiarize veterinary students with hog and dairy operations.
For an aspiring veterinarian, IowaStateUniversity student PeteThomas is in a distinct minority.He wants to work with livestock rather than pets.He wants to stay in Iowa.
"I thought that vet school would be a good way to stay connected with agriculture, be with livestock and stay on farms without necessarily having the risk involved with being a farmer," he said.
But veterinarians and livestock industry officials worry that there are too few future vets like Thomas, especially if there is an outbreak of diseases such as avian influenza or foot and mouth.
Research published this spring by the American Veterinary Medical Association projected that the need for livestock veterinarians will grow by 12 percent to 13 percent a year and that four in every 100 positions will remain vacant.
The U.S. Agriculture Department, the biggest employer of veterinarians, will be short as many as 400 in coming years without an increase in recruitment and a slowdown in retirements, officials say. USDA vets conduct research, investigate disease outbreaks and inspect cattle at slaughterhouses for signs of illnesses such as mad cow disease.
"If we don't have food-animal practitioners in the field as the first line of defense to detect some of these things, that's a real vulnerability we have," said MikeChaddock, a former Michigan state veterinarian who now works for the Association of American Veterinary Colleges.The nation's 28 veterinary schools typically graduate 2,500 students a year. Fewer than 10 percent of those go into food-animal jobs, Chaddock said. Experts say twice that number is needed.
California alone educates only a fraction of the veterinarians it requires. The state needs three times as many veterinarians as it now has just for its burgeoning dairy industry. Starting salaries can reach $100,000 a year, said BennieOsburn, dean of the veterinary school at the University of California-Davis.
Even in a rural state like Iowa, there are signs of problems: Of the 106 students who graduated from ISU's College of Veterinary Medicine this spring, just 17 planned to stay in the state.And out of the class of 2006, 22 planned to devote part of their practice to large animals. The Iowa Veterinary Medical Association estimates that the state needs 25 new food-animal vets annually.
"The assumption has been in Iowa that we'll never run out of food at the grocery store and we'll never run out veterinarians," said RickSibbel, an Iowa veterinarian who helped oversee the American Veterinary Medical Association study. Sibbel works for a pharmaceutical company, Schering Plough Animal Health.
The predominance of women in vet schools — 77 percent of the students at IowaState are female — is seen by some as a bad sign for the livestock business. Female vets have traditionally preferred small-animal practices.
Other factors cited for the projected shortage of livestock vets:
• Fewer students are going to veterinary school from rural areas.
• Then there is the cost of an education. Many students leave school with $80,000 in debt. Thomas, who is entering his fourth and last year in veterinary school, expects to owe nearly $100,000 by the time he graduates.
"That's definitely a concern. It's by far the largest investment I've ever made in my life," said Thomas.
There should be no shortage of jobs when he gets out. New graduates from IowaState typically get "good quality" offers, said PatrickHalbur, who is interim chairman of IowaState's veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine department.There were as many as 72 openings for food animal veterinarians being advertised on IowaState's Web site.
Many of the jobs aren't in Iowa, however. The dairy jobs in California pay far more than the $55,000 to $60,000 that a new vet might earn in the Midwest. UC-Davis graduated 122 veterinary students this year, 16 more than IowaState.
Legislators and veterinary schools are looking at ways to attract more students interested in livestock medicine.
The American Veterinary Medical Association research recommends giving students debt relief if they go to work in underserved areas and says more scholarships are needed.
A federal law passed in 2004 authorized USDA to repay the student debt of new veterinarians who work in rural areas or inner cities, but the department has yet to implement rules for the program.
In the meantime, IowaState started a pair of internship programs this year designed to familiarize veterinary students with hog and dairy operations while they are still in school."It will help in recruiting. It will keep people interested in the food-animal area," said DonaldDraper, the veterinary college's associate dean for academic affairs.
CurtisNelson, an ISU student from Le Mars, grew up in town, but he became interested in caring for livestock by helping a local veterinarian. He wants to work with dairy cattle and isn't sure he will stay in Iowa."It's kind of a good time to be going into (a farm practice) since there are so many people retiring and such a need for food-animal veterinarians," he said.
Thomas, who grew up on a farm near Camanche in eastern Iowa, wants to work with hogs and possibly beef and dairy cattle. His younger brother also is studying to become a veterinarian.
"There are quite a few more job openings than there will be people graduating," he said. "I don't have a whole lot of uncertainty about being able to find a job."