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The way things are now

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THE results of RCVS surveys of veterinary surgeons' employment are always of interest. However, with the imminent upheaval in higher educational funding, the results of the latest survey, which were published last week, could ultimately attract more interest than most. Indeed, if the proposed increase in university tuition fees is approved by Parliament, it is precisely to documents such as this that prospective students of the future might refer when deciding whether to embark on a veterinary career.

The survey was conducted at the beginning of this year, in parallel with a similar survey of veterinary nurses, to provide ‘an evidence-based view of the veterinary surgeon and veterinary nursing professions and the changes taking place within them’. With similar surveys of veterinary surgeons having been conducted in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2006, and of veterinary nurses in 2003 and 2008, the surveys not only provide a snapshot of how things stand in the two professions; they also provide an opportunity to identify trends. Although in previous years, the results of these surveys of vets and veterinary nurses have been published separately, this time they have been combined in a single report, with comparisons being drawn throughout. For those specifically interested in one or other of the two professions, this makes it more difficult to extract information than previously. Nevertheless, there is much information to be gleaned.

As might be expected, the results of the survey of veterinary surgeons reflect the increasing proportion of women in the profession, with the 9000 respondents showing a 50:50 split in terms of gender. In contrast, the veterinary nursing profession remains almost exclusively female, with women accounting for 98 per cent of the 4000 respondents. Despite the efforts that have been made to widen participation in veterinary education in recent years, the number of vets from ethnic minorities remains stubbornly low, with just 2 per cent of veterinary respondents (and 1 per cent of veterinary nursing respondents) being from an ethnic minority group.

Most veterinary respondents worked in practice, with the largest proportion working in small animal practice. Ten per cent reported working for government and 7 per cent in universities. Most veterinary surgeons' working time was spent on small animals, while 7 per cent was spent on cattle and 10 per cent on horses. Interestingly, although respondents to the last veterinary survey in 2006 anticipated that they would be spending more time working with cats, and less time with dogs, this does not seem to have happened; the proportion of time spent on cats has remained the same, while the proportion spent on dogs has increased.

Forty-three per cent of veterinary practitioners worked as full-time assistants or as employees of limited companies. Forty-one per cent of practices had partnership ownership and a quarter were owned by a single partner. This is less than was the case in 2006 and the report also records a ‘small rise’ in the proportion of ownership by a corporate concern.

The report notes an increase in vets' working hours since the survey in 2006; this reverses a trend apparent from the 2006 survey and can be seen as a setback to previously expressed hopes for a better work-life balance. The 2010 survey also recorded an increase in the proportion of vets taking a career break for reasons of ‘parental leave/looking after children’, alongside a reduction in the proportion taking a career break for travel or study. The report points out that this has implications in terms of the profession needing to train more vets to cover the same amount of work, and to provide more flexible working arrangements.

Although the results of the two surveys have been combined to allow comparison between the veterinary and veterinary nursing professions, the main effect is to highlight the differences. Nowhere is this more apparent than in terms of average salaries – just under £49,000 a year for vets working in the profession, compared with £16,379 for veterinary nurses. Not surprisingly, ‘better pay’ topped a list of suggestions that veterinary nurses felt would make their profession a better profession in which to work. For vets, too, increased pay/fees/remuneration came top of this list, having come second to a better work-life balance and more flexible working hours in the survey in 2006. This could reflect the effects of the recession or perhaps the difference between the remuneration of vets and the higher salaries available to those working in the medical profession, which are mentioned in the report for comparison.

Asked to list the best things about a career in their profession, vets and veterinary nurses most commonly cited variety, job satisfaction, working with animals and client relationships. Although respondents to the veterinary survey considered their roles to be valued by clients, varied and satisfying, they also found their work stressful; this was most pronounced among vets in their 20s, and declined with age.

Asked whether the current economic climate was having an impact on their practices, nearly 70 per cent of vets felt that it was, with an increase in bad debts, an increase in animal euthanasia requests and reductions in staff numbers in line with demand for services being among the effects reported. The survey was conducted in January, and it would be interesting to know how the situation has developed since then.

Looking to the future, the report suggests that the proportion of women in the profession will continue to rise, that the proportion of vets taking career breaks on grounds of parental responsibilities looks set to rise and that a shift towards limited company or corporate ownership of practices will continue. It also suggests that existing trends, coupled with public spending cuts, indicate that there will be a rise in the proportion of vets working in private practice and a decline in the proportion working in government.

It is always easy to speculate on the results of surveys such as this. However, as with all such surveys, results have to be interpreted with caution and experience has demonstrated that predictions of employment trends are not necessarily borne out by events. It will be important to monitor developments through future surveys in such a way that meaningful comparisons can be made.

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