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Where are we now?

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THE results of RCVS surveys of the UK veterinary profession, which have been conducted every four years for quite some time now, have always made interesting reading. In view of current concerns about the effect of increasing numbers of veterinary graduates on future employment, the findings of the latest survey, which have just been published,1 are probably more interesting still.

The survey, carried out in April and May this year, provides some fascinating insights into the state of the profession as things stand. Meanwhile, comparing the findings with the results of previous surveys tends to confirm the impression that the nature of practice and veterinary employment is changing rapidly, probably more rapidly than at any time in recent memory.

The survey was carried out for the RCVS by the Institute of Employment Studies. Nearly 7000 veterinary surgeons responded, representing a response rate of 27 per cent.

That things are changing is perhaps best illustrated by a section in the survey report discussing the position of veterinary surgeons in practice. This indicates that, while the proportion of veterinary surgeons currently working as either full-time or part-time assistants in clinical practice has remained unchanged since 2010, at 57 per cent, the proportion working as equity partners has more than halved (from 13 per cent to 6 per cent). There has also been a steady decline in the proportion of veterinary surgeons working as sole principals, from 11 per cent in 2006, to 8 per cent in 2010, to 5 per cent in 2014; the number employed as limited company directors has varied from 10 to 9 to 13 per cent over the same period. All this may not be surprising, given all the consolidation that has gone on and the variety of different business models for veterinary practice that have emerged in recent years, but it is interesting to see the impact of these changes being reflected in the figures.

Also of interest, given that, in this year's survey, female respondents outnumbered male respondents for the first time, is a breakdown of the results for those occupying these positions in terms of gender, which shows men outnumbering women in all three categories. For sole principal, the proportions for men and women were 7.6 per cent and 3.1 per cent respectively, for equity partners 11.8 and 2.8 per cent, and for directors 24.5 and 6.5 per cent. In contrast, the proportion of women working as veterinary assistants (70.7 per cent) is almost double the number of men (36.2 per cent). As the survey report points out, this might to some extent reflect the different age profiles of male and female veterinary surgeons. Nevertheless, one might hope to see a more even balance in years to come.

Although the proportion of vets in full-time work has remained relatively stable over the years (at about 65 per cent), the proportion working part time has gradually increased, from 11 per cent in 2000 to 19 per cent today. More women than men are currently working part time (26 per cent women compared to 11.2 per cent men), although, interestingly, the proportion of men working part time seems to have increased, from about 5 per cent in 2006 and 2010 to 11.2 per cent in 2014. The number of vets undertaking voluntary work has also increased, from 0.4 per cent in 2010 to 1.2 per cent today.

Further reflecting changes in practice, the proportion of respondents indicating that they worked in mixed practice fell from 22.1 per cent in 2010 to 15.8 in 2014; this compares with 26 per cent in 2006. The proportion working in small animal/exotic practice increased from 48.9 per cent to 53.6 per cent between 2010 and 2014, while the proportion in equine practice fell from 7.6 per cent to 5.5 per cent. Having declined in previous years, the proportion working in farm animal/production animal practice appears to have stabilised (3.7 per cent in 2014 compared with 3.8 per cent in 2010), although the survey report notes that time spent working with farm animals, particularly cattle, has fallen since 2010 and is currently at 7 per cent. Given the disease and other challenges facing the livestock sector, one might hope that in future this will increase.

The proportion of respondents working in veterinary schools has increased over the past four years (from 5.9 per cent in 2010 to 7.2 per cent in 2014), as has the proportion working in referral practices and for charities. The survey report also includes information on issues such as working hours and time spent on call, suggesting, among other things, that those working in mixed, small animal and equine practice work the longest hours each week (excluding time spent on call), followed by those working in veterinary schools and government agencies. Regarding out-of-hours work and 24/7 emergency cover, it notes that 56 per cent of respondents stated that their practices covered their own out-of-hours work, compared with 61 per cent in 2010.

Among findings that may be relevant to the graduate employment debate, the 2014 survey found that 52 per cent of respondents graduating since 2011 reported that they went straight into practice work after qualifying, while 17.8 per cent said they took time out because they were unable to find a job. In the 2010 survey, 64 per cent of those qualifying since 2006 went straight into practice, while 13.6 per cent took time out. The 2014 survey also found that a higher proportion of recent graduates are taking internships – 10 per cent in 2014 compared with 6 per cent in 2010.

Another finding this year was that fewer veterinary surgeons reported that their CPD was being funded by their employer (47 per cent in 2014 compared with 56 per cent in 2010). This could be interpreted as suggesting that there is more of a buyers’ market out there, or it might reflect a wider societal shift whereby individuals seem to be expected to take more responsibility for developing their own careers. With this, as with many other of the survey's findings, it is possible to read much into the results, and to draw various conclusions. However, overall, the results indicate a profession in a state of flux, and perhaps showing signs of strain in a number of areas. What those strains are and, perhaps more importantly, what might be done about them, will be explored in a panel debate at the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show on November 20.2 Called ‘The state of the profession – where are we now?’, the debate will take the form of a Question Time discussion and will hopefully provide some pointers for the way ahead.


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