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Desperately seeking experience

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THE results of a recent survey undertaken by the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS) raise some interesting questions that need to be addressed. The survey, carried out in June and July this year, looked at the experiences of practices in recruiting vets. A total of 326 individuals responded, including practice owners or partners (55 per cent), practice managers (28 per cent), joint venture partners (3 per cent) and veterinary assistants (8 per cent).

Among the findings were that, of the 84 per cent of respondents who had attempted to recruit a vet in the previous 12 months, more than 70 per cent reported difficulties in recruiting someone (taking more than three months from the start of recruitment to identifying a suitable candidate). Of those who reported that they had been successful in finding a suitable candidate, almost 20 per cent took six to nine months to do so, and almost 5 per cent took more than nine months to fill a vacancy. Overall, 54 per cent felt that they could not find a suitable candidate for the position they were offering, while 80 per cent of those taking part in the survey were of the opinion that there was a shortage of experienced vets, irrespective of whether they had attempted to recruit someone.

The findings tend to confirm anecdotal reports as well as the findings of a BVA ‘Voice of the Veterinary Profession’ survey earlier this year that practices are having difficulties with recruitment (VR, August 8, 2015, vol 177, p 135). Discussing the results in a report called ‘Where have all the experienced vets gone?’,1 the SPVS concludes that they provide ‘strong evidence to show that there is a significant and widespread problem with the recruitment of vets and especially for those positions requiring significant prior experience’ and suggests that vets should be put back on the UK's shortage occupation list (VR, October 3, 2015, vol 177, p 325).

All of this seems a far cry from the situation a couple of years ago when, prompted by the announcement by the University of Surrey of plans for a new veterinary school, concern was widely expressed within the veterinary profession about the possible implications for future employment of ‘over-production’ of vets (see, for example, VR, November 2, 2013, vol 173, pp 406, 416-417). Having admitted its first students in 2014, the vet school at Surrey has still to come ‘on stream’ in terms of producing new graduates. However, given that the output of most of the existing vet schools has been increasing for some years now, something doesn't seem right. So what is going on?

As the SPVS's survey report points out, there are many potential reasons for the difficulties being encountered in recruitment and many issues to address. Possible reasons put forward by respondents and discussed in the report include attrition of new graduates after the first four years in practice due to disillusionment or career breaks; student selection processes and unrealistic expectations of practice; and increasing specialisation in the profession. However, looking at the figures, there is clearly a problem in meeting the demand for experienced vets. Of those responding to the survey, 39 per cent said they wanted an experienced vet (with four or more years' experience), 17 per cent were seeking an experienced or recent graduate (with one to four years' experience), 6 per cent were seeking a new graduate and about 7 per cent were looking for a vet with any level of experience. With many more practices seeking experienced vets than seeking new graduates, where are new graduates to gain the experience to become the experienced vets that many employers seem to want? Given all the structural changes and new business models developed in recent years, career progression in practice is much less clear cut than previously and, if anecdotal reports are to be believed, recent graduates (maybe by necessity) are more inclined to ‘move around’. Although possibly harder to conduct, it would be worth considering a comparable survey of the requirements and job-hunting experiences of potential employees, to gain a fuller understanding of what is happening.

Some of the SPVS's survey's findings chime uncomfortably with those of a survey of veterinary students and vets who had graduated over the past eight years, which was undertaken in May and June this year as part of the RCVS BVA Vet Futures project. In what the then BVA President, John Blackwell, described as a ‘wake up’ call for the profession, the survey found that only half of recent UK veterinary graduates felt that their career had matched their expectations (VR, September 5, 2015, vol 177, p 214).

The idea that vets should be put on the shortage occupation list is an interesting one, although, as the SPVS report acknowledges, it is unlikely to provide a long-term solution. It also seems unlikely to cut much ice with a Government intent on reducing immigration. The experiences of the medical profession, in relation to a request from the Department of Health that human medical GPs should be placed on the list, could be relevant here. Earlier this year, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) rejected the request on the grounds that there was no shortage of medical students who might work in general practice; instead, it suggested, any shortage of GPs could potentially be overcome by changing the incentive structure for GPs, to encourage more take up on training schemes (VR, March 7, 2015, vol 176, p 238). If the MAC rejected a request to put human medical GPs on the list in response to a much publicised shortage in the (politically highly sensitive) NHS, what chance for veterinary practice? The committee also drew attention to the need for the medical profession to ‘tackle the 3Rs – recruitment, retention and “returners” – making it easier for trained GPs who have taken a career break to return to front line care.’

As the SPVS report on its recruitment survey points out, the reasons for the apparent shortage of experienced vets are complex with many contributing factors. It seems clear that the veterinary profession will need to tackle all of these 3Rs as it seeks to develop a strategy for the future.

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