Working with pre-school age children while her own sons were growing up almost led Sheila Voas to retrain as a teacher, but she found she missed veterinary work
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I HAVE always admired people who have a clear view of where they want their life to be in two or five years, who work with determination to get there, and succeed. My career path has not been like that.
I knew I wanted to be a vet from an early age, probably influenced by James Herriot and (inversely) by teachers at school who considered nursing a better option. Fortunately, my parents, though bemused by the idea of me becoming a vet, were supportive, although there were occasional suggestions that medicine might be a better option. Having listened to careers advice, at least when it suited me, I knew without doubt that a 17-year-old girl from my comprehensive school would not be accepted to vet school at the first application, so I applied to university in advance of sitting my highers knowing that when I reapplied the following year I would be seen to be determined. I was somewhat surprised when I was accepted to the ‘Dick’ vet school.
I thought my career trajectory would begin with working in mixed practice in the north of England or Scotland, starting as an assistant and working my way into a partnership. But to quote Burns: ‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley'.
I started work in a truly mixed practice in the Yorkshire wolds where I was happy and learned an enormous amount. The boss did much of the pig work and most of the bitch spays, and this left me to concentrate on cattle and sheep work, and I even had access to some racehorse work, both those in training and at a local stud. One of our clients was breeding Belgian blue cattle using embryo transfer (fairly unusual in 1988) and I quickly honed my caesarean technique. However, after a couple of years I left to move back to Scotland to get married. It made sense to do it this way as my partner had recently joined the State Veterinary Service (SVS) and had a secure job with benefits – a contract, a pension and better pay than me. It also made sense for me to return north from the perspective of being closer to my ageing parents.
Back in Scotland, I quickly found a part-time job in a small animal and equine practice in Edinburgh, and then visited local mixed practices touting for work. I started a long- term association with a (then) single-handed mixed practice in the Scottish borders and worked regularly in both practices for another couple of very happy years. Things changed when I became pregnant because doing two part-time jobs was unsustainable (it often meant working six days a week with at least four nights on-call, as I did my full share of the out-of-hours rota in both practices). And a pregnant assistant in sole charge of a sheep-dense practice at lambing time is not a good fit.
After my first son was born I returned to work sooner than I had anticipated. My former boss had a family funeral to attend and, as he was in the practice on his own, he needed cover for the afternoon surgery and to be on-call. So I found myself consulting with a five-week-old baby in his car seat close by. Thus started a pattern of regular afternoons, leading eventually to regular part-time hours including on-call. I was extremely lucky because the practice's nursing assistant had recently had a baby too, and she agreed to childmind for me. It was ideal as she knew that I couldn't always pick up baby at the specified time and was happy to be flexible. I was also extremely lucky that my husband did a lot of the collections on my work days as he had a more predictable schedule than me.
By the time son number 2 came along, I was heavily involved in running the local playgroup. Anticipating the problems of juggling a young family with a career in veterinary practice, and enjoying child-centred activities, I decided to do a vocational qualification in childcare and pre-school education, with a view to possibly retraining as a teacher. At the same time, to get the necessary practical experience, I registered as a childminder and, as well as private work for local families, I looked after a number of children on behalf of Social Services where there was concern that their home environment was not stimulating enough. This was extremely challenging as the parents were not always supportive, but it led to another part-time job with the Scottish Pre-school Play Association where I was responsible for helping rural playgroups develop curriculums for the pre-school year and doing quality assessment of them. As much as I enjoyed this period and the challenges of working with children, I missed veterinary work and went back to my previous practice, again on a part-time, sole charge, basis.
Over the next few years as the boys started school, I increased my hours in practice, gave up the childcare work, and replaced it with a part-time role in another local practice (small animal only). I would have been happy to continue like this, but circumstances changed again. My boss in the small animal practice decided to retire and I had the opportunity to take over the practice. However, after much soul searching, I decided not to take up this opportunity as I was not prepared to sacrifice time with my children, and so when the practice was sold, I found myself out of a job.
But opportunities come, just as opportunities go, and when foot-and-mouth disease came in 2001, with children at school, a fantastic childminder and a little time to spare, I did some work with the ministry as a temporary veterinary inspector. Although my husband had worked for the SVS for a number of years, I had never considered it as an option for me. But in reality, I found the work worthwhile, rewarding and stimulating. And I still spent my two days each week in practice.
Towards the end of 2001, I was lucky enough to be offered a fixed-term appointment, and from there I moved to a permanent role – still getting my fix of practice locally. My new role was interesting and varied and used a lot of the skills I had learned in practice. Telling a farmer that his sheep are too thin, or that his cattle are being kept in unaccept-able conditions, is not really so different from telling the local councillor that his labrador is grossly overweight or persuading a toddler to share the sandpit toys. In such situations, help and advice to resolve the problem is often the first, and best, course of action. Of course, in the SVS enforcement is always an option and at times it is necessary to go straight there, but when the problem is ignorance not malice I find other approaches work better.
In time, I took on lead responsibility for Scotland on animal byproducts, and learned things I never dreamed of regarding the operating parameters of rendering plants, composting and anaerobic digestion of food waste, and the manufacture of pet food, and this led to the opportunity to do a secondment to the veterinary policy advice unit in Edinburgh, working closely with colleagues in Defra. The transition to policy was another step change in direction. My role included responsibility for public health, particularly at farm level (a colleague with meat hygiene experience covered the later part of the food supply chain) and I spent several days each month working for Health Protection Scotland. Again, this provided huge learning opportunities and, for a nosey person like myself, an insight into human public health management and epidemiology. I was able to contribute to work on Lyme disease, verotoxigenic Escherichia coli and Q fever, and was involved in control of human incidents of salmonellosis and E coli O157; not to mention dealing with any number of wild and wacky suggestions, including one from a medic who thought that all water courses should be fenced off to prevent access by livestock or wild animals.
‘Telling a farmer that his sheep are too thin, or that his cattle are being kept in unacceptable conditions, is not really so different from telling the local councillor his labrador is overweight or persuading a toddler to share the sandpit toys’
I applied for the role of permanent veterinary adviser and was successful. It was at this point that I finally stopped doing practice locum work, choosing instead to spend my time off with my family. After a couple of years the deputy chief veterinary officer (dCVO) for Scotland announced his retirement and I was persuaded by colleagues to apply for the role. My family were supportive, despite it necessitating a move to full-time hours, and so I went for it – and got it, despite taking a rather precautionary approach in the written exercise where I condemned to death a large number of chickens that could have been spared had I been braver! Fortunately, it was only an exercise and no actual chickens were harmed in the process of my appointment.
Role of CVO Scotland
Being CVO Scotland is challenging and rewarding (bees, beavers and bison feature not infrequently in my inbox). My division, which is responsible for animal health and welfare policy development and its implementation on behalf of Scottish ministers, is full of highly skilled and dedicated civil servants – vets and policy professionals – and I am constantly learning from them. I also work closely with others across government, including the CVOs in the other administrations.
My division has good relationships with our stakeholders and we all meet on a quarterly basis, including some who, at first glance, may seem unlikely bedfellows. Wherever possible, work is done in collaboration and my role is one more of leadership than management, but learning about politics and working closely with politicians has brought its own set of challenges. There is no such thing as a typical week. I get to travel both within Scotland and more widely. I meet amazing people, doing incredible jobs, often in difficult circumstances, such as the vets who work as part of our Highlands and Islands Veterinary Services Scheme or dairy farmers struggling to make ends meet in the current economic climate. Because we are fortunate not to be tackling a bovine TB problem in Scotland, I have had the opportunity to take forwards an eradication programme for bovine virus diarrhoea virus and to promote the highest standards of animal welfare. The detection of avian influenza H5N1 on a broiler breeder farm near Dunfermline in January 2016 shows that the preparatory work on contingency planning for such events is worthwhile, and feedback from the stakeholder community has been largely positive.
My role as dCVO Scotland was my first real experience of management. Until then I had done little people or financial management and had little experience of corporate processes, but I inherited a fantastic team and was eased into the role, which, apart from the management aspects and the need to deputise for the CVO on occasion, was similar to my veterinary adviser role. There were also increased opportunities to engage with our stakeholders, which I enjoyed.
I had moved into a role in which I was happy and I had no plans to move. However, fate again played her hand and the CVO Scotland decided to return to a position based in the south of England. I was asked if I would cover it ‘for a few months’, while the recruitment exercise was carried out, and, with much trepidation, I agreed. But, as is so often the case, these things take longer than anticipated and after doing the job for almost 18 months, I was faced with the choice of applying to do it permanently or to go back to being the deputy. I applied, got the job and became CVO for Scotland in 2012.
So what next? You won't be surprised to learn that I haven't made plans. I am happy where I am, but would be sad to never calve another cow or to pin another leg. The rewards of my current role are different from those in practice. Whereas in practice you don't go home until you have finished your work, in my current role there is little that is so urgent that it won't wait until the next morning if you have a night out planned with friends. I am always on-call, in so far as my phone is always switched on and near me, but it is unusual to be called on it. In practice there are instant rewards – a cow calved, a bitch in the kennels after a pyometra, a TB test completed; as CVO it can take weeks or months to see the results. But, looking back, the incidence of bovine viral diarrhoea virus in Scotland has reduced from a herd level of 40 per cent to 12 per cent over the past six years, and we now have legislation requiring all dogs to be microchipped. This role wouldn't suit everyone but it is highly rewarding.
Plans can be helpful, but be prepared to adapt them to reflect circumstances. Take whatever opportunities present themselves and don't be afraid to try something new – you might be surprised how much you enjoy it. Being a woman hasn't held me back. Yes, I have made choices, and with choices come compromises, but I don't believe that anyone, irrespective of gender, can have it all. Enjoy what you are doing. I haven't yet found a job that I didn't enjoy. They all have tedious aspects (anal glands or changing nappies or work recording or whatever), but keep them in perspective and focus on the good bits.