Updated May 26, 2022
Right now the Australian veterinary world is going through an upheaval like I have not seen in 30 years. And into this come the new crop of veterinary graduates, straight from university. To say I’m worried would be putting it mildly.
For almost my whole career, there has never been an excess of vets looking for work. In fact, at times the supply has been very tight. Yet, we more or less got by.
The reasons for this are up for debate but one of them is not too few veterinary students. Instead it’s that not enough of these vet students end up having long careers.
It’s quite likely that the crisis we’re in would still have happened without it, but COVID stopped vets migrating to Australia and only made it worse. It’s done the same for vet nurses and the employment market as a whole.
The Current Situation
Veterinary practices around Adelaide are rapidly falling into one of two camps: either adequately staffed or chronically understaffed. Earlier in the year we saw two country branch practices close and I don’t think we’re far away from this happening in the city too.
But this isn’t my concern.
What worries me is the desperation any practice will have for a vet, any vet. Yet these environments are possibly the very worst in which to put a new graduate. I’m not confident that either employee or employer will always foresee the problem before it happens.
In other words, we could end up burning out young vets at an even faster rate.
What New Graduates Need
A vet fresh out of vet school is not the same as a doctor in the same position. They have much less practical experience, and still require 6 to 12 months of on-the-job training. Therefore, in my opinion, they need two things:
- Continuous support from experienced vets present in the clinic
- A low workload that can grow in keeping with their skill acquisition
Don’t think they aren’t already great, by the way. I always say a new grad is at least as good as an experienced vet as long as they have enough time and support.
The Opposite Scenario
Today’s vet graduates risk being placed into practices where:
- There is no experienced vet available, or only part-time
- There is a high existing workload
- Experienced nursing staff are in short supply
- There is poor morale
I don’t blame the practice owners for hiring them. After all, they either do this or consider closing down. But I hope the young vets get a very realistic view of what they face.
To put this in context, when I graduated. I benefited from (almost) always having someone to answer questions, and very good nurses who could also teach me a lot. I also went into a practice that was expanding. So rather than replacing a missing vet and having to pick up the existing caseload, it grew with me.
My view is that the first 6 to 12 months of a vet’s career are make or break. It’s here they will learn the resilience we all need to draw on in a tough industry.
If they lose their confidence early, it’s very hard to get it back. If they don’t get taught the right way, they learn bad habits in how they think, what they do and how they cope.
Of course, I generalise, and many vets have become highly successful from isolated beginnings. But to me, the risk is too high. These are people who have dedicated their lives to being a vet, and we should do nothing to put that at risk.
Maybe I’m an optimist, but I actually see a bright future. If this crisis is not the stimulus we need to look at our situation with fresh eyes, then what is? In the short term some practices may close, but what should remain is a world where young vets are nurtured and conditions for everyone improve.
Have a safe Christmas and New Year. If you can, spare a moment to tell the young professionals around you how much you’ve appreciated all they’ve done. Let’s just say that when the nurses tell me there’s an email waiting for me, my first thought isn’t, “oh good, some more praise!”.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.