The future for food supply veterinary medicine (FSVM) professionals is at an uncertain juncture. Many experts from academia, industry, and government have concluded that the North American veterinary profession is facing a shortage of food animal veterinarians in the public, private, industrial, and academic sectors.1,2 Various societal trends and economic events have led to growing concerns about these issues.3,4 Driving forces affecting the supply of and demand for FSVM professionals range from concerns about food safety, public health, and animal welfare to negative consequences of changing dietary habits to industrial consolidation in agribusiness and the threat of bioterrorism-agroterrorism. These changes and threats have the potential to alter the structure of labor markets and the future demand for FSVM professionals. In addition, the threat of zoonotic diseases, public anxiety about biodiversity, and the impact of large and highly concentrated food production systems on the environment are expected to influence the supply and demand for food supply veterinarians.5–8
Failure to systematically study in a scientific-based manner this changing mix of threats and opportunities will leave FSVM professionals uninformed and unable to prepare for a reality that will be nothing like the world of James Herriott. Responses to the challenges that endanger the health of the veterinary profession must be guided by sound theory and good data. Herd or flock populations with disease are not cured when the veterinary medical knowledge base is ignored and systematic data are not gathered and evaluated. Similarly, constituents interested in working to counter threats and realize opportunities in the FSVM area cannot rely on only anecdotal evidence. To create meaningful strategies aimed at increasing student and practitioner interest and commitment in this area, a thorough understanding of external forces influencing recruitment of veterinary students, student career choice and job selection, and career retention in the field of FSVM is needed.
In the study reported here, we examined issues surrounding the supply of food animal veterinarians. Specifically, we focused on a series of surveys that examined factors influencing veterinary students to select various career paths and evaluated the effectiveness of potential strategies for increasing the number of students who will consider a career in FSVM. A pervasive theme throughout this study was a strong focus on understanding the phenomenon from the perspective of the so-called “customer.” As such, we sought to gain insight into issues that influenced the career selection of students by directly asking the opinions of students and faculty. The latter group has unique insight into student motivations because of their exposure to a broad cross section of students and their ability to observe the students over time.
In general, veterinary professional and educational literatures have not focused on the motivation for veterinary students to select a particular career focus area. Although extremely little has been written with regard to what attracts students to select a particular career focus in veterinary medicine, several articles have offered strategies on how to encourage more students to select a career in FSVM. The troubling aspect is that accurate information of the motivations driving the career selection of veterinary students is needed to provide confidence that the strategies proposed are appealing to the targeted group. Articles published on this topic tend to be based on personal observation and anecdotal evidence rather than empirical study, and they lack a voice-of-the-customer approach that provides relevant parties with a say in the factors that are important to them in these matters. There is no substitute for obtaining information directly from contemporary and future veterinarians who are actually making decisions regarding their career area and job selection.
In recent years, a number of conferences and symposia have been held that focus on issues related to FSVM, public health, and biosecurity. A repeated topic of discussion at these meetings is the need to attract larger numbers of motivated and qualified food animal veterinarians into these professional areas. As a result, a number of strategies have been generated to encourage more students to select FSVM-related careers. Some of the more popular methods that have been proposed include the following:
• Mentoring and veterinarian role models.9–12
• Greater amounts of course work providing experience in FSVM. 10,11,13–17
• Greater awareness of career opportunities in FSVM.5,9,11,12,15,17
• Exposure to careers in FSVM in high school.1,11,15–17
• Creation of veterinary centers of excellence and cocurricular programs. 1,9,10,13,18
• Reduced debt load through scholarships and loanforgiveness programs.1,9,10,13,18
• Moving from a focus on teaching specific skills to managing information.14
• Increased salaries for FSVM veterinarians and better skills in business management.15
• Better ties among veterinary schools, industry, and government.17
• Modifications to admissions criteria or admissions procedures.1,10,15,16,19
• Adoption of an engineering or tracking model in veterinary curriculums.1,14,15,20,21
• Intensive experiences in FSVM for veterinary students.18,22–25
• Emphasis on promoting FSVM among college undergraduates.26
• Limited licensure. 1,15,21,27
Within the aforementioned categories for general strategies, several specific tactics have been proposed. For example, in a report17 on a 2002 symposium dealing with population health education, the 66 participants at the symposium identified several potential actions related to building awareness of veterinary careers in population health and recruiting veterinary students into this career field. Their recommendations included establishment of a liaison at each veterinary college, who would be responsible for maintaining relationships with public and corporate partners in public health and ensuring broader exposure of students to careers in population health through the use of outside speakers in courses, career days, a series of speakers on population health, and industry tours. Specific recommendations included the creation of an “Animal Planet”–styled television program targeting young people, with the focus on population health issues, thereby continuing exposure of preveterinary and current veterinary students to career opportunities in population health. In addition, partnerships would be developed with governmental agencies (such as the CDC or FDA) to provide sponsored learning and training opportunities in population health. In terms of expanding the pool of potential recruits who might select a career in population health, symposium participants suggested greater promotion of recruitment efforts for population health, rapid admission to veterinary school for a small number of extra students at several veterinary medical colleges or schools that would focus on this area, offers of tuition reimbursement, additional summer classes on population health, international experiences in exchange for a service commitment after graduation, and better promotion of the critical role of veterinarians in dealing with bioterrorism, agroterrorism, and biosecurity.
Another meeting that yielded specific tactics for the general categories is the Skills, Knowledge, Aptitude, and Attitude Colloquium in 2003.9 Suggestions in the area of recruiting provided by participants at that meeting include the development of an attractive message to provide potential applicants with a realistic job profile, development of age-appropriate materials aimed at students in K-12, incorporation of FSVM material in career promotional information, broad recruiting to increase the diversity of the applicant pool, educating current veterinary medical faculty members regarding opportunities for graduate veterinarians in emerging career areas, providing high school guidance counselors with up-to-date and accurate materials on veterinary careers as well as the inclusion of practicing veterinarians in the process, organizing speakers to share messages about the wide range of career options available in veterinary medicine, development of links to other programs within a university, and more effective use of Internet resources.
Clearly, many people have been interested in and concerned about the issue of inadequate numbers of food animal veterinarians for some time. It is also apparent that there are many opinions regarding the best course of action that the profession could take to increase the number of graduate veterinarians who enter careers in FSVM.
An obvious issue for interested stakeholders is to determine which of the many proposed strategies will be most effective. The study reported here addresses the broad issues and factors that impact a veterinary student's selection of a career path in FSVM and strategies that will be most effective for attracting students to careers in FSVM. Both issues were addressed from the perspective of the students who will make these decisions.
Copies of the surveys are available from the authors by request.
SPSS, version 13.0, SPSS Inc, Chicago, Ill.
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Selected single items for demographic and career decisions included in the regression analysis.
|Construct||Specific item from survey|
|Companion animal orientation||I believe we should treat all sick animals no matter what the cost.|
|Experience with food animals||Food animal career experience and knowledge comprising 6 items.|
|Significant other||Presence or absence of a significant other.|
|Prestige in a career in companion animal medicine||A veterinary career in small (companion) animal medicine is very prestigious.|
|Salary concerns||The lifestyle I want to lead requires that I make much more than the average veterinarian.|
|Veterinary school influences||My experiences while in veterinary medical school have positively influenced the type of work I want to do in my career.|
|Job availability||I feel very secure about the future demand for my chosen veterinary occupational area.|
|Mentorship||I value a strong mentorship-training program in my first veterinary job.|
|Age||What is your current age?|
|Size of community|
|Childhood community size||What is the size of the community in which you spent the majority of your childhood?|
|Desired community size||What is the size of the community where you would ideally like to live?|