Helping the next generation of vets thrive - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Helping the next generation of vets thrive

“We must recognise the generational shift in our profession and value what each generation brings to the team, resulting in intergenerational diversity and a more vibrant, innovative culture”

If you ask any vet when they knew they wanted to become a vet, many of them, if not the majority, will say when they were around six. If you were to ask them if they would do anything differently if they could start over again, most would say, “No, I would do it the same.” I know I would. Others would say, “I would choose a different profession”: even though they enjoy their profession, they would not recommend anyone to become a vet. It is no secret that our profession is going through difficult times. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics, between 1979 and 2014 nearly 400 vets died by suicide. The report also showed that vets are two to four times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, depending on their gender (Morgan, 2023).

Moreover, 70 percent of veterinarians know a colleague or peer who has died by suicide, and around 60 percent have experienced work-related depression, stress or anxiety, according to a study funded by Royal Canin with Love Your Pet Love Your Vet in Australia in 2022. These conditions have resulted in a shortage of vets around the globe, with many vets leaving the profession. A substantial increase in the pet population since the pandemic is exacerbating the impact of this shortage even more. In addition, the new generation of vets is more interested in small animal work and fewer are considering food production medicine, leaving farms and the food production industry with a considerable need for vets. 

How can we make the profession sustainable for the current and future generations, so that more and more people continue choosing veterinary medicine as a fantastic career path?

These conditions significantly affect our profession and put pressure on other areas, such as the food industry, pet owners and veterinary workers’ health. Veterinarians play a pivotal role in society, and we must find ways to make our profession attractive and sustainable to diverse talent. How can we make the profession sustainable for the current and future generations, so that more and more people continue choosing veterinary medicine as a fantastic career path?

When I graduated almost 12 years ago, I chose to work at a mixed animal practice. It was the best clinic I have worked at, with good mentorship, outstanding work–life balance and a diverse veterinary team. Things were not perfect, but they were good for me compared to all the stories I heard from colleagues burning out in their first six months as new graduates. After more than two years there, I decided to move back to my home country, and since then, I have ensured that the places I choose to work at are aligned with the standard set by my first new graduate job. Three key elements that were vital then and critical today in creating a sustainable profession are equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), work–life balance and mentorship. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion

Attracting diverse talent is critical. By implementing diversity criteria in our recruitment process in the early career stages – for example, by attracting a wide variety of students to vet programmes – we can increase the diversity of individuals joining our profession. Multiple studies in EDI have demonstrated that a diverse team with various backgrounds, experiences and perspectives can help boost creativity, efficiency, innovation and problem-solving. Also, a diverse team will be able to provide tailored services to meet the unique needs of a wider variety of clientele, including underserved communities. Imagine the difference that a Spanish-speaking vet or vet nurse in your practice would make in the following scenario: a family from Colombia recently moved to your community. Their pet got sick, and they could not communicate very well in English, but the clinic could serve them with a bilingual vet who could speak their language. The clinic is serving its diverse community and ensuring outstanding patient care. 

Representation matters, and through my first few years as a vet, I struggled to fit in as I never saw anyone like me

In the United States in 2023 only 25 percent of veterinary students were from racially or ethnically under-represented groups (American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, 2023). Growing up on a farm in Puerto Rico, I was constantly exposed to vets, but never in my youth did I meet a female vet or female clinic owner. Moreover, the first vet school in Puerto Rico only started this year, forcing aspiring vets to leave the island to pursue their dreams. Representation matters, and through my first few years as a vet, I struggled to fit in as I never saw anyone like me. We can increase the visibility of our profession to youth from under-represented groups by getting involved in the community and participating in educational campaigns where kids and adolescents can meet and talk to vets. 

Veterinary school is only affordable for some, exacerbating the lack of diversity and the deficit of vets. Implementing improved repayment plans, sponsored by either the employer or government, will help attract talent to the profession by helping them with their loan burden. This could also positively affect mental health in the profession, as student debt affects well-being (MSD Animal Health, 2024). This varies from country to country, but it is true in Canada, the USA, Australia and the UK. 

Work–life balance

Work–life integration is the new work–life balance, but not everyone agrees with this. As the daughter of a dairy farmer, I saw my parents work non-stop every day of the year and, as a family, we only took two vacations together in my entire life. I promised myself I would do it differently. Younger generations, such as Gen Y and Gen Z, want to do things differently from their parents, and some of the areas that will change include work–life integration, commitments, work habits and values. We must recognise the generational shift in our profession and value what each generation brings to the team, resulting in intergenerational diversity and a more vibrant, innovative culture.    

We must recognise the generational shift in our profession and value what each generation brings to the team, resulting in intergenerational diversity and a more vibrant, innovative culture

In clinics, work–life balance with work hours from 9am to 5pm seems more practical than work–life integration, and some argue that it is impossible to implement a flexible schedule for in-clinic personnel. However, more companies and clinics allow their personnel to create their own schedule. Some opt for relief work where they choose the dates and the hours they are available, providing the freedom they want to invest their time in other areas besides veterinary medicine.

In the United States, 80 percent of the current applicants to veterinary school identify as female; there is no doubt that the profession is predominantly female, but still, a gender pay gap exists (American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, 2023; Morello, 2019). This gender pay gap is exacerbated when women choose to become mothers and must pause their careers to be caregivers (Gould et al., 2016). Also, the fact that men are more often in leadership roles or clinic ownership is another wage gap factor (Hopkins, 2024). Providing a flexible schedule to both parents, rather than only the childbearing one or the one that decides to stay at home, will help reduce the motherhood penalty and empower women to decide what is best for them and their families, and even to consider clinic ownership.  

It is vital to support vet students and new graduates from their very early years. To prevent burnout, one critical point to address earlier in their careers is regulating their work hours during internship and residency. Allowing them to work more than 12 hours daily has been accepted for years. These long workdays are unsustainable and unhealthy, affecting the vet physically and mentally and putting the health of the patients and the rest of the veterinary team at risk.  

Mentorship

Twelve years ago, mentorship, as we know it today, did not widely exist. In fact, since the pandemic, we have seen numerous mentorship programmes become available online. Mentorship is crucial for success in this profession, especially in the early stages of the veterinary journey. It can determine where the candidate studies or how long someone will work at a clinic or company. Nowadays, clinics have the excellent opportunity to offer traditional in-clinic mentorship, like the one I had when I entered the profession 12 years ago, or they can opt for virtual mentorship programmes. Online or virtual mentorship programmes are more formal and structured. These are great options for providing mentorship when you do not have a team big enough to support in-clinic mentorship, and they can complement in-clinic mentorship by supporting other areas that the clinic mentors cannot. 

[Online mentorship programmes] are great options for providing mentorship when you do not have a team big enough to support in-clinic mentorship, and they can complement in-clinic mentorship by supporting other areas that the clinic mentors cannot

It is essential to remember that mentorship should extend beyond medicine and include the development of leadership, communication and wellness skills. Most of the online mentorship programmes are available in the USA; however, some are expanding worldwide. These include Pawsibilities, MentorVet, Ready Vet Go and Veterinary Mentorship Academy by VIN. 

Mentorship is one of the benefits highly sought by new graduates, and it can help attract and retain young vets in clinics that are struggling to attract and retain talent. A shortage of vets in our profession exacerbates this even more. 

Final thoughts

Addressing the challenges in veterinary medicine requires a multifaceted approach that promotes equality, diversity and inclusion, improves work–life balance and provides robust mentorship programmes. By implementing these strategies, we can make the veterinary profession more attractive, sustainable and fulfilling for current and future generations, ensuring that it remains a fantastic career option for years to come.

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