Today’s veterinary students face increasing competition, substantial debt and changing role in the industry, but for those pursuing large-animal practice, the employment outlook remains positive.

During the recent Food Animal Medicine Student Symposium at Ohio State University, Zoetis Group Director of US Cattle Veterinary Operations Roger Saltman, DVM, MBA, outlined trends in the veterinary business for students from around the country. Saltman serves on the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Economics Strategy Committee, which conducts ongoing research on trends in supply and demand for veterinary services.

Between 1982 and 2015, the number of first-year veterinary students in the United States climbed from around 2,200 to 3,600, with much of the increase occurring since 2011. Saltman says AVMA projects that the number of available seats at U.S. veterinary schools will level off over the next few years, and the applicant-to-seat ration will run around 1.5 to 1. The cost of veterinary school will leave some students with considerable debt, which likely will encourage some students to enter the job market after completing their undergraduate degrees rather than applying for veterinary school.

Salaries for beginning veterinarians have increased from around $45,000 in 2001 to about $70,000 today, but starting salaries have remained relatively flat since 2008. For most food-animal veterinarians though, annual earnings increase significantly over the first five, 10 and 20 years of practice. Saltman says that for food-animal veterinarians in their first year of practice, the mean and medial income levels are similar, suggesting a fairly narrow range of income. For those in practice five years or longer, the gap between the mean and median widen, with a median salary of around $75,000 and a mean around $103,000, suggesting that some veterinarians are earning considerably more than the majority.

Among companion-animal practitioners, unemployment rates can be significant in some markets, but AVMA research shows almost zero unemployment for food-animal or mixed-animal practitioners.

Demand for bovine veterinarians tends to correlate with cattle numbers, and Saltman says the need for dairy veterinarians is likely to increase through around 2018 or 2020. Demand for beef-cattle veterinarians will decline slightly through 2017, but then pick up.

AVMA uses the concept of veterinary capacity to project future demand. Capacity, Saltman says, is the ability of a practice to provide services above the quantity demanded at the current price. In AVMA research, he says, most food-animal veterinarians report little to no excess capacity, meaning that if they were to take on additional clients or offer additional services, they would need to hire more veterinarians.

For young veterinarians to work toward the higher end of the salary range, Saltman says they will need to provide some non-traditional, value-added services to clients, such as developing customized standard operating procedures, crew training and evaluations of facilities and equipment. The market should provide plenty of opportunities for growth, he adds. AVMA research shows, for example, that 60% of veterinarians believe their clients will want financial consulting services while only 27% of veterinarians feel prepared to provide them. Likewise, 50% believe clients will want environmental consulting, 48% will want milker training, 39 percent will want milking-systems analysis and 37% will want help with genetics and reproduction, while just 19%, 23%, 20% and 26% feel prepared to provide those services.

The three “pillars of practice success,” Saltman says, are personnel management, client relations and financial management. New graduates should seek out practices that excel in those areas, offer new associates opportunities for growth and base salary increases on individual and practice performance.