The Supply and Demand for Laboratory Animal Veterinarians from 1980 to 2005
B.J. Weigler, J.D. Thulin, S. Vandewoude, and T.L. Wolfle
We investigated the supply-demand relationship for laboratory animal veterinarians in the United States from 1980 through 2005,using results of 8 sub-studies that assessed the demographic profile of the workforce, Public Health Service funding for research involving animals, United States Department of Agriculture summaries of animal numbers used in research, trends in inflation-adjusted salary measures and the number of job advertisements over time, and statistically-based survey responses from laboratory animal veterinarians, their employers, and training program coordinators. Our results were consistent with the hypothesis that the marketplace for this specialty of veterinary medicine had entered a steady-state by 1995, in which the national demand for and supply of laboratory animal veterinarians were closely approximated. Evidence did not exist to suggest that this scenario would change dramatically between the years of 1995 and 2005. Analysis of the results of this study were in contrast with the less-optimistic economic forecasts for other sectors of veterinary medicine, physicians, and doctoral-level scientists. Economic assessments of the supply and demand for human resource services provided through the various veterinary medical specialties, including laboratory animal medicine, can offer valuable
Reprinted from B.J. Weigler, J.D. Thulin, S. Vandewoude, and T.L. Wolfe. 1997. The supply and demand for laboratory animal veterinarians from 1980 to 2005. Contemporary Topics in Laboratory Animals Science 36(2):39-46.
planning tools for use by veterinary leadership, members of the veterinary profession, and students deciding upon a career path in veterinary medicine, and should be rigorously undertaken and periodically re-examined by all sectors of the profession.
The study reported here used a diverse set of economic indicators related to the manpower supply-demand relationship, along with survey response data, to estimate the marketplace conditions for laboratory animal veterinarians in the United States. These indicators allowed for descriptive evaluation of trends in laboratory animal use, public health service funding relating to laboratory animal use, and demand for laboratory animal veterinarians on the basis of salary measures, classified advertisements, and the experiences and impressions of veterinarians, their employers, and training program directors. A demographic model of the laboratory animal veterinarian workforce was used along with training program information to forecast supply into the year 2005. None of these measures substantiated the hypothesis that a surplus of laboratory animal veterinarians currently exists in the United States. Rather, all available information suggested that the specialty has entered a steady state, whereby the number of laboratory animal veterinarians demanded is closely approximated by available supply, and the indications are that this condition will not change dramatically in the near future.
The marketplace for laboratory animal veterinarians enjoyed a period of apparent exponential growth during the late 1980’s. Some of this growth coincided with new federal legislation governing the use of laboratory animals (16, 23), even though animal numbers and NIH funding for biomedical research did not increase commensurately (24). During that era, analysis of our data would suggest that the demand for board-certified laboratory animal veterinarian services shifted to a point beyond available supply, reflected in part by the increase in salaries during those years (Figure 8). In fact, other important economic factors also could have affected salary, such as the veterinarian’s skill-class, possession of graduate degrees, and increased productivity for the institution as a result of employing such individuals. An increase in demand for veterinarians provided an economic incentive for the observed growth in the number of training programs and positions (Figure 3) reported for the same period. Federal funding for training programs remained constant at approximately 46% nationwide (Table 2), thereby helping to support the response in supply. The salaries and opportunities in this specialty probably attracted veterinarians into laboratory animal medicine directly from small animal practice (22) as well as those who entered through formal training program avenues.
The rate of growth in the specialty reached a plateau during the early 1990’s, culminating in a relatively quiescent period during 1995. This lull in 1995 appeared to coincide with forces in the national economy, including trends to toward consolidation and downsizing of industry and wide-spread concerns regarding the future of biomedical research during a period of health reform. A gradual increase in the anticipated number of employment opportunities for laboratory animal veterinarians through 2005 (Figure 2) and stable amounts of PHS research funding, at least through 1997, should somewhat counter the’ 1995 experience.
Another factor that will significantly affect marketplace dynamics in the years ahead is the current and projected age structure of the laboratory animal veterinarian workforce. Using our model, we demonstrated that the current workforce was predominantly < 45 years old, with relatively few people in the 46-55 age bracket (Figure 9). The current profile was consistent with an expansive-type structure (18), as the training program indicators would imply, suggesting that the workforce is undergoing a state of growth. This profile will evolve toward a stationary-type structure during the next decade (18), whereupon most age-classes will be well-represented. We estimated that an additional 170 workers soon will enter the’ current workforce, resulting in an overall growth rate of approximately 20%. Extrapolating the net gain of 51 full-time positions (Figure 2) to the estimated number of employer groups using veterinarians nationwide (n = 536), we should see an additional 157 (95% CI = 113,201) laboratory animal veterinarian positions in the United States by the year 2005. The close agreement between these values supported the hypothesis of a steady-state condition, whereby supply and demand will be nearly in balance. However, deviations in the assumed retirement age of 65 years, attrition prior to retirement, or influx of veterinarians to the specialty at a rate beyond the current pattern could greatly affect this prediction.
Our finding differs substantially from the personal opinions of survey respondents. Although the vast majority (97%) of veterinarians surveyed presently were employed at least part-time, many (21%) felt that a surplus market already existed in 1995 and forecasted (50%) that this situation would soon worsen. Despite the current high employment rate for veterinarians in the specialty, these fears may have been supported by the perception that it has been increasingly difficult to find employment for themselves or their peers since 1980. Alternatively, these seemingly healthy employment statistics could have been biased, had most of the non-respondents been unemployed. If virtually none of the unemployed veterinarians responded to the survey, the random sampling design would imply that approximately 225 such individuals (25% of the list frame) existed in the United States during 1995, a scenario that is clearly known to be false. More likely, the economic transition from a situation in which demand
overwhelmingly exceeded supply to the current steady state condition has brought with it the unfounded belief that the marketplace for laboratory animal veterinarians is nearing the point of saturation. This conclusion is supported by responses in the open comments section of the surveys, in which several respondents indicated that veterinarians are receiving fewer job offers than previously, that there are fewer jobs available now, and that many more-qualified professionals appear to be searching for their first or a new position in the field.
Additional concerns were raised regarding the perception that animal numbers used in research were decreasing, as were federal funds for research. Neither of these conclusions was substantiated by the present study, at least through the 1994 federal fiscal year. However, the NIH-CRISP database system probably overestimates the amount of PHS funding that actually involves animals, because the indexing system does not allow for evaluation of the extent of animal use per award. Thus, this database cannot differentiate awards that involve 10 mice from those that involve 500 monkeys, and both awards would be included in the dollar totals. Anecdotally, we are aware of several large academic institutions that have experienced a precipitous decrease in laboratory animal inventories during the past few years. Also, we underestimated the trend for total animal numbers used in research due to exclusion of rats, mice, and birds from USDA reports; however, this would only have increased estimates of veterinarian demand, to the extent that rodent use (especially for transgenic and immunodeficient strains) has reportedly been rising steadily for the past several years (25). If enforcement of the USDA Animal Welfare Act were extended to rats, mice, and birds, a significant increase in the demand for laboratory animal veterinary services would probably be seen across the United States.
A disturbing issue raised in the comments section was that of under-employment of laboratory animal veterinarians (i.e.. employment at a level below that of their skill level). Underemployment adversely affects salary and overall job satisfaction and is counter to the ACLAM 1993 Strategic Plan regarding research partnerships (26). Overall. ACLAM board-certification was the singularly most important credential for successful applicants, according to employers, whereas individual concerns were raised regarding perceived shortages of research-oriented, clinical-oriented, or administration-oriented laboratory animal veterinarians, depending on the circumstance. Some respondents cautioned that laboratory animal veterinarians should stay broadly trained to remain competitive in the changing marketplace. Increases in average salaries for ACLAM diplomates in real dollars (Figure 8) argues against the importance of a trend toward under-employment at present, although this issue should be closely monitored in the years ahead.
Along with ACLAM, training programs have played a cornerstone role
in the evolution of the laboratory animal medical specialty in the United States. Excluding graduates of training programs that closed prior to 1995, at least 213 advanced academic degrees have been received by veterinarians enrolled in training programs since 1980 (Table 1). The research productivity from these accomplishments has increased the know1edge base of the profession and contributed toward the evolution of the specialty. Authority for training in academic laboratory animal medicine was granted to the Animal Resources Branch of NIH’s Division of Research Resources in the mid-1960’s (27). The NIH funding has long provided a considerable proportion of the support for academic training programs in laboratory animal medicine and comparative medicine, although recent indications are that this source will diminish substantially in the future (Table 2). Large-scale shrinkage or loss of training programs due to funding constraints will necessarily affect the supply of laboratory animal veterinarians, following a lag time equivalent to the duration for each program affected. The magnitude of the impact from such changes will depend on the proportion of total supply contributed via training program routes.
In the open comments section, some training program directors believed that the process of market retrenchment for laboratory animal veterinarians will continue over the next decade. Others suggested that highly-motivated and well-trained individuals will continue to be in high demand, regardless of the prevailing market conditions. Our study did not aim to determine the essential features of an ideal training program that maximizes the future marketability of its graduates. Overall, program directors reported that trainees were exposed to a wide-variety of skills and experiences deemed appropriate for postdoctoral training in this specialty (20), with substantial time allocated to research and didactic learning opportunities (Table 3). Attempts were not made in this analysis to distinguish the activity budgets of laboratory animal veterinarians in training by the source or extent of training program funding over time. Thus, conclusions cannot be drawn regarding the structure of training at programs supported partly through federal grants and contract, (n = 16 in 1995) versus those supported through other sources. Furthermore, due to the inherent diversity of job opportunities for laboratory animal veterinarians, it is difficult to directly correlate the training base with specific position requirements for all potential employers. In their open comments, employers indicated that good inter-personal skills and administrative experience, including fiscal management and knowledge of regulatory requirements, were highly desirable. In addition, some employers sought clinical expertise in certain species. such as rodent’ or non-human primates, and many placed high value on the publication record and research abilities of applicants. General comments were received concerning a desire for candidates that had come from “good” training programs.
The study reported here was the first manpower study specifically directed at the laboratory animal veterinarian community in the United States, and, to our knowledge, the first such investigation for any of the veterinary specialties. The economic situation facing veterinary medicine today recently has been given much attention (3,5). Real starting salaries for veterinarian graduates entering private practice have not increased substantially since 1983, although the educational debt incurred by those graduates has increased substantially (4). Also, the ratio of the general population to the workforce of veterinarians in private practice has decreased by 5.4% since 1990, creating a possible imbalance in the potential for income growth in that sector (28). Economic surveys are limited in their ability to forecast the future because of unmeasured or unmeasurable changes in important related factors. We used a broad range of indicators to suggest the direction of trends for the laboratory animal veterinarian workforce in the coming decade. Our findings regarding the estimated rate of growth in this specialty substantially exceeded the predictions of Wise in which he conducted a survey of 115 private companies in 1984 (29). Whereas that report predicted a growth rate of 33% and 63% from 1984 to 1990 and to 2000, respectively, analysis of our results indicated that true growth rate was approximately 78% from 1984 to 1990, and may reach 125% for 1984 to 2000.
In contrast, our estimated growth rate of 142% from 1980 to 2000 for full-time laboratory animal veterinarians approximated predictions of Wise and Kushman (2), who expected gains ranging from 135% to 214% for the collective nonprivate veterinary sector under various supply-demand scenarios. However, that study also foresaw a continuing surplus of private practitioners to the year 2000 as well as decreasing private practice incomes under all scenarios. Neither of these predictions appears to have transpired to date. Similar surpluses were projected - in an earlier study by Arthur D. Little, Inc. (1), which estimated that 49,900 to 51,100 available veterinarians would exist in the United States by 1990. Although the actual national supply of 48,666 in 1990 (28) was close to that estimate, to date, a well-documented surplus has not been realized for the veterinary profession overall. Interestingly, that earlier study predicted that the supply of post-professionally trained veterinarians (including laboratory animal veterinarians) would approach the demand by 1990, and advised that training resources should be re-evaluated at that time.
Our data are consistent with a hypothesis that the marketplace for laboratory animal veterinarians is entering a steady state era in which supply and demand will be closely approximated over the next decade. This conclusion is much brighter than that forecasted for physician specialists (7,9) and for many doctoral-level scientists in other disciplines (10,11). Comparisons cannot be made with other specialty segments of veterinary
medicine until similar studies are completed. If our predictions hold, this transition from a lengthy period of economic supply reactivity that result from demand-pull forces somewhat mirrors the biomedical research enterprise nationwide (24). Dr. Harold Varmus, Director of the NTH, believes that maintaining a healthy amount of competition in a steady-state world would only benefit scientific progress (24). Instead of reducing production of new graduates as some have suggested (11), he stated that training program should be resource-optimized and should provide for the diverse career options of future scientists. The breadth and depth of training in laboratory animal medicine inherently provides for employment opportunities beyond most of the veterinary profession, as the survey of our workforce has revealed. Nonetheless, the external forces shaping the new national economy are sufficiently large to argue against any decision to enter into a production-push mode through expansion of existing training programs in a manner independent of supply and demand factors. Lastly, it is notable that we have influence over our own destiny in the marketplace, to the extent that we embrace the ability to imagine and prepare for new opportunities in the vast dynamic arena of biomedical research. We have attempted to highlight some important economic issues currently facing the laboratory animal medicine profession, which we hope will stimulate continued investigations and discussions for this and other veterinary specialties in the years ahead.