It’s Not an Either/Or Choice - From My Window

Jane Thibodeau Martin

I subscribe to a magazine called “The Chronicle of the Horse,” and the last issue I got had an article about equine vets that piqued my interest and has me educating myself. It was reinforced by another horse magazine, picked up in British Columbia by my delightful son-in-law, which also had a story about equine vets.  The reason equine vets are a topic of current interest is because there is a severe shortage of them.

Some of you may be thinking “so what, that doesn’t concern me.”  A lack of horse vets may be of no concern to you, but the fact that there are severe shortages of many  other kinds of high-skill specialists is impacting most of us.  

My first question was if the shortage was just horse vets, or all large animal veterinarians.  That led me to a news article which quoted Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) testifying in a hearing that there are counties in Mississippi that have NO large animal vets.  “Our farmers are losing animals because we have no one to come to the farm in time to save them.”

Wondering why eggs were very expensive for months?  Animal diseases and lack of vet care impact farmers in a very negative way, and that in turn impacts consumers.  More than 500 counties across 46 states reported critical shortages of large/food animal vets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

I bet some of you who have a treasured dog or cat have also noticed this phenomenon, with many small animal vets not accepting new patients as they are already overwhelmed with demand.  Some people in Marinette County must travel long distances to get small animal care already.

So why would there be a shortage of vets when most of us imagine this is a high-paying occupation?  One big reason is the cost of education.

Vets spend four years in vet school after their 4 year undergraduate degree.  On average, they graduate nearly $190,000 in debt, according to the Director of Education at the College of Vet Medicine at Oklahoma State University.  In 2021, the mean starting salary for a vet who works on “food” animals (cows, poultry, sheep, and pigs,) was $85,000.  Starting a practice in an underserved area means getting a truck, equipment, medication stocks, administrative help, and a building.  He or she needs to have a place to live themselves, insurance, food, and all the other things all of us need regardless of occupation.  Being a large animal vet means being out in adverse weather conditions, lots of driving, long work hours and weekend emergency calls.  Large animal work is dangerous, with a thrashing 1,000-pound horse or cow in pain a mighty dangerous patient.  It’s simply getting less and less attractive as a life calling.  A new graduate would be working off their debt for most of their working years.

You quickly see why fewer and fewer young people are choosing to enter the field, at a time when vets are retiring or leaving in record numbers – and an abnormal number of them compared to other occupations commit suicide. 

For more than a decade the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been offering a program that provides up to $75,000 in veterinary school loan repayment to those who agree to work in underserved rural communities for a minimum of three years, but there isn’t enough money available in these grants to help close the gap.  Sen. Hyde-Smith is pushing to expand the program and make the awards tax-free.  In other words, our tax money is being used to subsidize the cost of vet training, and a Republican senator is asking for more money for the program.  I see why, and have no problem with it.  To me, it’s investing in our infrastructure,  just like fixing our decrepit bridges.  It just happens to be building of human capital.

And it’s not just vets.  Some states have begun offering to cover college costs for students who wish to become teachers.  Teachers are another specialty which is becoming less popular as a career choice.  Not only are salaries usually low; but class sizes are growing and growing, public education budgets are under constant attack and now you have to lead active shooter drills in your elementary classes.  There is also a withering public barrage of criticism, book banning and censorship to navigate.  State programs which fund teacher training specify teachers must work for a period of years in districts where shortages are acute; often rural or underfunded schools in low income areas.

I can think, off hand, of another dozen specialties, including human medical ones, where our country doesn’t have nearly enough trained people to enter the fields baby boomers vacated.

The reason I called this column “It’s not either/or,” is because I hear and read a lot of emphasis on and prioritization of technical training.  The benefits of becoming an electrician, builder, heavy equipment operator or truck driver, along with much shorter training periods and decent starting salaries are well-communicated.  But sometimes it feels, to me, like the message is we have too many college bound young people, and I don’t think that’s the case. 

Fact is we need talent almost everywhere; and with family sizes shrinking drastically for years, I have no idea where we are going to find the skilled workers and highly trained specialists we need NOW, much less what we will need in ten years.

The good news is we can encourage all our young people to chase their dreams, no matter what they wish to make their life’s work.  It isn’t an either/or choice if we, as a society, will support the technical/trades paths or the professional paths.   We need every one of these young people to succeed, no matter what path they choose.  And for those who commit to a course of training that will be ruinous financially, we need to continue to find innovative ways to help them afford lengthy training.  As it is, more and more of the long-training specialists we have will come from wealthy families, because they will be the only ones who can afford eight years of higher education.

I probably will be able to get a horse vet to my rural location for sweet Ugly Betty for the rest of her life, since she is 25.  But more big problems loom, including some that may already be impacting you, or will be soon.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address:



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