A shortage of veterinarians available to fill positions across Australia is not a new problem for the veterinary industry, however the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the travel movements of veterinarians – both within Australia and internationally, impacting on veterinary recruitment as the profession experiences a busy and challenging year.

International vets are an important skilled workforce for the Australian veterinary market and Dr Wendy Nathan, Director of the Kookaburra Veterinary Employment service, said that without international vets coming to Australia to work, this will further worsen the veterinary shortage, both for permanent positions and locum vacancies. 

“We have several overseas vets on our employment register who have now been waiting for months to get clearance to come and work in Australia. They can make no firm plans, they can offer no firm timeline to those vet practices that they are corresponding with regarding work”, said Dr Nathan.

VetPartners Australia, New Zealand and Singapore has a growing network of over 240 veterinary practices across the three countries, and Recruitment Director Derek Del Simone said the pandemic has severely limited the ability of veterinary businesses to recruit vets from overseas on work visas.

“Before the pandemic, we recruited about 45 international vets on working holiday visas annually to work across the network, to help during the busy summer peak season. We also used to recruit 12-15 vet nurses per annum to fill skill shortages. Now we are not recruiting any due to travel restrictions. These restrictions may lead to severe impacts on our profession’s ability to care for animals.  We are also mindful that these recruitment shortages could add a potential impact on the mental wellbeing of our veterinary health professionals”, said Mr Del Simone.

VetPartners have been lobbying the Federal Government to get veterinarians added to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL).  “If vets were added to the list, we could secure visas. Veterinary health professionals coming from the Northern Hemisphere, are now essential to managing the shortage of experienced personnel during peak summer months. 

“Unless vets are added to the PMSOL, vet numbers will continue to decrease, which will put increasing pressure on existing veterinary professionals. The existing pipeline of vet graduates may help fill some vacancies, but they take a while to train up to established vet level”, said Mr Del Simone.

Dr Nathan shares similar concerns about the impact of the veterinary shortage on both mental health and business viability. “The current situation is unsustainable. There is a very large imbalance between the numbers of jobs available and the numbers of vets. We are very worried about the impact on the sustainability of vet practices in Australia and on the mental health of the vets, vet nurses, and support staff working in these practices. 

“It’s possible that the current cohort of final year vet students entering practice at the end of this year will have more difficulty than usual adapting to working in these busy practices, particularly since their final year of studies and clinical practice has been so disrupted”, said Dr Nathan.

As the pandemic has unfolded over the past year, Dr Nathan has seen a dramatic drop in the number of vets who are available for work contacting her recruitment service. “During the first lock-down in Australia there were quite a few locums who took longer term-term or permanent jobs as they were restricted in where they could travel, and also wished to have job security. Also, many clinics just put a halt on their recruitment while they waited to see how things were going to pan out.

“Since the easing of the first lock-down, the number of vet jobs available has increased dramatically, in all areas of Australia. Anecdotally the vast majority of clinics we hear from have been very busy, and we’re guessing that maybe lots of clinics were just about managing with their current staff levels – especially because it was already a difficult market to find a vet in, demand outstripping supply for the last few years, but the increased pressures of COVID-19 have meant that they all suddenly need extra vets and vet nurses to cope”, said Dr Nathan.

By Dr Phil Tucak