GAO report identifies gaps in federal veterinary workforce plans

On May 26, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that details how federal agencies need improvement in assessing future veterinary workforce needs.

As of fiscal 2014, roughly 2,100 veterinarians were employed in federal agencies under the veterinary medical science occupational series, with the majority of those working within the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments. There, they perform critical public and animal health work, everything from inspecting animals at slaughter facilities to monitoring for zoonotic diseases, conducting research and ensuring animal drugs and feed are safe.

With baby boomers retiring and federal agencies prohibited from filling vacancies due to a hiring freeze, many groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, called on the Office of Personnel Management in 2009 to assess its future veterinary workforce to ensure that critical positions to public and animal health and safety would not go unfilled. Both the USDA and HHS committed to assessing and addressing future veterinarian workforce challenges across the departments, and in 2010, OPM issued a strategic plan that would help them improve their recruiting initiatives and emergency response plans.

The GAO, in its recently released report, “Federal Veterinarians: Efforts Needed to Improve Workforce Planning,” examined the agencies’ efforts since 2010. The GAO found that:

  • The USDA has developed guidance on workforce planning for its sub-agencies that employ veterinarians (the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and has initiated a process to evaluate their workforce plans.
    • Of note, FSIS found that a projected 43 percent of its veterinarians would be eligible to retire by fiscal 2018, and APHIS’ Veterinary Services said that roughly 45 percent of its current veterinary workforce could retire by fiscal 2016.
  • HHS has not yet conducted a department-wide assessment of its veterinary workforce or provided guidance to or reviewed the results of its sub-agencies’ current efforts.
    • The Food and Drug Administration, on its own accord, included veterinarians in its workforce plan, and noted that its Center for Veterinary Medicine increased its workforce by 30 percent since 2006, due to a hiring surge initiative that targeted select science and medical positions, including veterinarians.
  • APHIS—the lead USDA agency for responding to an animal disease outbreak—has not yet identified how many veterinarians it would need to fully respond to a large-scale animal disease outbreak or taken steps to ensure that veterinarians loaned from other U.S. federal agencies or international agencies have the training they need if called upon to assist APHIS’ efforts in an emergency.
  • The Talent Management Advisory Council (TMAC), an interagency group coordinated by OPM has not made progress on its goals of: obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the federal veterinary workforce; improving recruitment and retention efforts; or identifying the veterinary workforce needed during emergency events.

The GAO recommended that the USDA work on determining how many veterinarians it would need to respond to an animal disease outbreak and for the OPM to better evaluate TMAC’s progress toward government-wide goals as well as assess whether the need for direct-hire authority is still valid. Its previous recommendations to HHS still stand.

The National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV) commended the GAO for its report (PDF) by saying that more work needs to be done to ensure that the federal government has a veterinary workforce that meets current and future public and animal health challenges, and provides sufficient funding to both train new workers and give current workers the resources they need.

For more information, visit GAO’s website or see NAFV’s press release (PDF).

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