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Delivering on the profession’s workforce priorities

Susan Paterson - RCVS President 2023-24

In this blog RCVS President Sue Paterson sets out how the RCVS has been delivering on the priorities of the Workforce Action Plan in terms of recruitment, retention and return, and the College’s future plans in this area. Highlights include: RCVS Academy courses; the Chronic Illness and Disability Survey; and the clinical careers pathway project.

Just over a year ago, in November 2022 to be precise, we published our Workforce Action Plan, which set out a pathway for how we would work collaboratively with veterinary organisations, veterinary employers and individuals within the professions, to mitigate the workforce issues that beset the veterinary sector.

Under seven ambitions, the Plan proposed solutions that covered the ‘three Rs’ – namely how to recruit more people into the veterinary professions, how better to retain those already in the professions, and how to encourage those who had left, to return.

With the Workforce Action Plan as our guiding star, over the course of 2023 we have been busy progressing projects that we think will deliver on the Plan’s aims, and mitigate some of the stresses and strains put on the veterinary workforce.

In this blog I will give an overview of some of the key areas of work under the three strategic aims but of course there are no magic bullets and we can’t fix this on our own. This is about making incremental improvements and changes that are within our remit as regulator and Royal College, and it’s great that so many of our veterinary representative groups and organisations are working along similar lines to us.


A key area that we’ve been considering in terms of recruitment is how we can do more to widen the pool of potential veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, and much of this work is taking place within the remit of the Diversity and Inclusion Group at the College. Our work on diversity and inclusion doesn’t just have a moral basis, it recognises that a wider pool of applicants to veterinary and veterinary nurse education and training can lead to better outcomes and bigger numbers.

There have been some relatively ‘quick wins’ in this space, such as the strengthening of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) requirements within the Practice Standards Scheme (PSS) – for example, by making it a requirement for all practices to have harassment and bullying policies – and embedding it within our veterinary degree accreditation standards.

However, there are some more long-term projects such as our Chronic Illness and Disability Survey, the first of its kind globally looking at the challenges being faced by the veterinary community. This will enable us to have a baseline of data and insight on which to build change. The survey took place this year and asked for information on the experiences of those with disabilities and chronic illnesses working within and training to join the professions.

We launched the survey because there was a distinct lack of data around the experiences of those with disabilities, chronic ill health, mental ill-health or neurodiversity. With 3,411 people having responded and 1,200 having agreed to be involved in follow-up research, we are now in the process of analysing this enormous dataset, which will form the evidence-base for future activities in terms of recruitment, retention and return. We hope to publish the report of the survey in the early part of next year – so please keep an eye out for further details.

We are also planning to review and update our careers materials for school pupils and, where possible, to work in collaboration with other veterinary and careers organisations to disseminate this information to schools across the UK. Plus, we’re planning to reignite our previously successful programme of outreach events next year, by attending careers fairs, country shows and science festivals to talk to school children about veterinary and veterinary nursing careers.

Then, from autumn 2024, we will also be implementing our new Extra-Mural Studies (EMS) policy, which includes the introduction of a more outcomes-focused approach to planning EMS placements to improve the consistency and quality of experience, and allows for a reduction in the number of hours vet students are expected to spend on placements.

Going forward, students will be able to complete their EMS in a much more flexible manner, with the possibility of longer and/or shorter placements, and they will have the freedom to choose which EMS placements would benefit them most. A new national EMS database is also being introduced to support the administration of placements and facilitate matching students’ wishes with provider offerings.

We hope these changes will lead to an EMS system sustainable for the future, that enhances the EMS experience for students, addresses some of the challenges and makes it an inspiring and rewarding experience for all involved.


Just as there’s no long-term gain to pouring water into a leaky bucket, there’s no point recruiting talented young people into our professions only to lose them within the first five years. For this reason, retention is absolutely crucial to long term workforce planning – making sure we have a happier and healthier workforce who have reasons to stay, and aren’t just looking for how to get out. Positive feedback about our Veterinary Graduate Development Programme (VetGDP) is very encouraging and suggests it is continuing to work well to support new graduates as they make that first difficult step into the workplace, and providing a sound footing for their future working lives.

A key project within the retention theme has been the truly excellent piece of work our Education Committee and Education Department have produced around developing clinical career pathways for veterinary surgeons. Although it’s in its early stages, the proposals contained in the project will be really transformational in terms of how our veterinary surgeons can develop and sustain their careers with the ability to become primary care specialists, and to follow flexible pathways to RCVS Specialist status, achievable for those in general practice.

We recognise that mental ill-health, stress and burnout is also present within the professions and can lead to many people choosing to seek employment elsewhere, despite their love of the job. This is why we continue to ensure that the Mind Matters Initiative goes from strength-to-strength, underpinned by an ambitious new strategy that takes into account how conversations around mental health have changed, and how mental health interacts with other factors. As part of the project, we are also continuing to fund and encourage veterinary mental health research, with a view to helping to develop interventions and long-term solutions to some of the common issues such research identifies.


Out of all the aspects of our Workforce project, this may be the most challenging, but also most exciting. Its aim is to support people who left the professions for myriad reasons to come  back into the workforce in a way that is cognisant of their time without the profession, while also recognising the skills and experience they may be bringing back into the fold.

The first major milestone for this has been the launch of the ‘Veterinary Nurse Return’ course on the RCVS Academy, our free-to-use online learning platform. This course is mandatory for veterinary nurses who are undertaking the Period of Supervised Practice (or PSP), which all veterinary nurses who have been off the Register for five or more years must complete before fully rejoining the profession. Among other things, the course will aim to help with building a development plan and recognise how to build continuous learning through workplace opportunities, evaluate personal strengths and apply the principles of delegation.  

The Veterinary Nurse Return course joins a suite of other RCVS Academy courses, which are aligned with our Workforce Plan, including courses for newly-qualified veterinary nurses as well as overseas veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses who are joining the Register. These courses are focused on the principles of regulation and professional practice, and aim to support those joining the Register better to meet their professional standards.

Upcoming projects

In 2024 we have quite a few workforce related projects on the horizon, including the development of a workforce modelling project which will aim to provide forecasts on the future likely supply of vets and vet nurses in the UK. Although the project is still in development stage, the modelling will use trends in retirements and other losses from the professions, as well as the supply pipeline of graduates and overseas vets, to build a better picture of how supply can better match demand over the coming decade.

Very early in 2024 we will also be launching our Surveys of the Professions which will ask for lots of working patterns-related information from responding veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses. This will include whether they work full-or-part-time; what their working hours are (including contracted, actual and on call); and whether respondents have additional jobs.

Find out more and get involved

The starting point for this project is, of course, the Workforce Action Plan, from where you can find out more about our specific plans, and the actions that can be taken by the wider veterinary sector to meet the seven ambitions.

Earlier this year we did a deep dive into each of our seven ambitions via our ‘Workforce Ambitions Explored’ webinars, where we invited special guests to explore the particular topics in more detail and, in doing so, got their expert opinions and .

We hope after reading this blog, as well as looking at the additional material, you feel empowered to think about how you, your colleagues or your workplace can join us in this endeavour. Of course, if you want to get involved or have any ideas on how to advance the aims of our Workforce Action Plan, you can contact Angharad Belcher, RCVS Director of Advancement of the Professions, on [email protected].

Published on 22 December 2023

Tags: Careers