Opportunities available working in government services
About 800 vets are employed in the public sector by government departments and agencies in the UK. This amounts to about 5% of practising vets. The umbrella organisation, Government Veterinary Surgeons (GVS), is led by the head of profession, the Chief Veterinary Officer, and it links the government vets spread throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As a general rule, jobs fall into two categories: operational and policy-based.
The biggest veterinary employer in the country, Animal Health, is the executive agency responsible for implementing notifiable disease control, farm animal welfare, import and export control, and a variety of surveillance programmes.
With over 270 vets, you join a GB-wide community, and a similar number of technical staff are employed to support you. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DARD) performs a similar, but slightly wider, function, incorporating meat hygiene and policy development roles too. The Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) also falls into the operational category, giving the option of working in a variety of pathology, research and epidemiology jobs.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) Operations Group (formerly the Meat Hygiene Service) employs official veterinarians (OVs) in slaughterhouses and other types of premises producing food for human consumption. OVs enforce public health, animal health and animal welfare policies, and are involved in import and export controls, as well as surveillance programmes.
The Home Office employs a small team of vets to oversee the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. This involves inspecting premises that hold licences under the Act, to ensure licence conditions are being met, and therefore supports and polices the research community.
Not everyone is suited to the outdoor life, but don't be fooled: even those jobs that appear to be completely office-based can still involve trips and visits. Working for organisations such as Defra, the FSA, the Welsh Assembly Government or the Scottish Government tends to involve providing veterinary policy advice. This type of work can be very demanding, but rewarding, and you get to work with a wide variety of other professionals, including lawyers, economists, statisticians, sociologists and politicians. Policy jobs also offer, in some cases, travel abroad.
Pros and cons
The variety of work in government service is immense, and changes all the time. GVS encourages interchange between member organisations, so you can get an idea of other work areas too. Working hours are generally fixed, and out-of-hours work is often more limited than in practice. As a general rule, working terms and conditions are well defined and secure. In most cases, you could have the opportunity to apply for promotion at an appropriate time in your life, and take on more managerial tasks. On a wider scale, working in the public sector is, for many people, a meaningful and fulfilling role in society. Doing things ‘for the greater good’ can be satisfying and have effects that can be seen throughout a wide area. For example, becoming involved in animal welfare policy work can have positive effects on millions of animals.
"The variety of work in government service is immense, and changes all the time"
There is also a downside: the amount of contact with animals is obviously less than in practice, and sometimes the bureaucracy is tiresome. People you meet may not understand what you do, or why. But it's not a one-way street; vets regularly go back into practice with relative ease, and a new perspective, having seen a different world.
Where to find out more
Each organisation that is a member of GVS has its own website, and the GVS website provides links to all its members. Most have information on careers and options, or you can contact them directly and ask. You should note, however, that some GVS members employ only a small number of vets, so opportunities can be limited.
How to join
Government jobs are usually advertised on Vet Record Jobs, and you can also find information about vacancies on the GVS website. If you have a really strong desire to work for one of the government departments, you could get in touch and ask about future vacancies or send your CV. Some GVS organisations will arrange for a visit to one of their sites, to help you to learn more.
Entry requirements vary, and not all GVS employers will take on new graduates. In some cases, further qualifications are required or form part of the training process on recruitment.
Be warned: Civil Service recruitment procedures can be thorough, and it is not unusual for 5 or 6 months to pass before you actually walk through the door.