Careers requiring most specialized education command high wages
By DAVE WILKINS
Heather Hergert didn't have much time to relax after finishing her first year of veterinary school this spring.
The Washington State University vet student went right to work on an Idaho dairy farm as an intern in June. She's also planning to intern at a diagnostics lab in Peru later this summer.
Veterinary medicine is one of several off-farm career fields in agriculture ranging from the sciences to the trades that are in demand, experts say.
Hergert, 23, has many options available to her.
She could decide to become a mixed-animal practitioner, treating all manner of creatures from dogs and cats to horses and llamas. Or she could focus on one segment within food-animal agriculture, whether it's the dairy, beef or poultry industry.
She could get into wildlife research or go to work for a government agency such as the Centers for Disease Control or Homeland Security.
She's keeping all of her options open.
"There's so much that you can do with this degree," she said in an interview. "It's mind boggling."
Hergert, who grew up in the Seattle suburb of Sammamish, has chosen to enter one of the fastest growing occupational fields in the U.S.
Veterinary medicine ranks 18th among the 20 fastest growing occupations in the nation, according to employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Employment of veterinarians is expected to increase 33 percent through the end of 2018, the agency said.
The median annual wage for veterinarians in May 2008 was $79,050, according to federal employment data.
Annual earnings can range from $40,000 to $50,000 for a vet starting out in a small rural town treating "all creatures great and small," to $130,000 for a large-animal vet with four to five years' of experience, said veterinarian Chris Schneider of the University of Idaho Animal and Veterinary Sciences faculty.
Hergert is a good example of a student who has positioned herself for one of the higher-end jobs, Schneider said. Landing a job with an international corporation specializing in Latin American trade relations wouldn't be out of the question.
"Heather is really smart and motivated," he said in an interview. "She is making herself fluent in Spanish and traveling internationally."
While veterinarians rank fairly high on the ag occupation pay scale, it's not necessarily why Hergert is pursuing a job in the field.
"I've always wanted to be a vet," she said. "It was my childhood dream."
Some agriculture and natural resource jobs with similar or lower educational requirements pay as much or more.
Thirteen occupations within the broad career category "agriculture, food and natural resources" rank higher in median hourly pay than veterinarian, according to data compiled in 2009 by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc.
The following wage data are for the six-state region of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah.
Natural sciences managers, a broad classification that includes agricultural research directors, ranked No. 1 with hourly earnings of $46.73.
The median hourly wage for a veterinarian, by comparison, was $28.75.
Industrial production managers ranked second at $38.85 an hour. General and operations managers came in third with earnings of $37.58 an hour and industrial engineers, in fourth place, pulled down $37.17 an hour.
Transportation, storage, and distribution managers ranked No. 5 with earnings of $34.69 per hour.
Among occupations with the best growth prospects for 2009-2015 were securities, commodities and financial services sales agents, postsecondary teachers, loan officers, farm, ranch and other agricultural managers, environmental scientists, welders and industrial engineers.
While veterinarians must complete four years of vet school after graduating college, many ag occupations require much less education.
Graduates with a bachelor's degree can find jobs as agricultural engineers, soil and plant scientists and loan officers.
An associate's degree will get you a job as a veterinary technician, biological technician or computer support specialist, and many jobs such as veterinarian assistant and parts salesperson may only require on-the-job training.
"About 80 percent of all occupations require an associate's degree or less," Dick Ledington, director of research for the Idaho Division of Professional-Technical Education, said in an interview.
The downside, of course, is that many of the occupations with lower educational requirements also come with a smaller paycheck.
Natural science managers -- $46.73
Industrial production managers -- $38.85
Agricultural engineers -- $31.44
Veterinarians -- $28.75
Purchasing agents/buyers -- $24.83
Conservation scientists -- $24.57
Soil and plant scientists -- $24.12
Food scientists -- $22.43
Mobile heavy equipment mechanic -- $22.07
Animal scientists -- $20.39
Machinists -- $19.31
Welders -- $18.14
Farm/ranch managers -- $17.48
Parts salespersons -- $14.65
Veterinary techs -- $13.20
Slaughters and meat packers -- $11.67
Source: Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. Median hourly earnings reported for agriculture, food and natural resources occupations in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming and Utah