Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Sin of Wages

There it lay, in my hand, as rare and exotic to me as one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets. I'd seen them before of course - my parents, used to their magical nature, had left them lying around the house from time to time before they were filed. I remembered being fascinated by them as a kid; a small slip of paper, covered in squiggly black ink as if a thousand spiders had been ceremonially squished onto the thin paper in order to prevent unwanted peeping at the contents. It hadn't really struck me before that I might ever have one of my own, but now, here it was. My first pay slip.
            Earlier in the week, aware of the glimmering riches that awaited me at the end of the month, I had driven to Bridgwater's local electrical goods store and gazed avariciously at a huge television until an attendant, noting my gaze and politely ignoring my drool, introduced me to the concept of 'Hire Purchase', and that same afternoon we were driving back to my house with the television in the boot.
            I was so proud. A man provides for his family. At the moment, the family consisted of Kerry and me, and the thing that I was providing today was a massive telly. Literally massive; this was before the days of plasma screens and LCDs, and so the 32-inch screen tube television weighed forty kilos[1]. Kerry was going to be home in an hour or so, and a wise man would have left the TV in the boot and waited for his girlfriend. I, however, was neither wise nor patient, and so I lifted the monster out of the back of my car, screamed in pain, and dropped it on the floor. The front panel that covered the various input sockets snapped off, but otherwise the damage was minimal, and so I proceeded to drag the thing up the small path to my house like a murderer disposing of a small, square, dense body - or perhaps more accurately, like an idiot attempting to move a very heavy television set on his own[2].
            The TV looked wonderful in my living room, but it had been frighteningly expensive. What's more, I had student loans to pay, but none of that mattered now, because the fabled pay slip had been delivered to my in-tray this morning, and now here I stood with it in my hand.
            I tore it open and read the figure at the top of the page. I frowned a little. I read the figure at the bottom of the page.
            'Hmm,' I said.
            The one thing that everyone knows about vets, of course, is that they, along with the Royal Mint, have a licence to print money. It had been at the back of my mind during vet school that the pay was pretty good. It certainly wasn't why I had joined the profession, of course - if it was, I might have looked into it a little more carefully - but I always sort of thought things would be very nice, pay-wise. Seeing practice as a veterinary student, I'd had a few vets tell me 'Well, y'know, the pay isn't quite as good as you might think...'. I had nodded, and smiled, and secretly thought 'Greedy bastards, how much more do they want?'
            I stood and looked at the figure at the bottom of the pay slip. I mentally subtracted the student loans payments, and the first instalment of my now-looking-rather-extravagant TV payment. I added the total to my current bank balance. My face went a little pale.
            The preceding week, I had worked (including on-call work, which certainly felt like work to me) around about a hundred hours. I looked again at the pay slip. Before tax, I had earned roughly three pounds fifty an hour.
            Hm. I wasn't very experienced in such matters, but that didn't sound like an awful lot to me. I drove home, where my huge telly stared accusingly at me, now appearing to me as the product of near-Liberace levels of excess. It did look good though.
            Now, I'm not telling this story for sympathy - I was, being polite to my past self, a bit of an idiot in just assuming that I would be absolutely loaded the moment I became a vet. All that I needed to do was mentally readjust quite how much money I had, and I was fine. Nor am I trying to suggest we're terribly hard done by as a profession: being a vet is hard, and occasionally soul-destroying, work, but it's also tremendously rewarding - there's nothing quite like the feeling that you've made something better when it otherwise may have died. Things have, of course, improved from my new-graduate days, and I feel that I get paid what I deserve - no more, no less - and there's a great deal of satisfaction in that, too.
            No, I'm writing this because I still frequently encounter people who, the moment they learn my profession, get a little glint in their eye and smile at me knowingly[3]. I understand the perception: you go to the vets, you're in there for ten minutes, she tells you to pop these drops down your dog's ear, and you have to pay fifty pounds for the privilege. What may not occur to you is that of that fifty pounds, the vet earns about fifty pence. The rest pays for the receptionist's and nurse's salaries, the rental of the premises, the ear drops that you bought, the electricity bill, and so on. At Beech House, my starting salary was £17,000, plus a house and a car. According to the recent Society for Practising Veterinary Surgeons survey, the average vet salary - including partners - is around the £37,000 mark. That's lower than it was the year before, due to economic pressures, and possibly due to more vet students being available. It's also lower (quite a lot lower, in some cases) than the average salaries of doctors, dentists, teachers, police officers, architects and many other professions[4].

As I say, I'm content with my pay; it would be in very poor taste for me to be complaining about it with so many people in terrible economic difficulties at the moment. I think I'm paid fairly, and I certainly earn my money. All I ask is that, please, when you hear what I do, don't get that glint in your eye. You're liable to get the rest of my drink in it, too.


[1] Which is nearly ninety pounds, to those of you who haven't come over to the far, far less confusing metric side of the fence
[2] It may have been heavy, but it still works perfectly - unlike three LCD TVs I have bought since then. It wasn't that long ago that we were making things that were actually built to last, you see.
[3] The kind of glint that suggests the drinks are on me for the rest of the night.
[4] It's tangential to my point, but shamefully (especially considering we're an increasingly female-oriented profession) there is still a 10-20% gap between male and female vet's pay