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A great salary is just one benefit of becoming an occupational therapist

Jobs are plentiful in this rapidly expanding rehabilitation field
Occupational therapists help people relearn the skills of daily life.iStock

Consistently ranked as one of the most recession-proof jobs, occupational therapy offers more than just stability. It also boasts a great starting salary (about $53,000), flexibility and overall job satisfaction.

Even better, the field is rapidly growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that occupational-therapist jobs are expected to increase 27 percent between 2014 and 2024 (much higher than average) and 30,400 positions will need to be filled in that time.

We spoke to Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University and a practicing occupational therapist to find out more about the field.

What does an occupational therapist do?

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As a health and rehabilitation profession, the main role of an occupational therapist is to help injured, ill or disabled people of all ages — from newborns, to the elderly — regain their ability to perform everyday tasks, says Jacobs.

Their exact role, however, depends on the sort of issues the patient is dealing with, whether it be mental, physical, emotional or developmental. After assessing the patient, the OT will map out a plan to help the patients meet their goals, which can range anywhere from being able to brush their teeth or grasp a pencil, to walking steadily.

Jacobs explains it as, “We focus on what we call ‘occupations’, which are these meaningful everyday activities that people do.”

What schooling do you need to become an occupational therapist?

There are two routes to enter the profession, says Jacobs: You can train to be an occupational therapist or an occupational therapist assistant.

On the assistant level, students need to complete a two-year program that’s typically offered at variety of community colleges, and then pass the national certification exam before becoming a certified occupational therapy assistant.

An occupational therapist must have a master’s degree or doctorate in occupational therapy. They must also complete two, three-month fieldwork programs, she explains, “which, depending on the program, could be after all of your course work is done, or be integrated in during your schooling.” After that, students must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam (NBCOT), and apply for a license in the states they want to practice in.

What’s the typical salary for an occupational therapist?

The median annual salary for occupational therapists was $80,150 in 2015, according to the most recent reports by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The best-paid 10 percent in the profession made $116,030, while the lowest-paid 10 percent made $53,250.

Is it hard to find employment?

“Not at all,” says Jacobs. “There are plenty of opportunities, and we’re finding that that’s growing because of demographics.” The need for occupational therapists is expected to increase as baby boomers age and still strive to live life to their fullest, she explains. There’s also been an increase in the diagnosis of autism, and an increasing demand for school-based occupational therapists, which makes the profession all the more necessary.

The pros

“The sky’s the limit, because we work with all people,” says Jacobs. And the field provides a wide variety of places to work. OTs could be working in academia, nursing facilities, schools, hospitals, or mental-health facilities, to name a few. “Plus, there’s a growing area of entrepreneurship, where OTs are spreading their wings and starting their businesses as well,” she explains.

The main draw: “Our students are getting very good salaries, a lot of opportunities for advancement and a lifetime of gratification because it’s a profession that really makes a difference in people’s lives,” says Jacobs.

The cons

The field is so broad, which oftentimes causes confusion, says Jacobs. “Sometimes people don’t really understand what we do and so it may take a little while for us to help them understand our role.”

 
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