Rebecca Casas’s friends seem dumbfounded when she tells them that she is about to start graduate school for occupational therapy. “They look at me as if it is a field that I am making up,” says the 23 year-old Miramar, Fla. resident.

Occupational therapy is indeed a real profession, and a hot one at that, even if it doesn’t get the same recognition as other health professions like nursing and physical therapy.

Occupational therapy is not more widely known because OTs fill different roles in a variety of settings, including schools, rehab hospitals, and homeless shelters, according to Dr. Judith Parker, chairwoman of the occupational therapy program at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla.

“Whatever the setting, the common thread is that OTs improve their clients’ quality of life,’’ says Parker.

What Occupational Therapists Do
OTs help clients develop or regain everyday skills. Interventions can range from helping a child with fine motor problems to improve his handwriting, to assisting a stroke victim in relearning how to bathe, to teaching a homeless person life skills to successfully reenter the community. A key tenet of occupational therapy is to help people perform activities of daily living, which vary depending on the needs of the individual.

Employment of Occupational Therapists is expected to increase from 99,000 in 2006 to 122, 000 in 2016, -an increase of 22% over a ten year period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The outlook for Occupational Therapy Assistants is also positive. Positions are expected to increase by 25%, from 25,000 in 2006 to 31,000 in 2016.

“Because of the aging population and the increase in recognition of children in schools with special needs, the demand is growing” says Neil Haverson, the director of Accreditation & Academic Affairs for the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Requirements and Salary
Occupational therapists make an average of $60,000 a year according to the AOTA. However, the entrance requirements for the profession have been ramped up and it is no longer possible to become an OT with just a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree became the minimum requirement in January 2008. OT programs normally consist of two years of academic instruction and six months of supervised field work.

An alternative entry point to the field is to become certified as an occupational therapy assistant. OTAs earn an average of $42,000 a year after completing a two-year associate’s degree.

OTAs can provide treatment, but only OTs can perform evaluations. Both OTs and OTAs must pass a national certification exam before they can practice.

The number of occupational therapy students has surged by 10% in the last year. There are 140 accredited graduate level programs, with nine new programs seeking accreditation. The spike in occupational therapy assistant programs has been much more dramatic. One hundred and forty four programs are approved by the AOTA to award degrees with another forty four in the accreditation process.

“OTA programs are in greater demand at this time,” says Haverson. “They offer a relatively inexpensive two year associate’s degree in a profession that has been widely publicized as ‘recession proof’. This is appealing to individuals seeking a career change who do not want to have to go to college for five or six years and incur high student loans.”

Regardless of whether a student chooses to become an OT or OTA, opportunities abound nationwide, even in regions severely affected by the economic downturn.

Parker says graduates of OT programs are having no problems finding work: "It’s pretty much full employment."

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