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Massage Therapy as a Career
Although there are several reasons people choose to pursue a career in massage therapy. Some are encouraged by the family members they give shoulder and foot massages to. Others choose massage because they've never liked school and feel massage therapy is the easiest road to a college graduation. Then there are the advertisements from the schools themselves. They lure you to the profession announcing that you can set your own work schedule and make $50K a year.
I began massage school in 2000 in a licensed state and have since moved to an un-licensed state. For 6 years I ran my own business and was also a massage therapy instructor for 7 years. I'm here to tell you the ins and outs of the profession, what to expect, and what to look for before you begin this journey.
When it comes to massage schools they are not all the same and this is one area where you must be choosy. Each state has its own laws and educational requirements for massage therapists. So if you live in Texas and have dreams of moving to New York it would be wise to attend school in New York. New York requires 1000 hours of education whereas Texas only requires 500. Luckily people don't move to a new state very often but this is one area that can potentially hold you back if you don't do your homework beforehand. Some states will require you to sit for their exam and others will accept one of the national examinations. I went to school in Ohio and had classmates who were licensed massage therapists in other states. In the state of Ohio they only accept their exam and you must attend an Ohio school in order to qualify to take the test. Here are the massage therapy regulations in the US.
Now that you know where you want to go to school let's talk about the schooling itself. Everyone who enrolls in massage therapy school does not always graduate. Be prepared to learn the anatomy and physiology of all the systems of the body. Since your work will focus solely on the muscles of the body it is vital that you know them backwards and forwards. When a person comes to you with a complaint and describes pain with a certain motion you need to be able to instantly know which muscles perform that action. In massage therapy school you will learn the scientific names of the bony landmarks where the muscles attach and also all the actions each muscle performs. The school I attended covered all the muscles of the body the first quarter and continuously tested our knowledge by examination until we reached graduation. Some schools teach a different area of the body each term without repeating the same area twice. I taught for such a program and I think it was difficult for most of the students to learn all of the muscles because there wasn't enough repetition. In this instance the student will hold the key to their own success by continually reviewing muscles they've learned in the past in addition to those they are currently learning.
The Job Market
Although it is possible to make $50K a year as a massage therapist that is very rare for new graduates. In May 2001 the bureau of labor statistics showed a salary range of $18K to $69K with a median salary of $35K. According to a survey conducted by the American Massage Therapy Association in 2010:
- The average annual income for a massage therapist (including tips) who provides approximately 15 hours of massage per week was estimated to be $31,980
- More than half of massage therapists (57 percent) also earn income working in another profession
- Sole practitioners account for the largest percentage of practicing therapists (65 percent). Thirty-nine percent work at least part of their time at a client’s home/business/corporate setting or their home, 26 percent in a spa setting and 25 percent in a healthcare setting
Some of these statistics may have you re-thinking your decision but here is the good news:
According to the U.S. Department of Labor in 2010, employment for massage therapists is expected to increase 19 percent from 2008 to 2018, faster than average for all occupations.
Many people choose massage therapy because they want to work for themselves. My suggestion is to begin building your client base while you're in school. When you tell people you are enrolled in massage school they will instantly offer their body for your practice. After you graduate people will not be so forthcoming because they know you'll expect them to pay you. When you're in massage school you'll most likely receive a weekly full body massage and upon graduation you will see how much your body misses that. The same is true for those who are willing to let you practice. Sure they may not become a client after you graduate but people talk and word of mouth is the most effective marketing for this career.
While you build your practice you may want to work somewhere else on the side. Be aware that some establishments will make you sign a non-compete agreement. That means you can't go work for them and then market your practice to the clients you have there. Deciding whether to work in a spa versus a clinical setting may seem like a hard decision. I've worked in both industries and each has its perks.
Working in a Spa
When I was in school I never imagined I would ever work in a spa. I wasn't a girly girl and I dislike the backstabbing a lot of women do to each other. Fortunately our spa didn't have those issues. The owner told all of us that if we had a problem with another co-worker we had 24 hours to resolve it, if we couldn't figure it out she would decide who would leave. It worked very well and we never had any problems. To this day I still think that was a brilliant statement.
Variety is one of the largest benefits to working in a spa. Since the majority of the people you will see will want deep tissue massage it's nice to give your body a break with a salt scrub or mud wrap. Each spa has its own personality based on the ownership. Some spas will want you to memorize their signature massage and give everyone the exact same massage. The problem I have with that is not all people have problems in the same area and I like to individualize my massages. A happy client is a client who will return.
Also take into account the role of the owner. If the owner is a massage therapist they will usually allow 15 minute breaks between appointments and overall will be more sympathetic to you as a therapist. Business minded people and corporations typically view therapist in terms of dollar signs in their pocket. While they may be sensitive to the needs of the therapist they usually will schedule appointments without breaks in between. Some establishments want therapists to work 8 hours a day. A typical full-time therapist averages 20 hours a week, roughly 4 hours a day. When it comes to salary, double your 40 hour work week salary and that is what you will need to make per hour for a 20 hour work week if you want to keep the same income.
Tips are another perk to working in a spa. Not everyone will leave a tip but then there are others who leave generous tips. My largest tip was $60 every time I saw one of my clients. He was from San Francisco and couldn't believe how little I was charging him in Idaho. So he paid me what he would normally pay at home.
Working in a Clinical Setting
Tell me, when was the last time you gave the doctor a tip as you left the office? You didn't. That is the down side to working for a chiropractor, physical therapist, etc. You're not going to make tips. However, if the doctor says he wants to see you again next week where will you be? In his office. Although some clients in a spa will return for regularly scheduled appointments to address a specific issue, they are more likely to return if you are in a clinical setting.
Another bonus to working in a physicians office is insurance billing. People who are seriously injured can rack up quite a massage bill and insurance is a way to buffer that financial burden. Sadly not all insurance companies will cover massage therapy but several of them do. There were a few people with medical savings accounts who came to the spa and simply submitted their massage receipt themselves for insurance reimbursement.
Many people wake up each day to the dreaded alarm clock wishing they didn't have to go in to work. When I worked as a massage therapist I never had that feeling. People often ask if my hands would get tired during the day and if you're doing massage correctly they won't. A therapist primarily uses their upper body and body weight to work on people.
There are moments when you may become bored with your work but that is simply an indication you need to take a continuing education class. Most continuing education classes are weekend workshops and some are even offered as home-study courses. They are wonderful opportunities to steer your career in the direction you choose. There is a wide variety of courses on subjects such as: infant massage, equestrian massage, watsu, and lymphatic drainage to name a few.
Some may wonder if massage therapy is a boring career. If you're paying attention to the person on the table you will never be bored. Each person has different trouble areas for their own specific reasons. Not only is each client a puzzle to figure out but muscles release differently on different people.
If your body mechanics, your posture while giving a massage, is correct the physical aspect of massage won't seem like much work. Initially it may take a few months to build your stamina but the hands on portion isn't what drains you. Oftentimes it's the emotional baggage and stress of your clients that can begin to wear you down. In the beginning I didn't believe in such a thing but when it happens to you a few times you begin to take notice.
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