Occupational, physical therapy are Missouri's fastest growing careers

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COLUMBIA - A new report ranked the fastest growing jobs in Missouri for 2017, and occupational therapy assistant and physical therapy assistant were at the top.

Zippia uses data from the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to figure out growth in all relevant occupations through 2024. Occupational therapy assistant and physical therapy jobs are growing at a rate of 42 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

"When we work with clients, we don't ask them what's the matter with you, we ask them what matters to you," said Crystal Gately, assistant department head for MU's occupational therapy department.

Gately said the field of occupational therapy is often looked over by people interested in health professions.

"It's usually through some type of career exploration or through a personal experience, either of themselves or with a family member, that they encounter occupational therapy," Gately said.

While occupational therapists require a graduate degree, their assistants need only an associates degree, which they can get from a community college partnered with the Missouri Health Professions Consortium.

"Occupational therapy assistants and physical therapy assistants are able to get out into the profession a little bit faster, and with a little bit less student loan debt. A lot of students are choosing that as their initial entry into the field," Gately said.

Though they require different degrees, occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapists work closely together in the field.

"The only difference is the OTs are the ones that create the initial evaluation and intervention plan and oversee the entire treatment process. The OTA works under the direction of the OT," Gately said.

For two decades, MU graduated around 28 students per year. That number has risen to 33 for this spring.

One hundred to 125 qualified students apply for the program each year.

Gately said students are drawn to occupational therapy for the personal interaction between therapist and patient.

"It's really the holistic view that we take with our clients and the individual connections that we have with our clients that students are really attracted to," Gately said.

Students are also being drawn to the field because of the pay. The median salary for occupational therapy assistants is $54,000 per year. For occupational therapists, it's $80,000 per year.

Physical therapy has seen similar growth. At MU, where recent graduating classes have averaged 44 students, the projected number of graduates for the next three years is at 58.

Aaron Myers, a staff physical therapist as PEAK Sport and Spine, said there's a higher need for workers in the physical therapy profession because people are living longer.

"I think part of the reason it's booming is people are staying more active later in life, which is great. But that also leads to overuse injuries and can lead to traumatic injuries, broken bones and things like that," Myers said.

Myers, a graduate of MU, said he became a physical therapist as both a way to remain in the sports field and to give back to the community.

"I think there is a growing desire for people like myself that wanted to stay involved with athletics and helping people and kind of an interest in the health professions field," Myers said. "We want to help people feel better and do better and help them get back to the activities in their life that they're limited in now."

Zippia's report predicts that by 2024, there will be 1,360 occupational therapy assistant jobs and 2,720 physical therapy assistant jobs in Missouri.