While many recent college graduates are struggling in today’s sluggish job market, physical therapy assistants are going straight to work.
“We just graduated our fourth class of physical therapy assistants in December,” said Stephanie Puffer, program director of the PTA program at Chattahoochee Technical College. “All passed their board exams for licensure and all have had job offers. Many have had the luxury of choosing the setting they want.”
With the U.S. population growing; baby boomers aging and requiring more health care; and the Affordable Care Act’s focus on prevention and rehabilitation, physical therapy is in great demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 45 percent job growth for PTAs between 2010 and 2020.
Physical therapists access and write care plans for patients who need physical rehabilitation, but it’s often PTAs who carry out those plans and work one-on-one with patients to assess their response to treatment.
Entry-level salaries for PTAs average between $40,000 and $50,000 in metro Atlanta, Puffer said.
Working under the direction of physical therapists, PTAs help patients regain movement after injuries, illness or surgery. They work in skilled-nursing facilities, outpatient orthopedic and rehabilitation clinics, hospitals, home health and private practices.
“Our whole purpose is to improve a patient’s function and movement, but the goals differ from patient to patient,” Puffer said. “Return to function for a professional athlete would mean return to an elite level of competition, while for someone with chronic illness, function might mean being strong enough to grocery shop or play with her grandkids.”
The job requires an associate degree and two years of classes and clinical training.
Chattahoochee Tech accepts about 20 PTA students each fall. Admission is competitive, with grade point averages, interviews, essays and TEAS/Hobet exam scores among the factors that are considered. Annual tuition runs about $6,885, plus fees and books.
“We look for people who want to help people, who have the ability to interact well with others, who can think critically and are committed to lifelong learning. With new research and technology, things are always changing,” Puffer said.
The job requires someone who is both compassionate and can complete challenging coursework.
A second career
Jeffrey Davis who graduated in December, was a good fit.
“Physical therapy was a second career for me. I had been working in advertising, but discovered a desk job wasn’t for me. I wanted a career where I could focus on building relationships with people,” Davis said.
Davis realized that his analytical and coaching abilities, as well as an interest in health care, would be strong assets in physical therapy. Since physical therapists are trained at the doctorate level,
Davis chose Chattahoochee Tech’s PTA program as a quicker route into the field.
He discovered that the program was “intense,” but benefitted from three clinical rotations and being involved in the Physical Therapy Association of Georgia. It helped him choose a work setting that fit his personality and interests.
After graduation, Davis accepted a position at Physiotherapy Associates in Lilburn, an outpatient setting where he works with people who are recovering from orthopedic injuries or surgeries.
“It took a few weeks to get my feet under me. I sometimes see 12 patients a day, but I know I chose the right career path,” Davis said. “I look at each patient, his impairment and his needs. My approach is to ask what can we do in this hour to make this patient stronger, have less pain or be more mobile. You have to build trust, let the patient know you’re on his side and that you’ll work together.”
Sometimes the gains appear small.
“When a knee patient makes his first full revolution on an exercise bike, it’s an amazing thing,” Davis said. “You have to let the patient know what an accomplishment that is and to remind him how far he’s come. I get so much satisfaction in helping people.”