You didn’t choose this profession for the paycheck. You became an occupational therapist because you enjoy helping people improve the quality of their lives—and that’s the way it should be. Still, you shouldn’t completely ignore the dollar amount on your paystub. Money might not be your main motivator, but you deserve fair compensation for the quality of therapy you provide. But determining what’s fair can be tricky, because there are a lot of forces at play. So, what factors go into determining OT salary? Here are a few important variables to consider:
1. Experience trumps education—for now.
According to this salary survey published by ADVANCE for Occupational Therapy Practitioners, “Perhaps the single most dependable determining factor of salaries was years of experience in the OT field.” In that survey specifically, the average salary for OTs with five or fewer years of experience was about $64,000, whereas those with 21-25 years of experience earned approximately $78,000—a difference of about $14,000. This PayScale report shows an even larger gap: according to the data cited there, therapists with more than 20 years of experience earned an average income of $84,000. Education, on the other hand, did not appear to play a significant role in salary determination. In fact, the ADVANCE survey revealed that OTs with bachelor’s degrees actually reported a higher average salary (about $73,000) than those with entry-level master’s degrees (about $67,000). It’s important to note, however, that this discrepancy likely resulted—at least in part—from differences in experience; the vast majority of bachelor’s degree-holders had more than ten years’ experience, while most of the therapists with master’s degrees had been practicing fewer than ten years.
2. Demographics drive demand.
Remember the supply and demand curve from that Intro to Economics class you took in college? Well, it applies to occupational therapy, too. The greater the demand for a service, the higher the price for that service—especially if the supply is low. So, if you practice in an area where there are lots of people who need occupational therapy—a place with a large elderly population, for example—but relatively few OTs, your salary is more likely to fall above the national average. And while we’re on the subject of geography, remember that average salaries vary from location to location due to a variety of regional factors such as cost of living and insurance reimbursement rates. For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2015, OTs in Nevada made an average annual salary of $98,930, whereas OTs practicing in North Dakota made $65,110. (Check out the BLS site for more information on OT salary averages by state and region.)
3. Setting affects salary.
The type of facility in which you practice also affects your earning potential. According to BLS data, OTs working in home health environments make an average of $91,860—about $10,000 more than the national average of $81,690. The average salary for therapists working in nursing care facilities (i.e., skilled nursing facilities) also comes in well above the national average at $88,670. On the opposite end of the spectrum, OTs practicing in elementary and secondary schools average $71,470—about $10,000 below the national average.
4. It pays to travel.
Traveling occupational therapists can make about 15 percent more than therapists in permanent positions, with additional perks like paid housing, non-taxable living stipends, mileage reimbursement, and assignment completion bonuses. If you’ve got the itch to get out and explore different parts of the country—or you’re just not sure what kind of setting you want to work in—travel OT is a fantastic option. Just make sure that before you sign on any dotted lines, you fully research the placement company you contract with and the assignment offers you receive—and pay special attention to things like health benefits, vacation time, sick leave, and assignment termination policies. The company should assure you that if you get stuck in a locale you don’t like, not only will your contract allow you to switch facilities, but also the company will act quickly to relocate you.
These items are just a sampling of things to consider as you contemplate compensation in the occupational therapy industry. What factors do you think are most important when it comes to determining a reasonable OT salary? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.