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Occupational Olympics: Careers in Physical Therapy Are Growing Faster, Higher, and Stronger

Caralyn Baxter[1] grew up filled with dreams of someday competing in the Winter Olympics. As a competitive figure skater, she was heartbroken when her teenage years brought about an unexpected series of injuries—but she didn’t let that deter her…

This week, Caralyn is finally realizing her dream as a participant in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. But she won’t be participating as she had originally planned. Instead of figure skating, she will be a participant in freestyle skiing. And she actually won’t be the one skiing. Instead, she is one of the people who have played a critical role in getting US freestyle skier David Wise prepared for the games. No, Caralyn Baxter isn’t a professional athlete; she’s a physical therapist.

Physical therapists “assess, plan, organize, and participate in rehabilitative programs that improve mobility, relieve pain, increase strength, and improve or correct disabling conditions resulting from disease or injury.”[2] Becoming a physical therapist typically requires attaining a doctorate or professional degree,[3] but there are also careers available as physical therapist assistants and physical therapist aides, which typically only require an associate’s degree and high school diploma, respectively.

While few physical therapists get the opportunity to work with Olympians, the general field of physical therapy is on the rise. In all three occupations centered on physical therapy, employment[4] is expected to increase significantly relative to other occupations requiring the same level of education.

Physical Therapists

Employment for physical therapists is forecast to grow at an average annualized pace of 2.5% compared to 1.3% for all occupations requiring a doctorate or professional degree. It is projected to be the second-fastest growing career of all occupations requiring a doctorate or professional degree, a bit slower than postsecondary health teachers but quicker than postsecondary nursing instructors, postsecondary business teachers, veterinarians, and dentists.

Physical Therapist Assistants

Employment for physical therapist assistants is expected to grow at an average annualized pace of 3.1% compared to 1.1% for all occupations requiring an associate’s degree. Physical therapist assistants are projected to be the fastest growing career of all occupations requiring an associate’s degree, with the next closest being respiratory therapists, diagnostic medical sonographers, dental hygienists, and veterinary technologists/technicians.

Physical Therapist Aides

Employment for physical therapist aides is projected to grow at an average annualized pace of 2.9% compared to 0.5% for all occupations requiring a high school diploma (or equivalent). Physical therapist aides are projected to be the third-fastest growing job of all occupations requiring an associate’s degree—not as fast as home health aides and personal care aides, but quicker than nonfarm animal caretakers and medical secretaries.

Not every athlete opts to hang up the skates due to injury. For most competitors, it’s a matter of practicality. There simply aren’t enough opportunities to compete professionally. According to the NCAA,[5] there are a total of 492 thousand student-athletes competing in NCAA institutions and 7.3 million in high school sports programs. This compares to roughly 12,600 jobs as athletes and sports competitors in the nation according to the most recent data from JobsEQ.[6]

There are many reasons people go into physical therapy. The field is certainly not exclusive to athletes. Nevertheless, jobs in physical therapy may provide rewarding careers specifically for workers who show an affinity for competitive sports.




[1] Bowers, Rachel. (2018, February 3). “There’s more than one way to make an Olympic dream come true.The Boston Globe.

[2] https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-1123.00

[3] Education levels determined by the BLS classification of “typical education needed for entry.” https://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_112.htm

[4] Employment Projections provided by the BLS: https://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_102.htm

[5] NCAA Recruiting Facts. https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Recruiting%20Fact%20Sheet%20WEB.pdf

[6] Figure represents employment as of 2017Q3 for SOC 27-2021, “athletes and sports competitors.”

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