Massage Therapy Schools and Careers
Schools, Job Prospects, Earning Potential, and the Future of Massage
Are you that person everyone goes to for knot-smashing shoulder massages and now want to explore making a living as a massage therapist? Or maybe you’ve been working in massage at a spa but want to pursue more therapeutic work. Regardless how you decided on massage therapy as a career, we’re here to help you navigate the process of finding the right school and the details you need to consider to start shaping your future.
The good news is that it’s an exciting time to get educated to work in massage therapy. Over the next decade, a job growth of 22% is predicted and opportunities for therapists have rapidly expanded. Jobs are not only found in resorts, spas, and gyms, but are also increasingly available in medical centers and specialty standalone clinics.
“Hospitals will be hiring more massage therapists to aid with pain management, hospice care and comfort, and therapy rehab,” says Lisa McNeil, M. Ed, CFSS-M, a licensed massage therapist at the Wisconsin-based Momentum Movement Clinic, who also provides manual therapy for U.S. Olympic team athletes and consults for wellness clinics and massage programs. “Gone are the days when massage was strictly found at a spa.” From getting the best education and training to what kind of salary you might expect in various roles, we’ve got answers to your questions and a step-by-step guide to navigating the process.
What Kind of Massage Therapy Work Do You Want to Do?
Massage therapy has played an important role in healing for thousands of years. Using touch, pressure, and movement to manipulate the body’s muscles and soft tissues, therapists help people manage health conditions and maintain wellness. Different techniques (called modalities) achieve different results, such as pain management, injury recovery, stress reduction, and relief from muscle tension. And there are a variety of jobs and environments where you can practice these skills, from modalities based on Eastern medicine and energy flow to intense muscle and body work such as sport or medical massage.
Recent growth in the industry is partly due to more customers seeking out massage both therapeutically and for relaxation. The rise in the popular notion of “self-care” has also spurred an increased demand for all types of massage, expanding job opportunities whether you want to work in a posh spa, on a cruise ship, or in a more medical setting.
How Can You Specialize in Massage?
While you’ll learn the basics of massage therapy as part of the foundation of your education, you can also pursue specialized training in different areas such as sports massage, myofascial release therapy, prenatal massage, reflexology, infant massage, and many more. Through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), you can receive professional credentials in a number of these specialty areas.
Choose the Education Path to Meet Your Goals
Massage therapy attracts a variety of students from different backgrounds, so it’s fairly easy to get started. Most massage school programs offer basic certificates or diplomas—essentially technical degrees—which can generally be earned in a few months to a year, depending on the program’s requirements. (Some entry-level programs require only 500 hours of training, while a more advanced program might require up to 1,000 hours and additional experience such an internship.) From individually owned institutions to community colleges to schools that are part of a corporate chain, there are many options for where you can earn your education. No single path is the “right” way—but there are several important things to consider.
What To Look for in a School
When researching schools, you’ll want to
consider things like course content, faculty experience, graduation rate, the
school’s pass rate for state/national licensing, and the cost of tuition. You
should also take into consideration the focus of the educational program and
your intended goals as a massage therapist. If you want to focus on modalities
that are medicinal or therapeutic, experts recommend you select a school and program with a heavy focus
on anatomy and science.
“Regardless of the program, anatomy and physiology are important,” says McNeil. “The program should have a significant number of hours dedicated to the palpitation, knowledge and understanding of what comprises connective tissues, how it functions and where it is located.”
A visit to the school can also help you understand the vibe of the campus. Do you feel welcomed and comfortable in the school environment? Does the school representative communicate how their program can prepare you for the profession?
“It’s also important to find out how long the massage school has been around,” says Taffie Lewis, director of membership outreach at Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), a massage therapy association. She also recommends that you ask for information about graduate success on any state or national exams that are required for licensing.
How Important Is Accreditation?
When you’re deciding which school to attend, one of the many factors you’ll need to consider is whether your school is accredited. This is a quality control of sorts that’s overseen by outside agencies that evaluate a program based on certain criteria and determine whether a school has met those standards. Some experts say that accreditation is the number one consideration when sorting through schools. Others advise that many good schools are not accredited simply due to the length and complication of the process, nevertheless it can come with some advantages when it comes to getting financial aid.
Is Online Education an Option?
For many types of education, taking online classes can be a good solution for organized students who need to complete coursework on their own time or don’t have easy access to a campus. With the nature of massage therapy, however, and the hands-on training you need in order to graduate and become licensed, taking online classes becomes more complicated. You may be able to take some of your classroom coursework online, but will still need to complete hands-on training in person.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Massage Therapist?
The length of a massage therapy program depends on the number of hours you train. Legal minimum hours for obtaining a massage therapy license vary by state, and these minimums range from 300 to 1,000 hours. Depending on how your program is structured, you can obtain your license in a matter of weeks, or it might take you up to two years.
Always check with your state’s health board to find out the number of hours you need to complete in order to become licensed.
How Much Will School Cost?
$5,000 – $20,000 for 500 – 1,000 training hours
While tuition for massage therapy schools can range widely, it’s generally much less than a traditional two- or four-year education, with some programs as low as $5,000–$7,000. Most programs require between 500 and 1,000 hours of training, and it’s likely that tuition will be higher the more in-depth your curriculum is. You’ll want to pay close attention to requirements of the state where you want to work so that you receive the proper education to be eligible for a license. Keep in mind that as a massage student, you’re not just paying for tuition: There are books, supplies, and even potentially a massage table if that’s not included in your tuition price. (Be sure to ask!) Financial aid is often available, especially if your school is accredited.
Learn About Your Earning Potential
Of course, another important consideration is how much you can make once you start working as a massage therapist. As with most other careers, the salary you can expect to earn varies widely depending on factors such as where you live, what type of massage you practice, how much experience you have, and the setting in which you work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, massage therapists across the country earn an average annual income of $45,880, though the American Massage Therapy Association places the average closer to $26,000 per year. This discrepancy largely has to do with the fact that most massage therapists work part-time (an average of around 27 hours per week) and, if self-employed, don’t get paid for the non-massage activities involved in running a practice.
The best way to up your earning potential is to get training in as many specializations as possible so that you can provide services for the widest range of clients. You’ll likely earn more as you gain more experience, since you’ll be building a reputation and a base of repeat clients. Understand the work settings that tend to pay the most and, if they’re right for you, seek employment that takes you to these places. Massage therapists who pay visits to clients’ homes or work for resorts and cruise ships tend to the make the most per hour, while those working in massage therapy franchises or chains make the least.
Get Licensed and Certified to Practice Massage in Your State
Every state has different laws and regulations regarding the practice of massage therapy, but all but five require professionals to hold a license of some sort. (In these states, certain cities and counties may impose their own regulations, so it’s important to check that you’re meeting the requirements before you begin work.) Generally, you’ll need to complete a minimum number of education hours and hands-on training, as well as pass a national exam such as the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx).
Beyond licensing through your state, you can choose to pursue voluntary board certification through the NCBTMB. Certification symbolizes a certain level of expertise and commitment by demonstrating that you’ve gone above and beyond the entry-level requirements. Maintaining your certification involves a good amount of continuing education, so employers and clients will know that you’re dedicated to staying on top of the latest advancements in the field.
Keep Up with the Latest Trends in Massage
Whether you’re just getting started in school or looking for courses to add to your skill set, staying on top of the latest massage techniques, philosophies, and changes in the industry is key to staying current and competitive in order to offer massage clients a full spectrum of services. These blogs, podcasts, newsfeeds, association journals, and social media feeds will help keep you in the know.