Wanted: Men For Occupational Therapy Jobs

Unemployed males looking for a new career path could turn to occupational therapy. It's one of the many health-related jobs growing during the economic down turn. It's also a field traditionally dominated by women. Females make up 90 percent of workers and men 10 percent, and recruiting males into the field has been a challenge.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Some people are calling the current economic downturn a man session - really. That's because the jobless rate for men is about 2 percent higher than it is for women. While it is more of a struggle for men to find a job than women in this economy, men take note: One profession needs and wants more male bodies, and it even pays well.

Jenee Darden reports.

Mr. FARLEY HOM (Occupational Therapist): How bad is your pain, from one to 10?

JENEE DARDEN: Farley Hom is an occupational therapist. Today, he's helping a patient at a rehab center for seniors in Southern California. The elderly man recently fractured bones in his neck after a fall. Hom tries to help the man move from his wheelchair to his bed on his own.

Mr. HOM: We'll see when you can have your pain meds next, OK? You want pain medication?

DARDEN: Hom has been an occupational therapist for 15 years. In case youre wondering, OT and physical therapy are not the same.

Mr. HOM: To this day, even my parents have difficulty explaining to their friends what I do for a living.

DARDEN: Here's how he breaks it down.

Mr. HOM: Occupational therapists help people to be as independent as possible with their activities of daily living. That can be anything from getting themselves dressed to brushing their teeth to driving.

DARDEN: Hom is the only male OT at the center, which is not unusual. Men make up only 10 percent of therapists. Historically, the profession has focused on recruiting women. Now, it's pushing for gender balance and actively reaching out to men. Hom says they want workers to be diverse, like the people they serve. For instance...

Mr. HOM: A male might prefer another male to be with him in the bathroom when we're working on toileting issues, simply because of dignity issues, privacy issues.

DARDEN: But Hom says there's a growing need for OT's in general, especially as baby boomers retire. Labor Department stats back this up. They show occupational therapy growing more than 20 percent over the next few years.

Mr. HOM: I've always been able to find work. I've never had a problem finding work.

DARDEN: Now that's something you rarely hear today, and the pay isn't bad, either. In California, an OT fresh out of grad school can start making up to $80,000 a year. Nationwide, the mean salary is about 67 grand. Good pay, steady work and a demand for male workers - in the so-called man session, why aren't more men signing up?

Mr. SHAWN PHIPPS (President, Occupational Therapy Association of California): I think occupational therapy is one of those best kept secrets.

DARDEN: Shawn Phipps is president of the Occupational Therapy Association of California.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

DARDEN: On this day, he supervises therapists at a rehab center for kids with disabilities. He says people dont know about the profession, and a number of those who do view it as women's work.

Mr. PHIPPS: I think that occupational therapy is sometimes seen as a caretaking profession like nursing, and men traditionally have not been drawn especially to caretaking professions.

DARDEN: But OT's go beyond bedsides. Some work in technology and develop ideas to help people with disabilities function in everyday life. And you can find OT's treating injured workers.

Mr. PHIPPS: I'm aware of a number of men that work in industrial rehabilitation. An occupational therapist can play a role evaluating that worker's capability of returning to the workplace.

DARDEN: But Phipps says he notices men are starting to pay attention. He even convinced one of his friends to consider the profession. Sergio Sandoval worked in marketing research for 12 years, but was laid off more than a year ago and can't find work. Now he plans on applying to an OT graduate program. Sandoval says he made the career switch for a few reasons.

Mr. SERGIO SANDOVAL (Occupational Therapy Student): The ability to work with people with disabilities to make a difference in their lives, and to also have steady work and create a future for myself.

DARDEN: And the perks dont stop at steady work, whether youre a man or a women. Money Magazine recently listed occupational therapy as one of the least stressful jobs in the country.

For NPR's, I'm Janee Darden in Los Angeles.

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