By Carrie McDermott
NDSCS boasts an 82 percent placement rate for OTA students within six months of graduation
The demand for occupational therapy services is strong, and the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for occupational therapists to increase by 26 percent and for occupational therapy assistants to increase by 30 percent or more from 2008 to 2018.
Students in the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton feel confident in being able to secure employment after graduation. The school boasts an 82 percent placement rate for its OTA students within six months of graduation, two points higher than the national average.
Missi Twidwell, a faculty instructor in the program and occupational therapist, said people are often curious as to what occupational therapy assistants do.
“We take what people do everyday and help them be as independent as possible,” she said. “Physical therapy looks more at the movement and mobility. We look at the occupations that everybody does, the holistic, the psycho-social, emotional as well as physical sides. It’s a broader aspect.”
Competition is tough to get into the two-year program, which accepts about 32 students each fall.
“We encourage high school students to take the sciences,” she said.
Twidwell said the types of personalities that do well in the industry are those who are motivated, creative, enjoy working with people and like problem solving.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘I like the arts and I like science,’ it’s a good fit,” she said.
Salaries for these jobs are attractive. Data from a 2010 American Occupational Therapy Association’s compensation study found an average entry level salary of $34,300 for OTA positions and $52,000 for OT positions, rising to $44,000 and $64,700, respectively, over time.
Student Natalie Marquardt practiced putting a splint on Taylor Anderson during class this week. Marquardt said she chose the OTA program because she enjoys working with people. Anderson said she liked that the program was offered close to home, and has small class groups.
“It’s more homey, the classroom,” Marquardt said.
“It’s more individualized, too, you get more one-on-one with the teacher,” Anderson added.
Students Peter Fisher and Carlene Porter worked to soften a splint in water to make it more malleable.
Fisher said he would like to work with amputee patients after college and Porter said she intends to work in a nursing home.
OTAs can work in a variety of fields, with patients ranging in age from babies to the elderly. Baby boomers are living longer and they have more needs. With medical advances, premature babies are being born earlier and require more treatment.
Students practice on baby dolls first, before working on real babies for developmental milestones such as head control and reaching motions.
“We facilitate through play those activities they should be reaching,” Twidwell said. “They will learn different skills and even social interaction as they grow.
“If we start working with kids at an earlier age, rather than waiting until they enter school, we can maybe help them catch up to where they need to be, so when they start school they can just jump in the class,” Twidwell added. “A lot of our COTAs (certified occupational therapist assistants) will work in schools. Some work in wellness centers, or driving programs to keep people driving after an injury. There’s a lot of avenues you can work in.”
Students who choose to work with seniors may do home safety assessments to determine modifications that may be needed, including adding grab bars, transfer chairs for the tub, and even special kitchen utensils that can help with arthritic patients.
“A big thing now is the driving programs,” she said. “People want their independence. After an injury they want to be able to return to driving and do those things they did before.”
In addition to learning in the classroom, students spend their final semester doing field work.
“Our students have three semesters of classroom and the final spring semester they go out in the field for eight weeks at one site and then eight weeks at another, under the direction of a COTA or OTA,” she said. “They like the hands-on and active learning.”
Twidwell said the program faculty is very appreciative of the partnership with the field worksites, as they allow students to come and work in their facilities at no charge to NDSCS.
“It’s been a great partnership,” she said.
Other areas students could go into include working with ergonomics and assessing work environments, working in nursing homes and even community outreach.
One of the community outreach programs NDSCS is involved with is the Kids on the Block puppets, which are funded through the Mayor’s Committee.
Department Chairwoman Elizabeth Schlepp said the program has six puppets that students take out to schools for educational presentations on a variety of topics, including how to deal with bullying and interacting with learning and physically disabled individuals.
“We have a puppet with a burn and she has the plastic mask and some splints,” Schlepp said. “It explains to the students what all that is.”
Twidwell said there are different scripts for different age levels and there are always new topics available.
“We’ve also taken the puppets to nursing homes, they really like that,” Schlepp said.
Other outreach programs are with Circle of Nations students, Wahpeton School District and Red River Valley clients.
“One of the mottos of the American Occupational Therapy Association is, ‘Helping people live their life to the fullest.’ That’s what we do,” Twidell said.
Department: Occupational Therapy Assistant
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