Expect More, with Les: Balancing the Ledger

We have a math problem in the profession.

Several times during the past year, I have heard from employers—in particular membership franchises like Massage Envy, Elements, Hand & Stone, etc.—that we are suffering from a severe shortage of therapists. Layer on top of that the reality that massage therapy school enrollment is currently around pre-1998 levels, after a mercurial growth path in the early 2000s and a steady descent in the past eight years.

A response I have heard from some individual therapists when discussing these issues is, “So what?” I clearly understand there is little sympathy held in the field for the plight of large employers. Some typical responses have been, “They should treat their therapists better,” and, “They don’t pay enough.”

Clearly, this subject and these entities are quite polarizing.

Hold this information against another statistic—there are more than 320,000 massage therapists in the United States, and nearly 900,000 students have been trained in massage therapy since 1998. However, a steady stream of therapists find that the career does not meet their needs, and they move on to something else.

Economic theory indicates that economic equilibrium is reached by intersecting the supply and demand curves. At some point, the pay scale will reach a point to better increase supply to meet the demand for therapists. But what if there aren’t enough therapists?

You can take a side on this issue, and many do (and I’ll hear from some of them just for writing this). But we have a challenge in the field: if we don’t have qualified therapists to provide a valued service that is in demand, that is critical. And our challenge won’t be solved through columnists or blogs that traffic in demagoguery—to quote Michael Douglas in The American President, we have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. Criticizing schools or organizations doesn’t build a profession; working toward established and agreed-upon standards can be a step in the right direction. Demonizing employers doesn’t make the likelihood of a therapist’s success increase, but constructively advocating for supportive working environments most likely will.

We need more successful therapists in the profession, but we also need more opportunities and accountability for those who work in our profession. That can be achieved through greater support from our employers, regulators, and educators.

The pressure on training institutions is only going to continue to mount. We must work together to creatively improve the caliber of our training without placing an undue financial burden on the students who pursue this career. If the promise of a fulfilling career exists without a guild mentality attached, nor an unreasonably high barrier to entry, our ranks will swell with interested candidates. But we can’t return to the go-go days of the early 2000s with overpromises of earning potential deceiving another generation of future therapists.

Massage and bodywork is an honorable, valuable, and vital profession. We need more of it in this world. We could all probably list a dozen friends or family members who could benefit from massage therapy but don’t partake. We need to work together to creatively find ways to help therapists be more successful in their chosen craft, to recognize there are many ways to define success, and to accept that a growing, thriving profession must sow the seeds for its own future.

As a profession, how do we solve this challenge? Comment below.

—Les Sweeney, ABMP President

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