Feel Like a Number

Today we honor this man, Leonard Courtney. Who dat you say? He is the alleged source of the following quote: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." As my father would tell you, my staff would tell you, my friend Bob Benson would tell you, I am a man of numbers. From memorizing the Philadelphia Phillies’ box scores in 1973, to calculating mile splits in my head during cross country meets, to still remembering the highest major league career batting average (Ty Cobb, .367), to my home phone number growing up, I have a pretty good head for numbers. So I like statistics; I like analysis, understanding what variables are important, getting a snapshot of a situation. As you might imagine, I embraced with zeal an article from U.S. News and World Report that called massage “one of the 50 Best Careers,” with statistical support from Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor. The BLS serves an important role in gathering and disseminating information about various careers in the country. U.S. News and World Report has established a niche of creating various rankings (Best Colleges, Top Hospitals, Best Careers) as good reading material. However, these entities have missed the mark on massage therapy. The 2009 median annual salary for massage therapists was reported to be $35,320. Yahoo! Too bad it’s not true. 40 hours = one work week 52 weeks = one year $16.94 = median massage therapy “salary” 40 x 52 x $16.94 = $35,230 The math adds up. But it’s not right. Raise your hand if you made $35,230 or more in your practice in 2010. This is the median number—that means 50% of therapists made more than this. Wouldn’t we all be happy if that were the case?! The BLS made an assumption and you know what they say happens when you assume. Most massage therapists don’t work 52 weeks per year; hardly any massage therapist conducts 40 hours worth of sessions in a week. In ABMP’s 2009 member survey, the median number of client contact hours per week was 11, with a median income of less than $20,000. Why the discrepancy in numbers from BLS and ABMP? Simple—many massage and bodywork professionals practice part-time. In that same survey, 45% of our members indicated they had a second job in addition to their practice. And many others are raising a family in addition to practicing. The BLS estimates also only count those who are employed by others, which in the case of massage therapy leaves out a big part of the picture. ABMP has communicated with BLS about these issues in the past, but unfortunately some of our feedback previously accepted was not included in their latest iteration. Here’s what concerns me about this: These numbers are from the government, so they are assumed to be accurate and will now be used as fact for career guides. One of the challenges our profession faces is setting realistic expectations for prospective students. If a high school senior reads the BLS report, and chooses a career in massage based on unrealistic expectations, that’s not good for us. I want people to embrace this career with a full understanding and appreciation of what it can be for them. The value of a massage and bodywork career goes beyond dollars and cents. It’s heart work. The value of our work is not diminished by the fact that a segment of us perform it on a part-time basis. You can follow Les Sweeney on Twitter (@abmp_les).