Skilled to Work: Physical therapy assistants are in high demand and offer the chance to help people

PTAs made an average salary of more than $57,000 in Alabama in 2017.

Posted: Apr 11, 2019 1:30 PM
Updated: Apr 11, 2019 10:49 PM

Mica Jenkins is no stranger to pain. The mother of two has dealt with chronic back pain for a decade and tried a myriad of solutions.

“I went to a chiropractor, tried different exercises, I even went and had an MRI done on my back because I thought I’m crazy or something’s wrong with me,” said Jenkins.

Physical Therapy Assistant Jay Schug lectures in front of a class at Calhoun Community College on April 4, 2019. In addition to working at Austin Physical Therapy, Schug also guest lectures at both Calhoun and Wallace State Community College. Physical Therapy Assistant Jay Schug lectures in front of a class at Calhoun Community College on April 4, 2019. In addition to working at Austin Physical Therapy, Schug also guest lectures at both Calhoun and Wallace State Community College.

The MRI not only came back clean, but Jenkins noticed her pain was getting worse.

“I was waking up every single day in back pain, like, I bought two, three different mattresses. That's how bad it was,” said Jenkins.

A few weeks ago, a friend at her cross fit gym suggested trying physical therapy. She was stunned by the results.

“My back’s not hurting in the morning at all anymore. And so, it’s really encouraging because it’s only been a few weeks. And so I'm really excited to see how it gets even better,” said Jenkins.

Jay Schug, a licensed physical therapy assistant (PTA) at Austin Physical Therapy in Huntsville, helped construct her treatment.

He’s worked as a PTA since he graduated from Wallace State Community College back in 1998. He was inspired into the field following high school after seeing his father get injured running.

“[H]e had knee surgery and recovered from that through physical therapy. And so that was always kind of in the back of my mind,” Schug said.

Schug added that when he started in the craft, the market was fairly flooded, but it’s starting to level out now.

“The cool thing is you can start in one area, gain some experience and then you can transfer into a different area using your same degree and gain some different experience,” said Schug.

Wallace State has the oldest PTA program in Alabama, which accepted its first class in 1990, and has graduated nearly 1000 students. Of those admitted over the past five years, 82 percent of those students graduate from the program.

Calhoun Community College launched its own program in 2009. Both Calhoun and Wallace boast a 100 percent job placement rate for its graduates.

According to the Alabama Department of Labor, PTAs in north Alabama made an average salary of $57,243 in 2017. The ADOL estimates that there will be about 80 openings per year for PTAs in north Alabama and about 325 across the state for the years 2016-2026.

Beyond helping his patients with things like cross-fit and quality of life, Schug said it’s important to invest in future PTAs on the education side by offering his expertise to help them transition into the professional world.

Schug periodically lectures at both Wallace and Calhoun and serves on Calhoun’s PTA program advisory board.

First year PTA student Christina Lewis said unique learning opportunities like Schug’s guest lecture are invaluable.

“To have someone come in from outside of our bubble, and to teach us things from their perspective, like Jay today is going to be talking to us about a twist on the things that we’re learning, because that’s how he’s learned that it works best in his clinic, with his patients...you can’t put money on it,” said Lewis.

As for the future of the profession, Schug said because of the aging population, the flexibility of work settings and a desire to move away from some pain medications like opioids, there’s a lot of growth potential for PTAs.

“And so, sky’s the limit really, in my opinion, as far as what we can do in this field. Really, we have a lot of opportunity,” said Schug.

Applications for Calhoun’s PTA program are due on Tuesday, April 16 at 3 p.m. Applications for Wallace’s program will be accepted through June 1.

To learn more about the profession, click here.

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