AN OCCUPATION to Count On
Words By DORIS CORTES-DELGADO / PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW HANENBERG
he flip side of high unemployment in the U.S. is that many skilled positions remain unfilled — and that's not just in highly technical jobs requiring years of post-high school education or in geographical locales way off the beaten track. Several health care fields have thousands of openings in all parts of the country — and not many takers. And, interestingly, some are in careers that few job seekers consider because they just don't know much about them.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational therapy is one of these fast-growing fields, with the demand for occupational therapists projected to increase 26 percent and occupational therapy assistants 30 percent from 2008 to 2018.
But currently, established training programs can not turn out enough graduates to fill the open slots, so the jobs are there, but the trained employees to fill them are not. UMDNJ's School of Health Related Professions (SHRP), which already has 36 programs and grants degrees in collaboration with 31 colleges and universities in New Jersey, has a successful history of meeting unmet needs in the education of health care professionals. In September, it will launch the only Associate of Science Degree in Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) in New Jersey with the support of a $500,000 grant from Genesis Rehab. The grant will be used for start-up costs and student scholarships.
On May 8, the program passed a milestone and was granted Developing Program Status by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (AOTE); and the State of New Jersey has approved the program, according to Catherine Colucci, MA, OTR, the program's director. Those approvals "will allow us to admit our first class for fall 2012," she explains.
The program is currently going through the required four-step accreditation process. "The first two steps have been completed and we are on to step three — preparing a self study, which we will submit by December 1 of this year. In the fall of 2013, reviewers will come on site to do a full review," Colucci states. The new program will likely achieve full accreditation before the first class graduates in January 2014.
Students earn a total of 74 credits — 32 in "general education" given through partnering community colleges. The other 42 credits of professional course work are taken at the University's Scotch Plains campus and at clinical locations. Currently, there are four approved partners: County College of Morris, Mercer County Community College, Passaic County Community College and Salem Community College. Others in the process of developing partnerships are: Raritan Valley Community College, Camden County College, Cumberland County College and Hudson County Community College. There will be more partnerships in the future.
Occupational therapy treats individuals with injuries, illnesses and disabilities through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. Occupational therapists and assistants help these clients to develop, recover and improve skills needed for daily life. While many in this profession work with older adults in long-term care and assisted living facilities, others work in rehabilitation with adults of all ages. There are also opportunities to work with children with developmental disabilities in the public and specialty schools and in the community, with military personnel returning from duty, and persons with mental illness transitioning from the hospital to the community.
In September, UMDNJ will launch the only Associate of Science Degree
in Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) in New Jersey.
Students applying to UMDNJ's OTA program must first complete their general education prerequisites, which include courses in English composition, social sciences, general psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, science and math, anatomy and physiology I and II, both with lab, college-level algebra or statistics, humanities, ethics and diversity studies.
Before applying to the UMDNJ program, students should have completed 16 credits of prerequisites with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, including at least one of the anatomy and physiology courses and a developmental psychology course. Applicants also need to spend a minimum of 40 hours observing an occupational therapist or OTA in two different settings.
"We want to make sure the students really know what an OTA does and that this is the profession they want to pursue," says Colucci. "The applicant should also enjoy people and want to work closely with them. The crux of being an occupational therapy assistant is taking a hands-on approach. And the OTA must have great oral and written communication skills, too."
Fifteen students will be accepted into the first class beginning this fall and they can choose either the full-time (completed in about 15 months) or part-time (completed in about 24 months) option. "We anticipate accepting about 25 percent of the students for the part time option, which will start in January," says the program director. "We will begin smaller, and eventually the program will admit 20 per year."
Full time students will take 12 credits per semester and, if they successfully complete all requirements, will graduate in January 2014. Part time students will take six to nine credits per semester and graduate one year later in January 2015.
Each semester includes classroom learning as well as field work. The final 16 weeks of the program are spent at two different clinical sites, one with adults and one with children or adolescents. Genesis Rehab, with more than 20 sub-acute facilities in New Jersey, will provide some of the sites for fieldwork education.
"We want every student to have the experience of working with individuals across the lifespan in different areas of practice," explains Colucci. "In all our work, we look at the physical, mental, emotional, psychosocial and family factors. We are not just looking at someone who had a stroke."
She states that helping students to make the transition from school to being professionals is an emphasis of the program. "OTAs are truly professionals in their own right," she says.
Graduates can sit for the certification exam administered by the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy; and once certified, can get licensure to practice as a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA) in New Jersey and many other states.
To maintain National Board certification, COTAs are required to demonstrate proof of continuing education. "Additional education is very important in this field, as it is in many health care fields. Students are not going to learn everything here," she says.
Working directly under an occupational therapist, occupational therapy assistants develop and update intervention plans, contribute to the evaluation process, gather information about clients and carry out treatment plans. Some go on to become occupational therapists.
"Being an occupational therapy assistant is a rewarding career," concludes Colucci. "They are so needed out there in the workforce."
To learn more about the Associate of Science Degree in Occupational Therapy Assistant program, please contact Catherine Colucci, program director, at (908) 889-2474 or email@example.com or call Karen Kowalski, academic fieldwork coordinator at (908) 889-2525.