Before many South Floridians even arrived at work, Susan March had helped one patient regain use of his back, another to restore his rotator cuff and a third to recover from knee surgery.
The clock had yet to strike 9 a.m.
"I've been running since 7:30, " said March, a physical therapist at Broward Health Weston.
Therapists like March help people learn how to recover the use of injured parts of their bodies. They treat people of all ages, from kids to athletes to aging baby boomers.
And it's one of the fastest-growing and most difficult-to-fill jobs in Florida, even with the ailing economy. According to the state Agency for Workforce Innovation, employers will need about 480 new physical therapists per year in Florida for the next several years.
Competition for good workers is so fierce that employers are offering signing bonuses and other incentives to fill jobs. They are also employing physical therapist assistants, who require far less education, to help the full-fledged therapists in their work.
Robin Varon hires physical therapists at Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. She said she has posted openings for physical therapists but has received little response.
Part of the reason is a recent change in the education requirements for physical therapists, which is keeping them in school longer.
In 2002, the American Physical Therapy Association began encouraging physical therapy students to receive either a master's or a doctoral degree in physical therapy. Prior to that, a bachelor's was enough.
Those currently going to school for physical therapy are staying in school longer than their predecessors. "I think we are suffering a lull due to the transition, " Varon said. "There's a little lag."
Physical therapy programs throughout the nation began transitioning from master's to doctorate programs in the last six years.
"There is absolutely not a fast track into the career, " said Helen Cornely, chairwoman of Florida International University's physical therapy program.
After receiving a doctorate or master's, a physical therapist must pass an exam to receive a license to practice, Cornely said.
Cornely said she has been able to place every one of her students in a job for the past five years. "There's such diversity in how we can practice that it's very attractive, " Cornely said. "You're never going to be bored as a physical therapist."
March hasn't been bored in her 30 years of practice. The 52-year-old has worked with children at a school, treated severely injured patients in a hospital and now she spends most of her time working with young athletes and patients recovering from surgery.
She said being a physical therapist requires a certain amount of physical fitness. When working with severely injured patients, you often physically lift them, she said.
March also said that the job requires a very social person.
"You have to have the right attitude not to burn out, " March said. "The people we see are usually in pain. They are not the happiest campers in the world."
The drawbacks for March are dealing with Medicaid and Medicare that sometimes limit or require patients to co-pay in order to see the therapist.
"It's tough to see a patient you know needs therapy but can't get the insurance to work, " she said.
March evaluates patients and creates a routine of stretches and exercises to help their injuries. Physical therapist assistants help March carry out the routines she creates for her patients.
Becoming a physical therapist assistant requires an associate's degree, said Kenneth Lee, a professor at Miami Dade College's physical therapy assistant program.
Physical therapist assistants are only allowed to do the physical exercises with the patient. They cannot perform evaluations.
Lee has seen his student applicant pool grow from 75 students in 2005 to 200 this year. "The minute they get their license in their hands, " Lee said, "they're already hired."
- Education Needed: Bachelor's degree in any subject as long as you've taken the core sciences. A master's or doctorate in physical therapy from an accredited institution. The program will take two to three years.
- Education Needed: Associate's degree in physical therapy assisting. Students participate in both classroom learning and on-the-job training.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
To help unemployed and underemployed South Floridians, The Miami Herald has identified nine occupations we're calling "Hot Jobs." These are trades in which the government expects long-term employment growth, and wages are no less than $11 an hour. Most, but not all, of the jobs can be had with a year of study or less at a public or private technical school. And most offer opportunities for growth into higher-skill jobs.