NORMAL - Heartland Community College in Normal is in the preliminary stage of creating a physical therapist assistant program, and potential employers already are excited about the possibilities.
However, the head of an existing program at Illinois Central College in East Peoria worries whether there will be enough clinical experiences and job openings to go around.
A physical therapist assistant works under the direction of a licensed physical therapist, helping people recover from injuries, illnesses or surgeries. Their training includes at least 600 hours of clinical experience.
Teri Saxton, Heartland’s dean of health and human services, said Heartland has had requests for the program since before she arrived 2½ years ago. The need also was cited by people in the health care industry who participated in college “visioning” meetings last spring, she said.
The program will use existing lab space from the nursing program that only uses it twice a week, Saxton said.
Heartland’s goal is to begin offering classes in fall 2014. “We’ve had students already calling,” she said.
The Heartland board approved the new associate’s degree earlier this year, but several more steps remain.
Jane Miller, an adjunct professor at Heartland, is developing the curriculum, course content and goals for the program as part of a 200-page report to be submitted to Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education by Dec. 1.
Miller, formerly a full-time faculty member in the physical therapist assistant program at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, also has started visiting potential clinical sites. She said those visits have been “very positive and upbeat.”
David Hoeper, a physical therapist who is vice president for ancillary services at Bloomington-based Heritage Enterprises, is looking forward to working with Heartland to provide clinical experience for students and jobs for graduates.
“This is a good match for all of us,” he said. “I’ve been advocating for a program since I first came here” in the mid-1990s.
Jeff Schade, owner of Champion Fitness, with 15 locations across Central Illinois, added, “Physical therapist assistants are the core of our business. … They do the rehabilitation work in all of our facilities.”
Schade, who also is a physical therapist and athletics trainer, sees demand continuing to grow, especially as baby boomers age.
Heritage contracts for physical therapist assistant services and hasn’t had a problem meeting its needs, said Hoeper, but he is concerned about meeting future needs.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said in a job outlook report last year, “Employment of physical therapist assistants is expected to increase 46 percent from 2010 to 2020,” compared to an overall increase of 14 percent in all occupations. In 2010, 67,400 people were employed as physical therapist assistants nationwide, according to the report.
Julie Feeny, director of ICC’s Peoria-based physical therapist assistant program, doesn’t doubt there is a nationwide need, but said, “In our area, there’s not as much turnover.”
Over the last three years, 100 percent of ICC’s physical therapist assistant graduates have found work within six months of passing their licensing exam, but the college doesn’t track whether those are full-time or part-time jobs, she said.
“The job market’s going to be really tight. I really worry about flooding the market,” Feeny said.
But Saxton said Heartland’s needs assessment found a vacancy rate of 18 percent.
Hoeper said a large majority of graduates from ICC and Springfield’s Lincoln Land College, which also has a PTA program, tend to stay close to those areas.
Both Hoeper and Schade said having a program at Heartland will be particularly helpful in attracting employees to smaller towns in HCC’s district.
Heartland plans to admit 16 students to the program each fall. ICC receives an average of 75 to 90 applications and admits 24 each year, Feeny said.