Why Is It So Hard To Find an OT Job As a New Grad?
When you’re in the process of becoming an occupational therapist, you will probably hear a lot about how in demand OTs are. Based on the numbers, OTs are in demand, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states job growth is expected to increase 17% from 2020 through 2030, which they note to be “much faster than the average for all occupations.”
Occupational therapists are versatile and can work in so many different settings, and the jobs are out there (even throughout the pandemic).
However, if you’re a new occupational therapy grad, you may have found that finding an OT job is harder than you thought.
OTs are usually in high demand depending on the city’s job market. But as a new grad, you might be wondering, “Why is it so hard for me to find a job, even after I passed the NBCOT and have my license?”
The reason it’s so hard initially is because some employers are hesitant to hire new grads and want OTs with experience.
When I was first applying for these jobs, I found myself and my classmates asking the same question…
“How on earth are we going to get experience when no one will hire us?!”
It is truly a frustrating conundrum to find yourself in when you’re just out of school and ready to start working. The thoughts of, “Nobody will hire me because I don’t have experience and I can’t get experience because no one will hire me… because I don’t have experience…because…” start creeping in.
It’s not fun, I know.
The good news is that with some persistence and patience, you will eventually get hired. If you aren’t one of the lucky ones to get hired at your Level II placement, internet job boards will become your best friend.
Job Boards Breakdown
I spent a lot of time on job boards, and I eventually found my dream job in inpatient rehab at a local community hospital. I would dedicate an hour every evening applying to any OT jobs that I wanted experience in, within a 45 mile radius of my town, checking every day for new job postings. It took me about five weeks of doing this before I finally got my first interview for the job I wanted.
I found Indeed.com to be a great resource for finding the most current and active job listings. Indeed pulls in listings from almost every other job board out there, and you can (and should) sign up for daily job alerts so you can apply as soon as they’re listed.
Another online job board you can try is Zip Recruiter. You can also try finding positions on LinkedIn, just make sure your profile looks polished and professional before you reach out to companies or managers.
Note: Not all therapy companies use online platforms, so if you know the places you’re interested in, check their own websites for job postings. You can also reach out to them directly to see if they have any positions that aren’t yet posted.
Be Prepared for Calls From Staffing Companies
After adding your resume onto Indeed or another site, you may notice that you’ll suddenly get an onslaught of recruiters calling you for mostly travel jobs. The jobs could also possibly be for contracts in your city.
These are often staffing companies who get paid for each successful placement. They may try to offer you positions that are not in line with what you are really looking for.
For example, as soon as my contact information got out there I received random phone calls for full-time positions all over the U.S. Even in Kansas, and I lived in Atlanta! That’s great if you can afford to pack up and leave your city, but this isn’t common for most new grads. (Unless you want to explore travel therapy as a new grad, which is a fun way to gain experience in multiple settings in new places).
If/when you get contacted by a cold-calling recruiter, make sure to do your homework before signing onto the company; read as many reviews of the company as you can and be sure to thoroughly interview them as well.
No matter the job, be very careful if you get offered a huge sign-on bonus or loan reimbursement. It is a safer bet to apply for jobs at reputable hospitals vs. taking the first SNF (skilled nursing facility) position you can get, since hospitals will generally have less ethical dilemmas and better productivity standards.
The worst situation to find yourself in as a new grad is one where there is a complete lack of mentorship, unrealistically high productivity targets and huge caseloads.
Landing an Interview
When you finally land your first few interviews, you’re definitely going to want to prepare for them. All those nights of applying will have added up and you want to ensure you ace the interview so you don’t have to keep playing the waiting/application game.
What I had to keep telling myself is that if they’re taking the time to interview me, they’re interested in hiring me. Telling yourself this can help take the pressure off a bit.
If you’re offered the job, keep in mind the last thing you want to do is take any random OT job for the sake of getting a job right away.
If you know it’s not a setting that you want to work in, it’s too far away, you’re really not excited about it, or it just doesn’t feel right, you DO NOT have to take the job if they offer it to you.
It’s your decision and your future career!
The biggest thing to do is just to be confident and know that if the interview doesn’t work out, you’ll always have another chance somewhere else. This is easy compared to OT school!
Read The Complete Guide to Your First OT Job Interview for more advice on how to handle OT job interviews successfully.
I know that putting in such a huge amount of time applying to jobs and playing the waiting game doesn’t sound great, especially after all of the time you spent in OT school and studying for the boards. You’re ready to get out there and it’s hard when it can take over a month (or several months) to land your your first job.
Look on the bright side – you finished grad school and passed the boards! The hardest part is over.
Take some time for yourself to decompress a bit after the rigors of OT school and studying for the boards. Don’t feel like you have to rush into a new job a week after you pass the boards; you have the whole rest of your working life to be an OT.
Take the time to get your ideal job, and know that many other OT grads are also having the same challenge as you.
Just keep at it, and know that once you have a few years of experience, the process of getting a different job will be much easier.
One last word of advice: Once you’re offered a position, it is important to make absolutely sure there will be other occupational therapists at your setting that can mentor you.
As a new occupational therapist, there is SO much more to learn your first few years, and you do not want to be out there on your own as the only OT (I learned this from experience!)
Still Feeling Frustrated?
I know that the job search has gotten even harder since 2020, so if it’s been many months of applying to countless OT positions and you still haven’t gotten a job, here are a couple of other options to try.
Start Out as a PRN Therapist
While it’s not optimal to not have benefits or regularly scheduled hours, I’m noticing that today in 2022 and over the last several years, many rehab positions are hiring more PRN therapists than full-time therapists.
At my last acute care position, almost all new OT hires were hired on as PRN. This can feel like a frustrating situation, but now is becoming the way to get your foot in the door to become a full-time OT. Many of the new grads at my job were able to transition to full-time when a position opened up, before the job became available to outside applicants.
You may have to work two PRN jobs to get enough hours, but after being a PRN OT myself for the last six years, the variety and flexibility (plus higher hourly pay) isn’t a bad deal! I’ve written a whole post about the pros and cons of being a PRN OT here.
This one is not easy for most people, especially if you have family or a relationship that can’t come with you. If you do have the flexibility, though, there are cities and states that have quite a few more opportunities than saturated cities. A saturated city (meaning there is a much higher supply of OTs than demand) is usually a city that has multiple OT schools or is a very popular place to live.
Along with looking into cities that don’t have as many OT schools, you can also check out this comprehensive Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics page from BLS to see if there is an area with high OT employment that you would be interested in living in.
Stay Active in OT-Related Social Media Groups
Jobs are posted frequently in various OT social media groups, so be sure to join as many of these active groups as you can to keep an eye out for postings there. You can also get a lot of insight from other OT practitioners in these groups about whether their city has a solid amount of jobs or if it is saturated.
I hope this post helps you on your way to landing your first OT job and eases some anxieties. Just be patient and know that it will happen!
If you’re in this position now, what is the most frustrating part of the job hunt for you? Do you have any other tips for new grads that are looking for their first job?
This post was originally published on January 17, 2016 and updated on April 3, 2019 and February 1, 2022.