Physical therapist working with patient

How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Physical therapist working with patient

Millions of people around the world deal with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities that have an impact on their ability to function at work as well as everyday life. Fortunately, there’s an entire career field dedicated to helping people maintain or regain the skills, strength, and abilities they need to accomplish their daily tasks and live independent and fulfilling lives. If you love the idea of a meaningful job that gives you a chance to (sometimes literally) help people get back on their feet, becoming an occupational therapy assistant could be the ideal healthcare career for you!

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming an occupational therapy assistant, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career.

Not sure if becoming an OTA is right for you? Click here to see the rest of the careers featured on our full list of the best entry-level medical jobs.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Definition

What is an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

Occupational therapy is all about helping people develop and maintain the skills, strength, and abilities needed for daily tasks—whether they’re recovering from injury or dealing with more chronic medical conditions. As an occupational therapy assistant (also known as an OTA), you’ll work directly with patients to guide them through treatment routines that can significantly improve their independence and quality of life.

Occupational Therapy Assistant: Job Description

What Does an Occupational Therapy Assistant Do?

Under the supervision of an occupational therapist, OTAs help patients perform therapeutic activities and help people perform meaningful tasks that occupy their time.  Occupational therapy assistants work with people of all ages from newborns to geriatrics.  OTA’s help educate patients and their families about using specialized medical devices that make accomplishing daily tasks easier. OTAs frequently serve as an essential source of moral and emotional support for patients during what can often be a long, slow recovery process.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of occupational therapy assistants include:

  • Assisting patients with therapeutic activities and daily life skills
  • Leading children with autism or other developmental disabilities through activities designed to improve coordination, socialization, and independence
  • Working with those who have been injured to restore function
  • Teaching compensatory strategies, or new ways of completing tasks
  • Adapting or changing the tasks, equipment, or environments so that the person can be successful
  • Monitoring and recording patients’ progress and reporting them to a supervising occupational therapist
  • Providing encouragement and support to patients who may be struggling
  • Teaching patients and their caregivers how to use medical equipment and devices

Occupational Therapy Assistant Skills

To thrive as an occupational therapy assistant, you’ll need to be a compassionate person with excellent interpersonal skills. Many of the people under your care may struggle to complete simple day-to-day tasks, which can cause them to feel frustrated and isolated. Adaptability and solid problem-solving skills are also crucial for an OTA, as every patient is different and you may need to try several different therapeutic solutions to help them accomplish their goals.

Sweet little boy during physical therapy following female therapist exercising his arms

Where Do Occupational Therapy Assistants Work?

OTAs work in all settings including schools, outpatient clinics, hospitals, home health, skilled nursing, mental health, dementia care, private practice, travel therapy, and community settings.  You may also find occupational therapy assistants working in “nontraditional” settings such as hippotherapy, home modifications, prisons, or hospice care.  One of the great things about being an OTA is you can have one degree that allows you the freedom to work anywhere in the nation in almost any setting that you can imagine.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

To become an occupational therapy assistant, you’ll need to earn your associate degree from an accredited college or university. Brookline’s OTA program gives you the necessary knowledge and skills to care for a wide variety of patients safely and effectively. While many associate degree programs for occupational therapy assistants take a full two years to complete, our accelerated degree programs make it possible to complete your OTA program in as little as 96 weeks, even while working full time.  This is accomplished by having a hybrid program where you learn some information at your own pace online, and only have to be on campus five Friday’s per semester.

Like any long-term goal, working toward a new career as an occupational therapy assistant seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become an occupational therapy assistant:

1. Enroll in an Occupational Therapy Assistant Program

The first step to becoming an OTA is enrolling in an occupational therapy assistant program from an accredited college or university. It’s a career that’s open to people from all walks of life, as long as you’re willing to put in the necessary time and effort to earn your OTA associate degree. For example, to qualify for the Occupational Therapy Assistant program at Brookline College, all you’ll need is a high school diploma or GED, plus a passing score on the TEAS A2 admission test. Most OTA programs will also require an entrance interview of some kind to make sure your goals and personality are a good match for a career in occupational therapy.

2. Earn Your Occupational Therapy Assistant Associate Degree

Similar to just about any healthcare-related associate degree program, your OTA degree program will include a few general-study courses in subjects like English, psychology, and communications. These classes will help you polish your critical-thinking skills and become a more well-rounded professional. Of course, you’ll also spend plenty of time studying anatomy and physiology to learn more about the human body and how its systems function and interact with one another.

As you move into your career-specific studies for occupational therapy assistants, you’ll gain more advanced knowledge of how the human body moves, heals and develops. You’ll learn to work with different patient groups, from pediatric to geriatric. You’ll also learn about healthcare-industry management and professional best practices, as well as taking courses designed to better your evidence-based decision-making and overall clinical reasoning.

Occupational therapy assistant programs are somewhat unique in that they involve lots of hands-on fieldwork throughout your OTA degree program. Many of your OTA classes will have a concurrent fieldwork component where you’ll be able to get real-world experience with real patients. The final courses in your occupational therapy assistant degree program involve more extensive clinical work with a greater degree of independence, just like you can expect from your first job as an OTA.

Wherever you choose to earn your occupational therapy assistant degree, you’d be wise to consider colleges or universities that offer students extra services like job-placement assistance upon completion of their OTA degree program. Students with access to job-placement programs sometimes have interviews lined up before they’ve even graduated!

3. Become a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant

Becoming a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy will allow you to work just about anywhere in the United States, as it’s considered the gold-standard certification for OTAs. The NBCOT exam contains 200 multiple-choice questions over a maximum of four hours testing time, though you should expect to be at the testing center for a little over five hours to account for necessary administrative steps before and after the exam.

How Much Does it Cost to Earn an Occupational Therapy Assistant Degree?

The rising cost of a college education has made it increasingly difficult for many people to get their degree the traditional way. Many bigger colleges and universities charge more than $20,000 per semester just in tuition, which often doesn’t even include essentials like lab fees, books, and other course materials. Fortunately, the emergence of online education has made getting a college degree much more accessible for countless people throughout the country, since online colleges don’t have the same operating costs and can pass those savings along to students. For example, the Occupational Therapy Assistant program at Brookline College not only costs less per credit hour than many traditional four-year schools, the cost you’re quoted always includes books and any other course materials you’ll need. Even better, over 80% of Brookline students qualify for some sort of financial aid! Nobody likes surprises when a bigger-than-expected bill shows up—so wherever you choose to earn your OTA degree, make sure it’s with a school that’s fully transparent about what you can expect to pay for your education.

Occupational therapist assists child

Occupational Therapy Assistant Salary

How Much Do Occupational Therapy Assistants Make?

According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary* among all occupational therapy assistants is nearly $63,000, which works out to about $30 per hour. Top earners among OTAs can bring home even more—occupational therapy assistants in the top 25% of salaries earn nearly $75,000 a year, while salaries in the top 10% can reach $84,000 or higher.

Highest Paying Industries for Occupational Therapy Assistants

According to the BLS, you’ll find the top-paying jobs for occupational therapy assistants in these industries:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Home Healthcare Services $33.18 $69,020
Retirement Communities & Assisted Living Facilities $32.91 $68,440
Nursing Care Facilities $32.36 $67,300
Private Physician’s Offices $31.61 $65,750
Company Management $31.31 $65,120

Highest Paying States for Occupational Therapy Assistants

The latest BLS data shows occupational therapy assistants in these states earn the highest average wages:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Annual Salary
California $35.55 $73,930
Nevada $35.54 $73,930
New Jersey $34.46 $71,680
Texas $33.37 $69,420
Connecticut $33.07 $68,780

Highest Paying Cities for Occupational Therapy Assistants

According to the BLS, occupational therapy assistants earn the highest average annual pay in these cities:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Annual Salary
Sacramento, CA $42.97 $89,380
McAllen, TX $41.76 $86,850
Visalia, CA $40.56 $84,370
Santa Rosa, CA $40.12 $83,440
Salinas, CA $39.96 $83,110
Reno, NV $38.09 $79,220
Houston, TX $37.87 $78,780
Ventura, CA $37.83 $78,690
San Francisco, CA $36.86 $76,660
Bakersfield, CA $36.77 $76,490

Occupational Therapy Assistant Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Occupational Therapy Assistants?

If you’re looking for a healthcare career with outstanding long-term stability, it’s tough to do much better than a career as an OTA. The BLS estimates overall employment of occupational therapy assistants to grow an impressive 36% by 2029. (To put that in perspective, the average growth rate for all jobs across all industries is just 4% in the same time period.)

Senior man with physical therapists using stability ball

Ready to Start Your Career as an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

If you’re looking for a career that offers the chance to transform people’s lives for the better, becoming an occupational therapy assistant is one of the most fulfilling jobs you’ll find anywhere in the medical industry. The fact that it’s one of the top-paying healthcare jobs you can get without completing a four-year degree is also a major reason to consider becoming an OTA! It’s a fantastic way for caring souls to channel their desire to help others into a stable, successful, and rewarding career.

Click here to learn more about the  Occupational Therapy Assistant program at Brookline College, and get started on the road to your new career as a certified occupational therapy assistant today!