Massage Therapy by the Numbers
By Josh Corman

MORE THAN 80 PERCENT (82 percent, to be exact) of respondents to a recent ISPA Snapshot Survey reported that filling massage therapist positions was either more difficult or significantly more difficult than prior to the pandemic. Spa leaders are also finding that nail technician and esthetician positions are increasingly difficult to fill as well, but massage therapists continue to be the proverbial Holy Grail of service providers. A wide range of factors has been cited as the cause of this dearth of qualified massage therapist applicants, from simple burnout to pandemic-related hesitancy to the financial flexibility provided by expanded unemployment benefits. Though each of these may play a role in the current massage therapist shortage, research from the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) suggests that the issue may be slightly more complex.

Understanding the Shortage
Though more than half of consumers (58 percent) get massages in spas or salons, only 20 percent of massage therapists work in those settings.1 More massage therapists practice in their own offices (40 percent), their clients’ homes (38 percent) or their own homes (32 percent) than at spas, even when massage therapy-only franchises (six percent) and hotels/resorts/cruises (four percent) are added to the number who practice their craft in spas. This discrepancy would suggest that part of the issue spa leaders are facing has as much to do with where qualified massage therapists opt to ply their trade as it does with a drop in the number of therapists available.

In fact, despite some reports of massage therapists leaving the profession, AMTA reports that the total number of practicing massage therapists has risen 19 percent over the last decade. It’s possible that the COVID-19 pandemic erased some of those gains, but the talent shortage facing the spa industry pre-dates the pandemic, which also suggests that spas are drawing from a smaller pool of applicants not because there are fewer massage therapists overall, but because there are fewer open to working in spas.

Why, exactly, massage therapists may find work opportunities outside the spa more appealing than those inside of spas is an open question. Is it that working in spas is sometimes viewed within the profession as a less serious application of the craft? Is it that working as a sole practitioner (which is how 72 percent of massage therapists identify themselves) allows them more flexibility? Is it that compensation and benefits packages offered by other kinds of employers are more appealing? The truth is that the answer to each of these questions is probably “yes,” at least to some extent.

Spa leaders, then, face the unenviable task of not only competing with other spas for qualified massage therapists in a tight labor market, but simultaneously having to market the prospect of working in the spa industry at all.

More Pampering
AMTA’s research is not all doom-and-gloom for the spas in search of massage therapists, however. In fact, many of their findings regarding consumers’ massage therapy habits should give spas more opportunities to effectively “sell” the idea of working within the spa industry.

One of those findings is that just 19 percent of consumers listed “pampering” as their primary reason for their last massage, while nearly half (49 percent) said that they received a massage primarily for a reason related to their physical health and wellness. A further 26 percent confirmed that they receive massages primarily for relaxation or stress reduction, both of which are tied closely to mental health. That means that three quarters of consumers cite some aspect of their health and wellness as their number one motivation for getting a massage.

In light of these figures, spa leaders may consider presenting massage therapy positions in a way that highlights the therapeutic impact they can have on guests’ health and well-being. A recent report from Korn Ferry indicates that “more meaningful work” is among the highest priorities for job seekers at the moment, so it may be that some potential applicants will respond more enthusiastically to positions in spas if they see the job as a way to contribute to guests’ overall health rather than simply as a path to providing a luxury service.2 That may be especially true at spas with a strong local guest base, where therapists may have more opportunities to work with the same clients to address specific health concerns through massage.

The AMTA’s findings also included some potential good news for those who may want to encourage existing employees to pursue a second career in massage therapy.3 According to their report, the vast majority of massage therapists (83 percent) come to the profession as a second career, regardless of practice setting. This is true for every kind of massage therapist; at least three quarters of therapists came to practice massage as a second career, whether they are sole practitioners, contractors or full-time or part-time employees.

Odds and Ends
In addition to these big-picture figures, the association’s report contained several other statistical highlights of interest to spa leaders.

- The average massage therapist’s workweek increased to 27.2 hours in 2020. Although many spas grant full-time status (and, often, benefits such as health insurance) to therapists and service providers who work less than 40 hours per week, it’s possible that some therapists may seek hours that are either more consistent or which allow them the stability full-time status may provide.

- Men are now more likely than women to get massages. The AMTA’s research indicates that 22 percent of men and 20 percent of women got a massage in the year preceding the survey. Interestingly, men are also more likely to discuss massage therapy with their doctor or healthcare provider. Men (40 percent) and women (42 percent) were about equally likely to receive a massage in a spa.

- Income played a significant role in who gets a massage, with more than one-third (34 percent) of those making $100,000 or more getting a massage last year, but just 15 percent of those making $50,000 or less doing the same. Just under a quarter of consumers earning between $50,000 and $100,000 got a massage in the year prior to the survey.

- Nine in ten massage therapy clients said they found massage therapists through a referral from another client, while 85 percent found one via the internet or a website and just over two-thirds (68 percent) did so via social media. This data suggest that, in addition to marketing services online, spas may benefit from a customer referral program that offers discounts on services or gift cards to guests in exchange for bringing a first time guest into the spa.