Occupational therapists are master’s or doctorate level therapists who have passed a national certification exam and received state licensure. They are employed in a range of settings, including schools, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, private practice, and more.

The average national salary of an occupational therapist was just over $86,000 in 2019. This number varies slightly by location and years of experience. Entry-level therapists report earning about $35 per hour, while experienced therapists report earning over $40 per hour.

What Is an Occupational Therapist?

An occupational therapist (OT) is a clinician who has passed a national exam and received state licensure in order to provide individualized treatment to children and adults. OTs work with people of all ages who are impacted by disability, illness, or injury and would like to live more fully and independently.

Through the therapeutic use of interventions or activities, occupational therapy providers help people build skills that they are currently struggling with. The goal of an OT is to help their clients regain or learn essential skills for daily living.

OTs successfully teach their clients new skills by:

  • Conducting individualized evaluations of each client.
  • Working with the individual and their family to set goals.
  • Establishing a customized intervention plan.
  • Consulting with educators and other therapists the client may be working with.
  • Giving the client activities to work on outside of therapy.
  • Conducting regularly evaluations to make sure the goals are being met.
  • Updating the treatment plan if interventions are not effective or if goals have been met, including creating new goals if needed.

An OT helps clients improve their cognitive, physical, social, and motor skills . By evaluating how clients learn, play, care for themselves, and interact with their environment, an occupational therapist can identify where the client is struggling and how to help them overcome those challenges. A range of fun and engaging activities is used to help the client enhance their skills.

Where Does an Occupational Therapist Work?

Occupational therapy providers work in a variety of settings. OT jobs are available in large companies, school districts, and private practices, among other settings.

Knowing your workplace options can help you decide what kind of OT work you want to pursue. The population you work with is greatly impacted by the setting.

These are the most common OT work settings , in order of most common to least common:

  • Hospital
  • Long-term/skilled nursing facility
  • Schools
  • Freestanding outpatient clinics
  • Home health
  • Academia
  • Early intervention
  • Mental health
  • Community
  • Other

The “other” category is for an evolving and expanding group of occupational therapists who choose to work as independent consultants, work from home writing or blogging, develop independent OT programs, or work for telehealth companies. Once you are a certified OT, you can choose from a variety of work settings to fit your personal and professional needs.

Occupational Therapist Requirements

No matter which setting you want to work in as an OT, there are basic requirements that must be met before you can work as an occupational therapist. These requirements prepare individuals to work successfully as occupational therapy providers, explains the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

To become a certified occupational therapist , you must:

  • Complete a master’s or doctoral level education program that is qualified by the Accredited Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).
  • Complete a 24-week mentored practice experience or internship.
  • Pass the national certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification on Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).
  • Apply for state licensure.

Whether you want to be an OT who is a practitioner, academic, manager, advocate, consultant, or researcher, you must meet the above requirements in order to fully demonstrate your competency and ability to work in each role.

OT Salaries by State

As of 2019, the average pay for occupational therapists in the U.S. was $86,210 per year, or $41.45 per hour. There are well-paying opportunities across the country for occupational therapists, though average salaries vary somewhat by state.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are the top-paying states for occupational therapists , based on May 2019 data:

  • Nevada: $105,450 per year; $50.70 per hour
  • California: $98,450 per year; $47.33 per hour
  • New Jersey: $96,820 per year; $46.55 per hour
  • Arizona: $95,180 per year; $45.76 per hour
  • District of Colombia: $94,430 per year; $45.40 per hour

In 2020, these were the median average OT salaries for all states:

  • Alaska: $99,197
  • Alabama: $82,915
  • Arkansas: $81,611
  • Arizona: $87,487
  • California: $98,843
  • Colorado: $88,225
  • Connecticut: $95,746
  • District of Colombia: $98,427
  • Delaware: $92,915
  • Florida: $84,066
  • Georgia: $85,614
  • Hawaii: $92,844
  • Iowa: $84,685
  • Idaho: $83,519
  • Illinois: $90,879
  • Indiana: $86,455
  • Kansas: $83,977
  • Kentucky: $83,269
  • Louisiana: $84,773
  • Massachusetts: $96,277
  • Maryland: $91,238
  • Maine: $85,304
  • Michigan: $88,561
  • Minnesota: $90,525
  • Missouri: $84,331
  • Mississippi: $76,986 
  • Montana: $80,216
  • North Carolina: $84,419
  • North Dakota: $83,092
  • Nebraska: $81,145
  • Nebraska: $81,145 
  • New Hampshire: $89,817
  • New Jersey: $97,835
  • New Mexico: $80,880
  • Nevada: $90,702
  • New York: $94,950
  • Ohio: $86,402
  • Oklahoma: $83,181 
  • Oregon: $88,136
  • Pennsylvania: $88,313
  • Rhode Island: $93,268
  • South Carolina: $82,827
  • South Dakota: $75,747
  • Tennessee: $80,393
  • Texas: $86,895
  • Utah: $83,838
  • Virginia: $87,959
  • Vermont: $85,216
  • Washington: $94,507
  • Wisconsin: $87,163
  • West Virginia: $78,402
  • Wyoming: $78,756

How to Earn More as an Occupational Therapy Provider

If you want to earn more as an occupational therapist, consider your place of employment. Certain settings are likely to pay more than others. According to 2018 data presented by U.S. News & World Report, factors such as specialty, industry, and employer can impact your salary as an OT.

These are the top-paying places for employment, with their average salaries for OTs:

  • Companies and enterprises: $94,170
  • Child daycare facilities: $93,720
  • Consulting services: $93,370
  • Retirement communities and assisted-living facilities: $91,150
  • Nursing care facilities: $90,150

Early intervention programs and public school settings tend to pay less than the above settings for OTs. Some people do not mind the lower pay in certain settings, as the tradeoff for working with children in educational settings can be highly rewarding. Some settings may also offer better benefits that offset the lower salary.

Most occupational therapists work on a full-time basis. If you are able to accommodate your clients’ schedules by working some nights and weekends, you create more earning potential for yourself.

In general, you can also expect your occupational therapy salary to increase with more years of experience . Average hourly wages for occupational therapy providers vary with years of experience as follows:

  • Less than 1 year: $33.84 per hour
  • 1 to 4 years: $35.36 per hour
  • 5 to 9 years: $38.63 per hour
  • 10 to 19 years: $41.29 per hour
  • More than 20 years: $43.38 per hour

Job Outlook for OTs

The 2018 to 2028 job outlook for occupational therapists is strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), occupational therapy jobs are expected to grow by 18%. This is much faster than the national average, which is a 5% job growth.

As an important mode of treatment for people of all ages with a wide range of needs, occupational therapists will remain in high demand. Particularly as the baby boomer generation ages and requires interventions to help them remain active and independent later in life, occupational therapy providers will be in demand across the country. For the elderly population, OTs help them to manage daily life tasks, such as eating, dressing, and bathing. 

In addition, as the rate of autism in the country continues to rise, so will the need for autism-related occupational therapy services. An increasing number of OTs will be needed in schools, nonprofits, and health care settings to meet this group’s unique set of therapy needs.