Sounding Off Careers In Speech-language Pathology Are Creating A Buzz In The Health Care World

Kathryn James, Ph.D, director of the Communication Sciences and Disorders department at Elms College, said she recently saw one of her most dynamic classes graduate from the program.What’s more gratifying, though, is that those students are entering a job market that is ready and willing to take them on.

Some of the class of ’05 will go on to graduate school, studying to be certified speech-language pathologists. Others will enter the job market immediately, serving as speech-language pathology assistants (SLPAs). And some of those students will work for a year or two and then return to school to pursue that advanced degree.

Regardless of their professional decision, though, their field of choice represents a health care profession in great need of qualified professionals, and that’s creating a wide-open market for graduates – a reality often overshadowed by more-visible health care shortages, including those in the nursing field.

“There is a huge shortage of people working in speech-language pathology today,” James said, adding that she suspects the reasons why can be attributed in part to improved health care and technology – more infants, for instance, are surviving life-threatening complications or disorders than ever before, and the elderly are also living longer. James confirmed that the field of speech-language pathology is not a large one; about 140 openings in the field are expected annually in Massachusetts between now and 2008 (the figures represent the last few years of a 10-year study that began in 1998), and 5,600 across the country. But while speech pathology is a small field, James said it is one of the fastest growing in the nation.

“The vast majority of people in need of speech and language assistance are on those two ends of the spectrum – children and the geriatric population,” she said. “Plus, with the Baby Boomers only getting older, I don’t foresee any big change in that shortage.”

The Word on the Street…

Speech-language pathologists and SLPAs are also required in a variety of settings, she explained, including hospitals and other facilities, schools, or through a private practice. Within those settings, speech-language professionals may work in diagnostic or rehabilitative capacities, working in a hospital, for instance on an in-patient basis with patients suffering the effects of a stroke, or on an out-patient basis, providing follow-up therapy.

The nature of the field allows SLPAs and speech language pathologists to explore diverse career opportunities within those settings, a reality that James hopes more people will become aware of as vacancies within schools and hospitals in need of speech-language professionals increase.

“Many schools are clamoring for SLPAs and speech language pathologists right now,” she said, adding that public schools represent the largest area in which speech-language professionals will be employed. “And bilingual pathologists, especially locally, can practically write their own tickets, especially those who speak Spanish, Polish, and Russian.”

She noted that most people studying to become speech pathologists or SLPAs will not concentrate on any one area or job within the profession at first, because the opportunities are so vast. Instead, many students will explore a variety of options during their course of study, through both theory-based learning and clinical practicums, in order to find the best fit for them.

The good health of the profession extends across the country, but, as the need for bilingual speech-language professionals suggests, there are many opportunities locally, in the field and in the classroom. In addition to Elms College, Springfield College and UMass Amherst also have communication sciences and disorders programs, the broader field under which speech-language pathology falls.

“The course of study in speech-language pathology is generally pretty uniform,” she said, “but the jobs are very diverse. People find that they can tailor the skills they learn to professional interests very easily, even if they’re different from what they originally thought they would be, or if they change during the course of their career.”

James explained that in order to become a certified speech pathologist, a master’s degree is required, and SLPAs must earn at least an associate’s degree, although many educators in the field, including those at Elms, agree that a four-year degree better prepares students for jobs (Elms College requires that SLPA students complete a four-year program).

In most cases, students can study for either a degree in SLPA specifically, or in communication sciences and disorders, which prepares students for graduate school and certification and licensure in speech language pathology. Certified speech-language pathologists, James said, generally enter the field at salaries in the high 40s.

James explained further that continued education is also required within the field, and often, as speech-language professionals continue to hone their skills, their interests change or become more focused on specific populations or disorders. That keeps the field pliable, she said, but also helps to push it forward as speech-language professionals continue to study various disorders, call further attention to them, and research the best ways to address them.

“You’re exposed to a lot of different age groups and disorders,” she said, listing a few specialties speech language pathologists or SLPAs are gravitating toward currently, including:

  • dysphagia (swallowing disorders);
  • stuttering or fluency disorders;
  • voice disorders, including those patients who have had their larynx removed;
  • articulation disorders, especially among children with difficulty pronouncing sounds or words;
  • language-based learning disabilities;
  • disorders brought about by stroke or another neurogenic disorder, and
  • the deaf population.

Hear No Evil

“In short, there’s a lot of flexibility,” said James. “It’s a wide-open field.”

And it’s one that is still enjoying small class sizes at most colleges, though those are growing. That allows for comprehensive coursework in most cases, said James, which exposes students to a wide-range of subjects and disciplines within speech-language pathology, including human behavior, speech development, linguistics, phonetics, diagnostic procedures, and even performing arts.

“When students leave the program, they are prepared,” she said, adding that the eight students who recently graduated from Elms were also ready for a market that was prepared for them.

“They have tremendous opportunities right now,” she said, “and that’s the best part.”