Is Travel Therapy a Good Option for New Grads During COVID-19?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had dozens of new grad and soon-to-be new grad therapists reach out to us asking if now is a good time to start traveling as a new grad. This happens every year during May when the bulk of therapists graduate, but with all the uncertainty currently and full time therapy work being difficult to come by in some locations, there’s been much more interest in travel therapy than normal this year. Unfortunately, when there is uncertainty in healthcare, it is rarely a good thing for the travel therapy market, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

While travel therapy has historically been a good career choice over the last decade for many therapists, including new grad therapists, things have really been shaken up recently. Let’s dive in to why travel therapy has been affected and whether or not it’s a good time for new grads to be trying travel therapy.

Travel Therapy During the Pandemic

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a widespread impact on our world, including US healthcare jobs. “Uncertainty” is the buzz word as we all wait and see what will happen as the situation continues to evolve worldwide.

A big reason why uncertainty impacts the travel therapy job market to such a large degree has to do with the cost of hiring travel therapists incurred by facilities. Travel therapists can be significantly more expensive than full time and PRN staff, so in a situation where caseloads could suddenly decrease, many facilities don’t want to risk spending money on a traveler that they may end up not needing. Instead, they’ll make do with current staff while supplementing with PRN or offering overtime to full time therapists if needed, and wait out the uncertainty.

In the past two months we’ve seen hundreds of travel contracts ended early or cancelled before they even started due to fluctuations in caseloads in all settings. There has been a significant decrease in the number of new travel job openings due to facilities not hiring. With that being said, settings have certainly not all been affected evenly. Outpatient and school contracts have been the hardest hit by contract cancellations and job cuts, with home health, acute care, and SNF jobs impacted to a lesser degree. Even in the lesser impacted settings, COVID has still caused problems. This is primarily due to the fact that elective surgeries have been limited or cancelled altogether for almost two months now. Fewer elective surgeries means fewer patients across the board.

Flooding the Market

Less patients means less demand for therapists and subsequent layoffs across the board, not only in the form of travel therapy job cancellations but also for permanent full time staff. Some of the laid off permanent therapists are unable to find work in their area right now and are turning to travel therapy for some respite during tremulous times. This is bad news for current and prospective new grad travel therapists.

The combination of previously permanent therapists, new grads, and current travelers whose contracts have come to an end or were ended prematurely all looking for travel contracts at the same time, has caused the travel therapy market to get flooded with therapists searching for jobs. This flood of job seekers, combined with a reduction in overall jobs, has led to significant over-saturation of the travel therapy job market.

The impact is evident in the number of open travel contracts available and the declining pay rates offered on those contracts. The recruiters and companies that we work closely with are all reporting about 10 times less travel therapy jobs currently for PTs and OTs when compared to earlier this year before the pandemic. When comparing to the travel market at this time last year, the numbers look even more grim.

The travel jobs that are available are getting many more applicants submitted than normal and are closing very quickly. In some cases jobs will get to the maximum number of applicant submissions in a matter of a couple hours. With facilities getting so many submissions for their available travel contracts, a natural consequence is reductions in the bill rates offered, meaning lower pay for travel therapists. In nominal terms, this manifests as a reduction of about $100-$200/week on average for many of the open jobs.

What Does This Mean for New Grads?

Due to a minimal number of travel therapy jobs open at any given time currently, higher competition for those few jobs, along with lower pay, we can definitely say that now certainly isn’t the best time for new grads to begin travel therapy careers.

If at all possible, our recommendation right now would be for new grads to consider finding a full time or PRN position for a few months to a year to save some money and get some experience until things improve.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to consider travel jobs as an option and be on the lookout for travel job opportunities, but we encourage you to keep your options open and consider all job opportunities available to you, including perm and PRN locally.

Actions to Take for Those Dedicated to Pursuing Travel Therapy as a New Grad Currently

If you’re set on starting out as a new grad travel therapist despite the current environment, there are a few things you can do to have the best chance of finding a contract.

  1. Be willing to accept lower pay now than during normal times.
    • We’re always advocates of being informed and understanding how travel therapy pay works prior to jumping in, in order to avoid inadvertently taking low ball offers from non-reputable companies and recruiters. However, in this situation, you should expect for pay to be lower due to the declining bill rates mentioned above. Unfortunately, even though we normally recommend avoiding any pay rates less than $1,500/wk after taxes, there are some contracts paying travel PTs in the $1,300/week range right now that are still getting tons of submissions.
  2. Work with at least a few different good companies and recruiters.
    • This is more vital than ever right now. Having a few recruiters from different companies helping you search for jobs leads to more options and a better chance of finding a travel contract that will work for you. If you need help finding reputable companies and recruiters, fill out our recruiter request form, and we’ll match you with some that should work well for you.
  3. Be more flexible on travel assignment setting and location.
    • In the past, Whitney and I have been able to find consistent contracts close to each other in the states and settings that we prefer. Currently that just isn’t possible. To have a chance of finding a travel contract in the coming weeks (possibly months) as a new grad, it is important to be lenient on location and setting as much as possible. In the future when the travel therapy market picks up again, you can go back to being more selective with regards to setting and location. And even better, by that time you will have experience under your belt and will be more competitive when applying to the setting and location of your choice.

The Future of Travel Therapy

With states beginning to open back up and elective surgeries beginning to commence again across the country, the need for therapists will undoubtedly pick back up, and with that, we anticipate the travel therapy job market will improve. In addition to patients undergoing elective surgeries, patients that have become deconditioned due to COVID will require skilled therapy to a larger degree than before in SNFs, home health, outpatient, and inpatient rehab facilities. It’s hard to say exactly how long it will be before the travel therapy job market gets back to normal completely, but in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen things starting to trend upward, which is a good sign. Once demand picks back up and travel jobs are more prevalent, increases in travel pay back to normal levels should follow.

We are optimistic that demand will increase in the coming months and travel therapy will once again be a great option for new grads, like it was for us back when we started traveling as PTs after graduation in 2015!

If you have any questions or need help getting started, feel free to contact us. We’ve helped well over 1,000 new and current travel therapists to be better informed over the past few years! Best of luck & stay safe!

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Jared has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015 and travels with his girlfriend and fellow travel PT, Whitney. Together they mentor other current and aspiring travel therapists.

6 Ways to Ensure Success as a New Grad Travel Therapist

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

1. Do your research and maintain realistic expectations.

Travel therapy is amazing… most of the time. As with anything, it can have its pros and cons. While most parts of being a travel therapist are an incredible adventure, there are still parts that aren’t always fun. It’s important that you do your research to understand all the nuances that go into being a travel therapist before jumping in. This goes for anyone looking into travel therapy, but especially new grads. If you plan to take a travel job as your first position after graduation, you need to know what to expect.

We recommend going into travel therapy with an open and adventurous mind. Not every assignment will be perfect; not every city will be your favorite; you won’t always have the easiest time with housing; there’s always a chance your contract could get cancelled; and sometimes you may question your decision to take on the life of a travel therapist. But if you go into this journey of travel therapy knowing this up front and are willing to roll with the punches for the sake of traveling the country, earning more money, and having unforgettable adventures, you will be successful and join the thousands of other healthcare travelers out there living and loving this lifestyle!

2. Connect with great travel therapy companies and recruiters.

If you talk to any travel therapist, they’ll tell you that your recruiter and company can make or break your experience with traveling! This is of utmost importance for new grads, because you will want support and mentorship as you begin to look for your first few travel jobs. You need a recruiter who gets you, your wants, and your needs as a new grad therapist. You want a recruiter who will be in your corner, going to bat for you with your best interest in mind, not just the best interest of the travel company or the client (facility). Many travel therapy companies offer some form of new graduate mentorship program, whether in the form of a mentor by phone or by placing you at “new grad friendly” facilities. These are things you will want to consider when choosing a company.

For more information on how to best choose a travel therapy company and recruiter, check out this article, or send us a message and we can give you personalized company and recruiter recommendations for you based on your situation!

3. Find a great first travel therapy job.

Your first few travel therapy jobs (or in the case of a new grad, first jobs period) will be crucial in your success as both a clinician and as a travel therapist. Sadly, we have heard horror stories of people having one terrible experience with travel therapy that turned them away from traveling again, and pushed them to take a permanent position, even though they had planned to continue traveling. This is unfortunate, and usually the result of them not knowing exactly what they were getting into on their first assignment and/or having a bad recruiter.

For your first job (or first few jobs), we recommend you work closely with your recruiter(s) to find a facility that is going to provide a supportive environment for you as a new grad. This may include having another therapist of your same discipline on staff (another PT, OT, SLP, PTA, or COTA); having more of a ramp up period in your caseload with training provided; and making sure the productivity expectations are reasonable. These are all important things to find out during your phone interview. For specific questions to ask during an interview, check out this article.

As mentioned before, a great recruiter should be able to assist you in this process of identifying supportive facilities. They may even have prior experience with facilities where they have placed new grads before that have been successful. Most importantly, a good recruiter will support your decision to decline an offer if it doesn’t sound like a good fit for you, and they will not push you into taking a job that’s not right for you just to secure a placement for themselves.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and never stop learning.

As a new grad travel therapist, it is important that you are ready to be an independent clinician and not have your “hand held,” but at the same time you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and mentorship when you need it. This could be from your co-workers at your facility; through the clinical liaison provided by the travel company by phone; and even by reaching out to former professors, clinical instructors, and classmates for consultation when you encounter tough clinical situations.

Also don’t forget to utilize a variety of resources (textbooks, CEU courses, websites, blogs, podcasts, Facebook networking groups, etc.) to continue learning once you start practicing on your own. Being a student working under a clinical instructor is very different than being out on your own! There is a huge learning curve when you first get started. You don’t have to know it all when you first start practicing, regardless if you choose to take a travel or a perm job right out of school!

5. Stand up for yourself and your professional license.

New grad or not, you worked very hard to get to the point of being a licensed clinician! Regardless of whether you’re in a travel job or perm job, you need to maintain integrity, be ethical, and follow the law. If you are being asked to practice in an unethical or illegal manner, you must stand up for yourself and practice the way that you feel is best. You are ultimately responsible for your actions and your license. Do not be dragged down by poor management or not-so-great co-workers.

There are many examples of how you could be placed in a bad situation where your ethics and legality are tested. For example, starting at a new clinic where they want you to sign off on documentation for patients that you haven’t seen before, or for visits that occurred before your start date. This can be a common event when you’re filling in as a traveler. It’s important you do not sign off on anything for which you were not present, including co-signing assistant notes. Another example would be feeling pressured to work off the clock to get your documentation done, or add additional time to your evaluation codes to account for documentation time, which is sadly a very common practice in many Skilled Nursing Facilities. These things are illegal, and regardless of what the other staff “has always done,” if it doesn’t feel right to you, it’s probably not! We would encourage you to reach out to an unbiased third party to discuss any potential ethical or legal questions you may have. Again that could mean reaching out to the clinical liaison by phone or to a former professor or clinical instructor.

If you’re facing ethical dilemmas or problems in your facility, don’t be afraid to talk to you director of rehabilitation or your recruiter if appropriate. You can’t always predict how a clinic will be before you start working there, but you can always get out of a bad situation if you are being asked to practice in an illegal or unethical way.

6. Work smarter, not harder.

There are some great ways you can optimize and be an efficient therapist, without always going over and beyond. This can be especially important when you’re starting out as a new grad travel therapist. Often when you start as a new grad, you want to do everything perfectly, including doing all the fancy treatment techniques and being extremely thorough in your documentation. But sometimes for the sake of time management and being successful at a new clinic, you need to go back to the basics.

Don’t overachieve on documentation so you can maintain good time management. Just make sure you document the appropriate amount, but don’t go over and beyond or be too wordy. Time management is going to be a huge key to success as a new grad travel therapist, and you definitely don’t want to be working off the clock to get notes done.

Focus on functional and effective treatments, while emphasizing building a strong patient rapport. Don’t worry too much at first about using every new fad treatment out there. Often times it’s your relationships and demeanor that matter the most to be successful and well-received, by both your patients and your co-workers, not how good you are at the latest manual therapy techniques and the coolest exercises.

Take advantage of co-treatments when applicable in an inpatient setting, to learn from your colleagues from other disciplines and get ideas. This can be extremely helpful as a new grad, especially in a travel therapy position where you’re not only learning how to be an independent practitioner, but you’re also having to learn a new location, staff, caseload, etc!

Last, do no harm! Focus on being the best therapist you can be, while ensuring you put patients’ health and safety first and foremost. It’s better to do a basic treatment, or do nothing at all, than to do something you’re uncertain about and cause harm to a patient.

Conclusion

Traveling as a new grad can be a wonderful experience and a great way to get ahead start on your finances, but it’s vital to go in well-informed and with realistic expectations about what the process will entail. Finding a great company and recruiter is paramount to your success and sanity as a travel therapist. Be picky about your first job to make sure that it’s a good fit for you and will provide you with the best opportunity to succeed. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other therapists both in person and online for help or ideas with regards to patient care, and spend some time continuing your education to be the best possible clinician. Always stand up for your ethics and protect your license. And finally, don’t burn yourself out by working long hours being a perfectionist with documentation and treatment. Of course, include the key components in your notes and provide sound treatment methods, but it’s important to be efficient with your time to have a good experience as a travel therapist.

If you have questions about anything regarding getting started with your travel therapy journey, feel free to contact us. If you need help finding a great recruiter and company to help make your travel therapy career a success, we can help you with that as well.