[Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.]

[Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.]

I recently attended a COMTA pre-session at the 2015 Educational Congress for massage therapy educators. It was titled “Is ‘Massage Franchise’ a Dirty Word? – Addressing a Gap.” The gap they were referring to is the growing number of massage therapy employment opportunities in franchise establishments, while training program enrollment continues to drop.

[You can watch the entirety of the session by visiting https://youtu.be/rosT4pNd8Xg.]

As I sat listening to the franchise system representatives discuss the situation with the educators, it became clear to me that the gap is cultural one – these two groups speak different languages.

The Massage Envy representative claimed that the number one reason for therapist attrition is poor body mechanics. As well, the franchises in general have trouble filling open positions with what they call “qualified” therapists, those that make good employees. In effect, they are suggesting that the educators are not preparing therapists for success in these positions.

All the while, educators often hear from their former students who work in these establishments that their schedules are rigorous, having clients back-to-back without breaks, and that they are treated as service employees, not as the licensed professional healthcare practitioner they thought they were trained to be.

Of course, every franchise is different, as they are each independently owned. Some are very well operated and managed by folks who understand the professional needs of the therapist, and some are clearly not. But they are here to stay, and they are the businesses that are truly educating the public about massage therapy.

In a Massage Magazine recap of the event, Cherie Sohnen-Moe was quoted as saying, “’I think franchises have done an incredible benefit to this profession,’ Sohnen-Moe added. ‘People who never would have gotten a massage before, have done so.’” After the conference I asked her to explain. She said that the massage franchises have done such a good job marketing to the public, that they have truly helped massage become more mainstream. She went on to say, however, that the question to ask is, “what are they really teaching the consumer about massage and the massage professional, exactly?”

So, whose job is it to educate the public?

As I see it, if massage franchises continue to be the most prominent consumer educators, the public will continue to grow in their understanding that:

  • Massage is affordable.
  • Massage is a service you can receive on demand, to accommodate your busy schedule.
  • If you have a health concern, you need to go to a healthcare provider, because most spas or salons are not healthcare settings.
  • Massage therapists are the technicians who work in massage spas and salons.

And potential students for massage therapy programs may then come to these conclusions:

  • If I would like a professional career that fits my lifestyle, and provides a bit more for my family than I’m making now, I might look into a massage education investment.
  • If I would like to train as a licensed professional in a healthcare field, I’m not sure massage is right for me.
  • If I would like to be my own boss and run my own business, are massage therapists even doing that these days?

Who should be educating the consumers? The massage franchises? The educators? The therapists themselves? What is the role of the membership associations in educating the public?

Professional Education or Vocational Education

When I went to massage school, we were all training to be professionals, experts in our own field. We were trained to be the ones to educate the consumer and the other healthcare providers as well. We were not trained to be employees, or technicians, or service providers. Sure, there were the few resort spa employment opportunities available, but there were no franchise establishments employing thousands of new therapists. We wanted to be independent healthcare providers, complementary to other forms of health care, not subordinate to them. And we are the ones who became the educators. Now the educators are still speaking the language of “professional education,” while they are being regulated by “vocational education” policies and training people for entry-level employment positions. What a mess. No wonder there is a gap… a growing gap.

The real question then becomes, should massage education be a professional program, or should massage education be a vocational program? As it is now, most massage training programs are vocational in nature (and in regulatory affiliations), which demands that the programs train people for the jobs that are available. The available jobs are dictated by consumer demand, and that demand is created by the marketing strategies of companies like the franchise systems.

I’m wondering if, as educators, we shouldn’t pull ourselves out of this vocational trap and pursue the original aim of many massage school founders…toward an educated healthcare professional program comparable to physical therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture and the like?

Is there room for both? If so, how do we begin?