Respiratory therapists (RTs) know that when a patient can’t breathe, every second can feel like an eternity for them. Getting air into the lungs so vital oxygen can travel throughout the patient’s body is imperative to prevent potentially long-lasting damage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, respiratory therapists were in high demand, but post-Covid, the demand continues to grow. Learn why, where RTs are needed most and how you can turbocharge your RT career.
Pandemic Impact on Respiratory Therapy Jobs
The COVID-19 pandemic saw the number of travel nursing jobs hit epic levels, but they weren’t the only healthcare professionals in high demand. Because difficulty breathing is a primary symptom of the coronavirus, the demand for experienced respiratory therapists has risen exponentially since 2020.
According to the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), the pandemic caused a massive shift in the healthcare landscape. It drove allied health recruitment from occupational, physical and speech-language therapy to respiratory therapy due to the intense need for respiratory treatments across the nation.
As a result, RTs have been experiencing the most robust job market the profession has seen in a long time. Despite vaccination roll-outs and the “new normal” that includes fewer hospitalizations and deaths than were seen during the height of the pandemic, millions of Americans continue to struggle with healthcare challenges related to the pandemic.
Respiratory therapists continue to play a significant role in Covid patients’ recovery efforts. As they do their part to help them regain their quality of life, the presence of RTs has become widespread. The pandemic’s impact on respiratory therapy has seen an expanded job landscape for RTs. Besides their increased presence in hospitals, respiratory therapists have become vital in COVID-19 rehabilitation programs, pulmonary and sleep labs, primary care facilities and telehealth services.
Post-Covid Demand for Respiratory Therapists
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 14% employment growth for respiratory therapists between 2021 and 2031. It indicated there were 135,800 respiratory therapist jobs in 2021, with an estimated 18,400 jobs potential new jobs available during this 10-year period. Part of this increased demand hinges on recovering Covid patients.
Many patients who’ve contracted Covid experience lingering illness. Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report include details from patient surveys that indicate 50% to 80% of them continue to have symptoms three months after the onset of COVID-19. Often referred to as “long COVID,” one of the most common symptoms is shortness of breath.
Because RTs are well-trained in caring for these specific patient populations, it opens new job possibilities to provide patient care outside acute care settings. They’re now providing home oxygen therapy and telehealth services, among others.
Patients with breathing issues have also flocked to pulmonary rehabilitation programs typically set up to care for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other chronic lung conditions. As more patients complain of long-term symptoms related to the lungs, the demand for RTs in these facilities also continues to rise.
However, it’s not just Covid survivors impacting RT demand. One major factor increasing the demand for respiratory therapists is increased life expectancy, leading to a rise in the geriatric population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of adults aged 65 or older could grow by an estimated 80% between 2020 and 2030.
Older adults are highly susceptible to chronic conditions and are among the growing number of adults with heart and lung problems. The CDC reports that 16 million adults in the U.S. have COPD, a condition that limits airflow and causes breathing trouble.
Demand Encourages Salary Spikes
The rising demand for respiratory therapists has led to shortages in RT departments across the nation, creating numerous opportunities for these allied health professionals. These shortages have also caused significant spikes in respiratory therapists’ salaries at some healthcare facilities.
An AARC article discussed how many facilities are fighting for RT staff members, with salaries rising to attract qualified candidates. As one hospital increases its pay rates, others must follow to keep in the running for the limited number of RTs looking for employment.
How Much Are RTs Making Right Now?
Per Vivian Health’s data at the beginning of March 2023, the average salary of staff respiratory therapists was $30.75, about 6% higher than the national average for allied health professionals. However, some perm respiratory therapist jobs paid as much as $54 per hour during this period.
Travel allied health professionals tend to earn even more than their staff counterpoints. The average travel RT salary was $2,048 weekly during the first of March 2023. While this amount was 16% lower than the average salary for allied health travelers nationwide, it was still higher than the average staff RT hourly rate by $20.45 based on a 40-hour workweek. The most lucrative travel RT jobs during this period paid up to $3,550 per week or about $88.75 hourly.
While most RTs work in general medical and surgical hospitals, jobs in outpatient care centers pay much better, per the BLS. In May 2021, of the estimated 133,410 respiratory therapists employed full-time or part-time nationwide, 102.480 worked in hospitals, but the 2,130 working in outpatient centers earned over $13 more per hour.
The following table outlines the number of RTs employed, hourly mean wage and annual mean wage by industry based on BLS data in May 2021. It only includes those industries with either the highest employment of RTs or offer the highest wage. The table sorts industries from highest to lowest employment.
|Industry||Employment||Hourly Mean Wage||Annual Mean Wage|
|General Medical and Surgical Hospitals||102,480||$33.00||$68,640|
|Skilled Nursing Facilities||4,940||$30.25||$62,920|
|Professional and Commercial Equipment and Supplies Merchant Wholesalers||2,700||$29.07||$60,460|
|Outpatient Care Centers||2,130||$46.38||$96,470|
|Rental and Leasing Services||2,200||$26.04||$54,160|
|Colleges, Universities and Professional Schools||670||$34.60||$71,970|
|Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories||80||$32.93||$68,490|
Source: BLS (May 2021)
The amount a respiratory therapist earns varies based on numerous factors, including education, experience, professional certifications and more. It can also vary based on job location, as some states traditionally pay more than others. For staff RTs, higher pay often hinges on the cost of living in the state, but demand can also play a role. The following table represents the top five highest-paying states for perm RTs in May 2021 per the BLS.
|State||Hourly Mean Wage||Annual Mean Wage|
Source: BLS (May 2021)
Travel RT pay might also fluctuate due to the cost of living in a state, especially for travelers who qualify for tax-free housing stipends. However, demand may play a bigger role in travel salaries as increased need is generally the most significant driver of travel jobs. Thus, the states with the highest-paid travel RTs often differ from those of staff RTs. The following table represents the top five highest-paying states for travel RTs on March 3, 2023, per Vivian Health.
|State||Average Weekly Salary||Maximum Weekly Salary|
Source: Vivian Health (March 3, 2023)
Tips for Boosting Your RT Career
According to U.S. News & World Report, respiratory therapists ranked 15th on the Best Health Care Jobs list in 2023 and 36th on its 100 Best Jobs in the United States list. Whether you’re a new graduate looking for your first RT job or have a few years of experience and want to take advantage of increasing wages, these 5 tips can give you an advantage as a job candidate.
- Earn Advanced Credentials: If you’ve already earned your Certified Respiratory Therapist credential but havened earned your Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential, get it before starting your job search. The RRT is a vital part of a healthcare hiring manager’s decision, so it can make you more attractive as a job candidate. Other valuable credentials include Basic Life Support, Advanced Cardiac Life Support and Pediatric Advanced Life Support.
- Be Flexible: If you happen to live in an area where the RT job market is actually tight, be willing to accept any shift or consider starting in a part-time position, if necessary. Once you’ve been in the position for a while and proven your expertise on the job, you can potentially work up to a full-time role or earn a coveted shift. You might even be able to request a raise.
- Advance Your Education. While you can enter the respiratory therapy field in about two years, achieving career advancement involves continued learning. Many degree programs exist for RTs, with most of them online, making it convenient to turn an associate degree into an impressive Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care degree while working within a year or two.
- Network Professionally. Being part of professional organizations like the AARC and state and local groups provides numerous opportunities to grow your professional network. Not only can these contacts potentially lead you to new career opportunities, but being active in and showing a passion for your field is attractive to hiring managers.
- Consider a Travel Job. Travel RT jobs are ideal for those wanting to see the country while significantly increasing their salaries. If this sounds like you and you have the experience and ability to travel, it could be a great way to turbocharge your career. Your salary gets a nice bump, and you can learn new skills and grow your professional network even quicker in travel roles.
The growing demand for respiratory therapists has positively impacted salaries, but RTs have gained even more than a better paycheck. Hospitals have learned how hard it is to care for patients when their RT departments aren’t well-staffed, leading to a greater appreciation for these vital staff members. The COVID-19 pandemic has also raised the public’s awareness of the essential role RTs play in patient care and in helping patients breathe easier. Capitalize on this traction by promoting your career and elevating your profession.
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