What's Driving the Demand for Speech-Language Pathologists?

Speech-Language PathologistsThe demand for speech-language pathologists (SLPs) is rising, with projected job growth at 21% through 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet a shortage of SLPs has put the squeeze on schools and healthcare organizations.

The need to fill positions stems from a number of factors.

"It's been an issue for years, and there's really no single answer," said Susan Karr, Associate Director of School Services for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). She noted that SLPs provide services for all ages, and several factors affect both ends of the age spectrum.

One factor is the aging population. There are now more people over 65 than at any other time in the history of the U.S. Census, and that number is projected to continue to grow for decades. With agging comes a host of medical conditions, such as stroke, brain injuries and dementia, which result in speech, language, and swallowing problems.

On the other end of the spectrum, advances in healthcare have improved the survival rate of premature infants.These infants may need help with feeding and swallowing disorders.

Early identification and diagnosis of speech, language and swallowing disorders in young children has increased the demand for employment, too. Not only that, but schools must comply with a federal mandate, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that disabled children ages 3 to 21 receive special education services and related services.

And if that's not enough, school enrollment continues to rise, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Why is there a shortage?

While SLPs are a hot commodity, there aren't enough of them to keep up with demand. Shortages vary across the nation, but rural areas in particular face challenges in recruiting candidates, Karr said.

Unfortunately, programs that train SLPs are in a tight spot, with limited admissions and only so many faculty members available to teach. In addition, SLPs receive extensive training. have to have at least a master's degree, must pass a Praxis exam, and they also put in clinical hours, where they work under a certified SLP.

"We really do have rigorous standards that we're proud of," Karr said.

Working conditions in schools can also be tough for SLPs, especially in terms of caseload, the amount of paperwork required, and the isolation SLPs may experience if they are very few of them within a large school district.

"Our professionals really have a choice of settings of where they can work," Karr said. School districts and healthcare organizations that offer the best pay and benefits may find it easier to fill positions.

What's the solution?

Learning program models
Karr noted that some states have implemented education program models -- such as online, long-distance programs -- to increase the number of students going through the education pipeline. States have also partnered with school districts to create "grow-your-own programs," in which SLPs are trained to work in schools and offered loan forgiveness after putting in a certain number of years.

Recruitment and retention benefits
Perks for SLPs can also help with recruitment and retention, such as more attractive salaries, sign-on bonuses or paying their moving expenses. It can be tough for schools to offer certain benefits, because of budget cuts. Still, those that provide mentors or offer to pay for professional development have had success in retaining SLPs, Karr said.

State licensure compact
SLPs and audiologists will eventually have a licensure compact that will make it easier for them to practice across state lines.

ASHA has teamed up with the National Council of State Boards of Examiners in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology. The two organizations have contracted with the Council of State Governments to facilitate the development and implementation of the compact, according to Janet Deppe, ASHA's director of state advocacy. An advisory committee has already held its first meeting in Washington, D.C.