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Students find a career right at their fingertips

Instruction at this Pinellas Park school of massage includes more than back rubs. Classes are also given in law, ethics and running a business.

Published August 9, 2006

PINELLAS PARK - After a hard day, who wouldn't want a massage? For some people, after a long career, they want to give one.

"Most of our students here are old enough that they know what they don't want to do," said Peggy Smith, president of the Humanities Center School of Massage, purchased last year by Cortiva Institute. Those looking for a new career are finding rewards in many ways.

Smith said most of the students at the 25-year-old school on Park Boulevard are changing careers. She did the same after 17 years of running food service at the University of Kansas. She remembers telling her mother she was quitting to learn massage.

"She said, 'I always liked your back rubs,'" Smith said. Then her mother quickly asked how Smith would make a living. Very nicely, it turns out.

Massage therapists can make upward of six figures, Smith said, and demand for the profession is increasing as it becomes part of mainstream medicine. The need for massage therapists is expected to grow by as much as 25 percent in the next eight years.

"It can be very lucrative," said Dawn Eick, 28, who studies at night at Cortiva after leaving her high-stress job with a Clearwater software company. "Part of it is how you market yourself."

Eick, who will graduate from Cortiva's 672-hour program next month, said some who pursue massage are "free spirits" who are not always organized. She said those who develop massage and business skills have a ready market.

Cortiva's program includes not only anatomy and physiology along with lots of massage practice, it also includes instruction in running a business.

"Most graduates will be self-employed," said Smith, who also teaches law and ethics as part of the program. "You have to be a self starter. You have to get your butt up and work. You can't be a success just by having good massage skills."

That no-nonsense attitude is what attracted Paul Flagg, a 42-year-old federal law enforcement officer who is exploring massage after also having worked in the military and spending 18 years working for the Maryland Department of Corrections.

"It's a very strict, disciplined school," said Flagg, who started Cortiva in May.

Flagg said he has been enjoying massage as a customer for 10 years and has been considering it as a career for five. He said he hopes to graduate in April and massage part time while working his way up to creating his own clinic. Despite his martial background, he said he's looking forward to working in massage because it better fits his personality.

"I've always been a people person, even while working in corrections," he said. "It's been a contradiction because inmates will take kindness for easiness."

Flagg said he blends right in with his fellow students, who are generally helper types as well. Students go through the program as a group and often practice on each other, so they tend to become close. Eick said she fits right in as well.

"I'm a hugger," she said.

Eick was always the one giving people back rubs, she said, and friends were ready to receive. One of them told her she really ought to do this for a living. After trying another school, she was drawn to Cortiva even though its $10,000 price tag was higher, because it provided a more comprehensive education.

Graduates' success speaks for itself, and massage is using its legitimate medical quality to push out an older illicit reputation, but Smith says students face the same tension she did when she went into the field. She warns them on the first night.

"I tell them, your friends and family are going to think you're weird," she said.

She also makes sure students understand the physical nature of massage. Unlike medical malpractice, the therapist is the one at risk when massage is done poorly because doing so subjects them to all manner of muscular stress and strain. That is one of the reasons students practice in class, on one another, even on their friends.

"Quite a few people ask me for a massage," said Flagg. "It's fun. But there'll come a day when the freebies will end."

Flagg and Eick both said they find massage to be difficult but worth the effort. Smith said massage routinely attracts people looking for a more satisfying career.

"Most people in massage school have this inner hippie," she said. "They want to change the world one body at a time."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or or by participating in

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 21:59:01]

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