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No downturn at Petaluma massage school

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While many other businesses have barely hung on or even gone under during the recession, Petaluma's National Holistic Institute is in the midst of an unprecedented growth spurt.

Since opening in Petaluma in 2005, the Oakland-based school has launched four other campuses, including its newest one in Sacramento.

"It's been a phenomenal time for us during this recession," said Tiahna Skye, the manager in Petaluma. "We're finally coming into our own."

The school, nestled away in a northeast Petaluma business park, is growing as the massage industry expands. Employment for massage therapists is expected to increase 19 percent from 2008 to 2018, creating more than 23,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"And these aren't $9 an hour jobs," Skye said. "It's a decent living."

The median wage for a massage therapist in Sonoma County was just over $25 an hour last year, for an annual income of nearly $53,000, according to state Employment Development Department data.

NHI was the first massage school in California to be nationally accredited. As such, it offers students federal financial aid just like four-year colleges. Tuition averages about $15,000 for eight-month or 12-month programs.

It is one of a handful of massage therapy schools in Sonoma County and, along with the nonprofit Sky Hill Institute of Wholistic Healing Arts also in Petaluma, offers the most comprehensive massage education programs.

About 40 percent of NHI graduates are working in private practice and another 25 percent in spas, Placement Manager Allison McLeod Budlong said. Others find work in a variety of fields, including massage centers, chiropractic offices, cruise ships and gyms.

The industry's growth has been prompted by several factors, she said, including a greater acceptance by medical professionals of the value of massage therapy and new state certification standards.

Successful massage chains like Massage Envy and spas that dot Wine Country have made massage widely accessible. It is only one component of the fast-growing "health and wellness" segment of the regional economy, said Ben Stone, executive director of the county Economic Development Board.

"That is a great self-employment opportunity for people," he said. "Especially for Sonoma County; it's a great place if you're a tourist with all the spas we have."

Currently, there are 70 students and six instructors at the NHI school in Petaluma. Graduates of its 720-hour course qualify as "massage therapists" in California, allowing them to work anywhere in the state without additional city or county certifications.

To help prospective massage therapists succeed, the school requires several business classes in addition to various forms of massage, and additional sections on marketing and finance.

The school provides low-cost massages to the public, for about $25, and offers events to inform the community about the industry.

The next event is March 8 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the 1347 Redwood Way campus. Information: 800-315-3552 ext. 118 or www.nhi.edu.

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