The Career School Path
Finding joy in the healing and wellness industry at midlife
By Sarah Holman
Ask her why she decided to start the massage therapy program at Spa Tech Institute at the age of 49, and Diana Mains will tell you, “Chaos.” It is a common theme in the American workforce, where women over 55 are seeking career changes at a rate that outpaces all other age groups. For many, the motivation is to find meaningful work they love, not simply to make good money or try something new.
“We see it a lot,” says Peggy York, on-site director at Spa Tech Institute’s Westbrook campus. “Women leaving unfulfilling jobs to follow their heart’s desire.”
The founder of Spa Tech Institute, Nancy Risley, is familiar with the search for purposeful work. On the school’s website, Nancy writes, “After years of searching I was very fortunate to find the field of holistic health and healing.” In 1980, she founded the Polarity Realization Institute and later merged with Headhunter II School of Cosmetology to form Spa Tech Institute in 2001.
The job of the school has always been to graduate professionals who are ready to join the workforce, but the mission is deeper than that. Starting with the admissions process, Spa Tech works with students to help discover their goals and dreams. “Admissions is co-creative,” Peggy says. “We want to make sure our students are successful.”
Career oriented education is designed for people who are enthusiastic about getting to work and using their creative talent as quickly as possible. One of the roles of the admissions department is making sure there is a match with all aspects of the trade. “This is hands-on work with the public,” Peggy says. “You need people skills and technical skills.” There is also a significant theory portion of Spa Tech’s programs, like anatomy and physiology for massage therapy. This kind of study may seem daunting to some, but the teachers at Spa Tech are trained to teach all types of learners. “The majority of our students are hands-on learners,” Peggy says. “We know how to teach them effectively.”
Depending on the program of study, students are at the institute for 200 hours (nail tech), 600 hours (massage therapy and aesthetics), or 1500 hours (cosmetology), which equates to between 6-18 months of study. All programs include a theory component (offered online), professional development, and hands-on training. To fulfill the practical requirement, Spa Tech offers services to the public at a significantly reduced rate. These services may take more time than those offered at a professional salon because students are practicing skills learned in class, but their attention to detail is meticulous.
After program completion, graduates take state board exams to become licensed, and 76% have a job by the time they leave the school. With small class sizes and an impressive retention rate of 79%, students form strong relationships with their teachers, which becomes a networking tool that can help with job placement after program completion. Spa Tech’s reputation is well known in the industry and helps newly licensed graduates get good jobs. The intentional focus on career-building skills further promotes hireability. “Our students know what they want [when they graduate],” Peggy explains. “They want a career that is lucrative but also brings them joy. They want to look forward to going to work.”
This is especially true for women making a midlife career change. Since the Covid pandemic started, the school has seen an increase in older students looking for a new path, mostly in massage and aesthetics. “I think Covid affected many of the women seeking a second career,” Peggy says. “They’re saying, ‘Life is short, and I want to be happy’.”
Spa Tech also offers comprehensive financial aid support, helping students navigate applications with one-on-one guidance. For Diana Mains, this was the help she needed to make the leap back to school. “I looked at attending Spa Tech four times,” she says. Finally, she took the next step to discuss financial aid with the school and was surprised to learn she qualified for aid in the form of a grant. “They made it so simple to figure out the application,” Diana says. When she realized she could make it work financially, she says, “I knew then it was meant to be.”
Diana enrolled in the massage therapy program at Spa Tech at age 49 after a long career in marketing and communications. The chaos she was experiencing in her life was due to a lost job, a recent divorce, and caring for an elderly parent. While considering the school, she read about polarity therapy, a healing science based on living energy fields offered at Spa Tech. “I thought, they’re going to teach me to heal myself,” Diana says.
While polarity therapy is certainly client focused, Peggy believes the benefits to the practitioner are also significant. “The therapist has to get in a zen place to feel what’s happening under her fingertips,” she explains. “All those good hormones go up and stress goes down, for both the client and the therapist. It’s one of the wonderful things about massage.”
As Diana immersed herself in the program, she felt herself changing and growing. “I broke open personally and rebuilt,” she says. She found Spa Tech’s environment positive and supportive, and when she graduated in January, she decided to take the teacher training course at the Institute so she could remain involved with the school.
After teaching at Spa Tech and working at a salon for several years, Diana was ready to take a risk. In 2019, she opened her healing center, The Sacred Self, in Cornish, Maine. She rents space to other therapists and healers, some of whom are fellow Spa Tech graduates. Although each provider is independent, Diana is careful to ensure consistency across modalities offered at the center. For her own clients, Diana practices massage, polarity therapy, reflexology, and astrology. Others bring yoga, Reiki, art, herbalism, and more. “The best thing is the transformations I see in women who come to the center and are able to connect with the right healing,” Diana says. The center has grown organically and significantly, despite being located in a relatively rural town.
At Spa Tech Institute, the programs continue to evolve. Nancy meets with Peggy and the education directors from Spa Tech’s three Massachusetts locations to go over standards, concerns, and industry news. To ensure teachers are staying on a growth track, the whole staff meets three times a year for professional development.
With the massage sector expanding since 2012 (with exception of a small dip in 2020, due to the pandemic) and the health and wellness industry continuing to grow, Diana and her fellow graduates are well-positioned for professional success in established spas or as private practitioners. They’re leaving Spa Tech with the skills to meet the needs of communities throughout Maine and beyond.
“The world needs a million, billion healers right now,” Diana says. “They know what they want in life, they want a career that is lucrative but also brings them joy and they look forward to coming to work.”
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving.