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Kent State plans to offer social work degree, tackle worker shortage in rural communities

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Posted at 6:08 PM, Mar 11, 2022

ASHTABULA, Ohio — An already short-staffed position prior to the pandemic, the demand for social workers has been growing in recent years as stress and widespread labor shortages put a strain on the field.

A scarcity of qualified social workers, particularly in rural areas, is inspiring Kent State University to offer a new Bachelor of Social Work degree.

“Right now, there are probably more than 3,000 social work positions open in Ohio. And a lot of those you’ll see in those rural areas,” explained Danielle Smith, the director of the Ohio chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). “They just don’t have the number of people living there, working there to stay in the communities. It’s also made worse by just lack of funding issues.”

According to a recent labor data report by analytics company Burning Glass, the number of social work job listings jumped by 21% between 2019 and 2020. Between 2010-2020, it climbed by 165%.

Matthew Butler, a licensed independent social worker at Community Counseling Center in Ashtabula, said his agency and others have been feeling the shortage of trained and qualified social workers.

“Such a shortage exists all over the place, but especially here in Northeast Ohio, and especially in the rural areas,” he said. “We've had workforce shortages in this area since long before COVID happened, but COVID has just, I think, exacerbated everything.”

Kent State University called on Butler and other social work professionals to outline the need and feasibility of creating a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree at several of the school’s satellite campuses.

“There was a real need because there was a shortage of social workers in the agencies in the community,” said Johanna Slivinske, a counseling specialist at Kent State’s Ashtabula campus.

This week, the Board of Trustees approved the proposed degree, which would offer a hybrid model of online and in-person classes at the University’s Ashtabula, Tuscarawas and Salem campuses. The program will focus on social work in rural areas and will be accredited for graduates to become licensed social workers in the state.

“This is going to be gigantic for helping to allow Ashtabula County residents to attend school and college in Ashtabula County, to get educated in Ashtabula County, to do internships in Ashtabula County and to work in Ashtabula County,” said Miriam Walton, the executive director for the Ashtabula County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.

She explained communities like Ashtabula, situated about 60 miles from Cleveland, often lose talent to larger, neighboring cities. Those who may want to be social workers currently have to travel for their education and may face challenges, like transportation, childcare and cost.

“We really feel like [the new BSW program] will help overcome a lot of barriers for folks, lets them stay in their communities and not have to do these super long commutes and not have to sacrifice a whole lot over the course of their bachelor's degree,” Butler said.

The role of social workers in rural communities has also evolved in recent years. Many cover gaps in comprehensive services for everything from substance abuse, to re-entry into the workforce from incarceration, to access to reproductive services.

“In more metropolitan areas, those positions are supported by other types of professionals, like case workers or resource managers, peer support specialists. In a rural area, more of those tasks are likely to be on a social worker’s plate,” Smith said.

Slivinske added, “There’s also an increased need for social workers and for mental health services in general, especially now with the aftermath of COVID and we’ve had a crisis of opiates in Ohio as well.”

She explained graduates of the KSU Bachelor of Social Work program may gain access to a wide variety of careers in areas like behavioral health, criminal justice or hospital systems, along with roles with child welfare services or organizations focused on shaping policies.

“The communities are desperately crying out for help. And this is a way in which Kent State, we hope, is going to be able to make a big impact,” Butler said.

He and Walton also said the undergraduate degree could be foundational for future career opportunities and graduate degrees.

The program needs final approval of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, the Higher Learning Commission and the Council on Social Work Education before it takes effect. Following the approval, Kent State says the degree will take effect by fall 2022.

The University expects enrollment will begin with 30 students in the program’s first year and could grow to up to 120 students by its fourth year.

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