Students in the Department of Social Work and Gerontology at Weber State University gather at a social work student appreciation event on April 16, 2019.

Weber State University has been considering adding a social work master’s program for years. After multiple reports on the shortage of social workers in Utah and a push from community health organizations, the school will welcome its first social work graduate cohort in 2021.

The university, according to Department of Social Work and Gerontology Chair Mark Bigler, wants to help fill treatment gaps throughout Northern Utah.

“We really want to focus in on needs that exist in the local community,” Bigler said. “We’re hoping that will attract people in our area ... who have a vested interest in what is going on in their own community.”

Weber and Morgan counties — the immediate community around Weber State — could use the help of future graduates from the program, according to Weber Human Services Executive Director Kevin Eastman.

Social workers at Weber Human Services, who help clients address mental health problems and substance addiction, are currently shouldering caseloads in the 60s and 80s as clients wait 60-90 days between visits, Eastman said. The organization is looking to hire six to eight more clinicians, but applicants with the required qualifications are hard to come by.

“We can’t find people,” Eastman said.

A 2016 report from the Utah Medical Education Council noted that Utah has 209 mental health providers per 100,000 people — approximately two-thirds of the 311 national average. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah said in a 2019 report that the state needs to double its mental health workforce in the next 15 years to close gaps and keep up with demand.

Speaking to the insufficient number of social workers in the area, Bigler said, “What that means is that there are services and needs that go unmet.”

Weber State wants to move Utah closer to meeting those needs one class at a time. The university will accept 20 people to its traditional two-year master’s program in 2021 but plans to double that number the next year. In 2022, Weber State will also launch an advanced standing — meaning students already have an undergraduate degree in social work — one-year degree, growing the program to a total of 60.

This is the fourth public Master of Social Work to be established in the state, joining programs at Utah State University, University of Utah and Utah Valley University. According to Bigler, however, Weber State’s is unique.

At Weber State, students will focus on clinical social work practice, whereas “the other three programs in the state of Utah take a generalist practice approach,” Bigler said.

He compared generalist practice to the work being done by a general physician — those social workers know a little about everything, but don’t have the background to specialize in any one topic.

“The focus (in Weber State’s program) will really be on those skills that are essential for behavior change, behavior modification,” Bigler said. “The other important piece is looking at evidence-based models and strategies that have empirical support.”

Social workers with these skills, Bigler said, are exactly what his department’s community partners — which include Weber Health Services, Davis Behavioral Health and Bear River Mental Health — are looking for in new hires.

“I think there’s a job out there for everyone that comes through the program,” Bigler said. “If what I hear from our community partners is true, there are jobs that remain open because people aren’t able to fill them.”

Contact reporter Emily Anderson at eanderson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyreanderson.

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