SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Augustana has announced the relaunch of its social work program after a 15-year absence.

The program is not yet up and running, and won’t be for some time now.

Dr. Laurie Daily, Dean of the Sharon Lust School of Education, says that the university expects to launch the Bachelor’s program for social work in the Fall of 2024, with the masters’ program following after in 2027.

Daily says there is an intense need for social workers across the U.S. and in South Dakota.

“There are positions that are not filled in various agencies and settings,” she said.

Indeed, the South Dakota Department of Labor & Regulation (DLR) projects a total of 306 openings in the field of social work by 2028, with DLR communications specialist Kristi Sandal noting that through this period, social work positions are listed by the state as one of the state’s highest demand occupations.

Currently, DLR data reports that there are 131 social work openings in 2022.

“In fact, [Child, Family and School Social Worker] is one of the 30 careers with the very greatest projected demand. Demand is projected for the other three social work occupations as well, and employment of both Healthcare Social Workers and Mental Health & Substance Abuse Social Workers is projected to grow by more than 10% by 2028,” said Sandal.

Department of Social Services (DSS) Cabinet Secretary Laurie Gill says that this new program could have a positive impact on the South Dakota workforce, both within DSS and with other providers. “Social workers are an integral part of the workforce at DSS and are utilized across a variety of areas including child welfare, behavioral health and the Human Services Center,” she said.

While DSS will not be working directly with Augustana, Gill says that the program could provide a pathway for more social workers to become licensed in South Dakota, and also notes that DSS provides internships for social work students, providing an opportunity for them to work along with DSS staff and consider a career with DSS when they complete their education.

Though not partnered up with the state, the Augustana program will have connections with a major health care system.

“We’ve been working with Sanford Health as a partner,” said Daily. “They were really wanting to expand our academic partnership to look at offering more programming in the area of behavioral health.”

Integrated behavioral health will be the focus of the Masters in Social Work program offered by Augustana. “Utilizing social work in primary care settings to improve outcomes with primary care,” explained Daily. She said the focus will be for people to be able to serve in clinical settings, as well as in other general roles.

Healthcare social workers are some of the most in-demand at the moment. Of the 131 current openings listed by the DLR, Healthcare Social Workers account for 98. While Child, Family and School Social Workers are projected to be the most in demand in the future, right now there appears to be a shortage of Healthcare Social Workers.

This shortage was highlighted in an email exchange with Eric Ollila, Executive Director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization (SDSEO), who pointed out that based on info from budget hearings, turnover at the Human Services Center in Yankton (the state’s only psychiatric hospital) was 26.2% in FY2021.

Ollila chalks this turnover rate up to a lack of competitive pay across the board for most state employees, something that has been a topic of discussion in South Dakota for some time.

This is also something that Daily notes, and one she hopes that Augustana has addressed in planning their program. “The biggest concern — is that these people, when they graduate, don’t earn a lot of money, which is not a shock to anybody that goes into social work,” she says. “It’s important to pay attention to the cost of your program because you’ve got to be mindful of what your graduates are going to earn.”

As to how many potential social workers Augustana will be adding to a market in serious need, Daily has an estimate. “We would anticipate approximately 25 students a year enrolling in [the Bachelor of Social Work] program,” she said. “So after four years — we would anticipate that we’d have about 100 students enrolled.”

As for the masters’ program, Daily says they expect smaller cohorts of 15-18 students.

While the launch of the program is still quite a ways off — “It’s not even fledgling yet,” notes Daily — there have been some developments. The university has hired Dr. Bart Miles to serve as program director. He will begin his duties on August 1, 2022.