Hoosiers in the grip of substance use disorder—especially related to opioids—have faced a shortage of professionals they can turn to for help, but a new project aims to produce more dually licensed clinical social workers specifically trained to battle Indiana’s opioid epidemic. The state’s talent and workforce development initiative Ascend Indiana is one of the partners leading the project—the latest in a series that identifies workforce shortages in Indiana’s life sciences sector and produces the talent to fill the gaps.

The Community Behavioral Health Academy is the third major program for Ascend—which is part of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership—and perhaps the most critical: it’s the first project the organization has helped develop that attacks a public health crisis. Indiana’s opioid use or dependency rate is among the top five in the U.S., and while the number of overdose deaths dropped in some states from 2016 to 2017, overdose deaths in Indiana continued to climb.

Ascend says employer demand for behavioral health professionals in the Hoosier state has reached a fever pitch, but Indiana falls 7,000 workers short of the need. It’s a gap the organization aims to bridge with the newly-formed behavioral health academy, which is currently recruiting students.

The collaboration among Ascend, Community Health Network, the Indiana University School of Social Work-IUPUI Campus and the University of Indianapolis prepares students for dual licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and Licensed Clinical Addiction Counselor (LCAC). Supported by a grant from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, the academy is designed to be replicated throughout the state and, in central Indiana alone, will be able to produce up to 30 of these specially trained professionals each year.

“That means [these professionals] can treat over 3,000 more patients per year and significantly decrease the time between appointments, which is one of the drivers of recidivism—people relapsing—who are facing addiction,” says Ascend President and Chief Executive Officer Jason Kloth. “The academy is an opportunity to have a profoundly positive impact.” 

Acknowledging that social work can be a demanding and stressful profession, the academy provides financial incentives and a priority job interview at Community Health Network after graduation. Academy leaders believe one of its greatest strengths is that the partners designed the curriculum to specifically train professionals to address the opioid epidemic and other substance use disorders.  

“We’re addressing the shortage of these workers in a way that ensures they have knowledge and skills specific to the problem we are trying to solve,” says Kloth.

Creating such tailor-made solutions is the centerpiece of Ascend’s strategy, which it has applied to earlier projects. Kloth says there’s “a significant talent gap” in Indiana’s life sciences sector.

“Sixty-two percent of Indiana’s workforce demands highly-educated workers, but only slightly over 40 percent of people have some kind of post-secondary education to meet that demand,” says Kloth. “A significant portion of our high-paying jobs that require education beyond high school is in the life sciences, so that misalignment is more pronounced in the life sciences than in other sectors.”

In 2018, Ascend worked with Indianapolis-based Roche Diagnostics and UIndy to build the Roche Academy, which creates a pipeline of biomedical equipment technicians. In 2016, Ascend formed the Community Health Network Nursing Academy through a partnership with the health system; 80 students are working toward or have completed the program so far.

The organization is also working with Catalent and a handful of higher education partners to develop a project that will expand the number of line operators for the company’s Bloomington facility.

These talent pipeline projects operate under the organization’s Ascend Services, which has built the academy model, so that it can be replicated by other health systems and higher education institutions throughout the state. The organization also operates the Ascend Network, an online platform that connects job candidates to career opportunities. About 185 employers, 14 higher education partners and 26,000 people have joined the network, which has been active about one year.

Kloth credits the “incredible investment” from employers to help bridge gaps in the workforce, as well as higher education and philanthropic partners who want “to help solve this problem in a practical way.”

“There hasn’t been an intermediary or a mechanism to bring that all together efficiently,” says Kloth, “and I think that’s the role we’re uniquely positioned to play.”

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Kloth says social work is “a tough job,” so the program aims to incentivize students and influence public policy.

Kloth says employers partnering with Ascend to build the programs “desire to be part of the solution” and “are making an incredible investment.”