Jackson County government has loosened its hiring practices so it can offer professional-level jobs to college students who haven't yet graduated.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to allow the county to interview and make job offers to students. Applicants previously had to have all credentials in place before they could go through the application and interview process.

The move will allow the county to better compete for students who are earning sought-after degrees in mental health services and social work.

A nationwide race is on to fill jobs created by passage of the federal 2010 Affordable Care Act, which put mental health care on par with physical health care — leading to booming demand for mental health workers.

Coordinated care organizations are paying Jackson County to provide mental health care to Oregon Health Plan patients, who now number 65,000 in the county. The county's Health and Human Services Department hired 64 workers in the current fiscal year and plans to hire another 100 to 150 in the coming fiscal year that starts in July.

"The department obviously needs every qualified employee they can get," said Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer.

County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said the change will allow the county to make job offers to local students who might graduate and move away, taking their skills and education with them.

The county has had to compete with other employers who could make early job offers, said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

"Other employers are allowed to offer jobs before graduation, and we want to be able to do the same," Jordan said.

Under the new rules, students must have graduated and earned their degrees before actually starting their new jobs with the county, said Jackson County Mental Health Clinical Operations Manager Rick Rawlins.

Therapists with a master's degree are especially in demand, he said.

The two main universities the county is hiring from are Southern Oregon University and Portland State University, Rawlins said.

SOU especially is producing graduates who can serve as licensed professional counselors, while PSU is graduating many students with social work degrees, he said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.