Situations vacant

recruitment crisis shows no sign of abating, with many councils
frequently battling vacancy rates of 50 per cent in some areas.
Alison Miller finds out how London boroughs are responding to the

You just
can’t get the staff! It’s a well-worn cliche, but the
reality is that finding and keeping staff is a problem that gives
social services directors and managers  a big headache. The problem is
particularly acute in London where the high cost of housing, and
related high cost of living, can make attracting and keeping social
workers even more difficult – one social services director of an
inner London borough described the current recruitment situation as

in London doesn’t come cheap – latest figures from the
Halifax reveal that the average property in the capital costs
£179,558 set against the UK average of £96,149. A typical
semi-detached house here costs £233,000. To add to the agony,
a Community Care survey conducted in October last year
found that a significant proportion of social workers are looking
for a new job spurred on by low pay, poor promotion prospects and
low morale.

government has taken a long time to come to the table and
acknowledge the scale of the problem, and now that it is there it
seems to have little appetite for tackling the issues. Last year
health secretary Alan Milburn announced the launch of a £2m
national recruitment campaign at the National Social Services
conference, but infuriated social care professionals when he
threatened to name and shame “failing” departments at
the same time.

wanting to help staff with housing costs might have looked to the
Key Homebuy scheme launched as part of the government’s
Starter Home Initiative. It is investing £250 million until
2004 to help key workers buy homes. However, to date, social care
professionals are a low priority among the target group with
teachers and nurses at the top of the heap.

The last
Social Services Recruitment and Retention Survey by the Social and
Health Care Workforce Group found the vacancy rate for field social
workers in London was just under 20 per cent with a turnover rate
of nearly 22 per cent, and unsurprisingly, 60 per cent were
experiencing difficulties recruiting staff, and half were finding
it difficult hanging on to them. These averages mask particularly
high vacancy rates in some areas – particularly children and
families and mental health.

James is deputy head of people skills and development with the
Employers’ Organisation. He is leading a project looking at
recruitment and retention in local government, and is well aware of
the difficulties local authorities face He says the issue is
complex, but believes that how people perceive social work is a big
problem. “People perceive local government and social work as
different to how it is. There is a view that the workloads are
always heavy and that there are lots of difficult decisions to be
made Ð massive workload, low pay and not very well

He also
stresses the importance of trying to attract young people into
social care pointing out that across local government as a whole
only 6.2 per cent of the workforce are under the age of 25,
compared with 16 per cent in the economy at large.

So then,
what are London authorities to do in the face of these
difficulties. Should they squeeze as much money as they can from
ever tighter budgets and hike social workers’ pay to the max?
Not, it seems, necessarily.

to Stay?
, a report commissioned by the Local Government
Association  from the
Employers’ Organisation late last year, found that throwing
money at the problem was not always the best way to solve it. While
pay is important, good management and human resources policies have
an important role to play in getting and keeping staff.

Hamlets director of social services Ian Wilson acknowledges that
there is a widespread problem, but says that Tower Hamlets has
built a very effective buffer, and its social worker vacancy rate
of 11 per cent is certainly well below the average.

”The reason that we are less affected by the overall
recruitment crisis than other local authorities is because for the
last four years we have been growing our own social workers,”
he says.

years ago it began seconding unqualified staff who already work for
the authority to the diploma in social work course and more than 30
staff have completed the course. Wilson says: “Imagine  what most boroughs would give to
have 30 qualified social workers.”

second prong of its strategy is its trainee scheme which has also
been running for four years. In the last two years this has become
a graduate training scheme “because we realised that if we
want to recruit people who can turn out to be the managers of the
future we needed to target graduates,” says Wilson.

strategy of training unqualified people has been so successful that
Tower Hamlets realised they needed to recruit more people at this
level. “We created 16 entry level posts and took on more
unqualified people in support roles and they are now people who we
can second on to the DipSW course,” Wilson says.

aims to overcome the problem of the high cost of housing by looking
locally for staff. “What is clever about what we do is that
we are picking up people who already have accommodation in London –
probably in this borough.” He believes that by recruiting and
training local people, retention will take care of itself. He says,
simply: “Why would they want to go anywhere else – this is a
great place to work!”

This is
an approach that has also found favour at neighbouring Hackney. It
is looking at new ways of attracting staff in the face of
“too many local authorities all fishing in the same
pool”. A spokesperson from the human resources department
said Hackney was facing a particular problem trying to attract
experienced staff, and that it is looking at the issue of skills
mix, and trying to recruit non-qualified social workers to do the
work that doesn’t require a qualification.

London boroughs have chosen to offer financial inducements – or
golden hellos – to encourage new recruits. Richmond upon Thames,
for example, offers a recruitment payment of £1,500 to all new
qualified social work staff joining the borough and the same amount
each year to all existing qualified social work staff.

Graham is principal policy and project officer with the London
Borough of Westminster. She says it is finding it tough to recruit
social workers, “but the situation is not desperate”.
“There are more jobs than people to fill them: people can
pick and choose,” she says. Westminster has put money on the
table in a bid to attract and keep staff. It is offering a golden
hello of £1,000 for new recruits, while social workers who
have been with the authority for two years can look forward to an
additional payment of £1,000 for every year they stay.

council also believes it has a lot to offer in terms of the working
environment. “What we can offer is a very good training
programme and departments that are very well resourced with good
support, regular supervision and training,” Graham

welcomes the government’s recruitment campaign, but wants
more publicity about the good work social care staff do. “Why
would anybody want to be a social worker when all they receive for
doing a very difficult job is brickbats?” she asks.

Bowen is assistant director of social services at Southwark
responsible for children. She says Southwark has set up a
co-ordinated response to the problem, headed up by a year-long
campaign designed to promote Southwark as a forward-thinking
employer and a good place to work. They are pleased with the
results “which seems to have attracted some good

It too
is fostering a grow-your-own strategy, and this includes: bursaries
to six final-year students at Goldsmiths College and South Bank
University and sponsorship of six trainee social workers who will
be replaced with six more when they begin their DipSW course.

believes that the advent of specialist services such as Sure Start
and Connexions will have an impact on the staff pool, and warns
that there is a danger that they will impoverish the supply of
social workers to core front line work.

Southwark has chosen not to offer golden hellos or retention
bonuses preferring, Bowen says, to focus on “good, and very
competitive basic salaries”. The council as a whole has been
looking at work and life balance, and as a result some social
workers for looked-after children have been employed who are
largely home based. “We feel it is important to offer people
who may have young children, or who have to care for older
relatives, the flexibility to combine work and home life,”
she says.

Over in
north London, Islington Council too is having trouble recruiting
qualified social workers. “The area we are most concerned
about is in our long-term children’s work where we are
running at about 40 per cent of posts being covered by agency
staff,” says Paul Curran, director of social services,
although he stresses that it is a constantly changing picture.

Islington does not see incentivising pay as the answer and has
decided to focus on giving people a “decent working
experience”. “The feedback we have is that golden
hellos and retention bonuses cause more problems than they solve –
they don’t necessarily encourage people to stay, and those
who don’t get the money become disaffected. We want to pay
people a competitive rate for the job without making them jump
through hoops,” he says.

borough has invested in improving office facilities, started
negotiating with staff on improved pay packages, and is looking at
offering career breaks. “If it’s a horrible job people
won’t stay no matter how much you pay them!”  Curran says.

Southwark and Islington are not alone in using agency cover to fill
the gaps while vacancies are unfilled, or staff away sick. Agency
cover in Southwark’s children and families department is
running at 17 per cent which, while well below the rate of many
councils, Bowen is keen to reduce. She points out that agency cover
costs between two thirds and double that of local authority staff,
and feel it is an expense cash-strapped budgets could well do
without bearing.

said, there is no doubt that many social services departments would
collapse if they were not able to rely on agency cover and, in
London alone there are nearly 50 agencies supplying social care
staff. Sarah Pope is divisional manager of Social Work Solutions,
one of the largest agencies in the field. Her experience is that
the vacancy situation is fairly static but that there is
particularly high demand in the areas of children and families and
child protection. “These highly stressful areas seem to
result in more long-term sickness amongst permanent staff, hence
the need for locums,” she says.

With the
high level of locum placements, Pope believes it is vital to build
good relationships with London departments. “We work together
as partners now, constructively exploring the best way to deliver
an essential service,” she says.

Council is bucking the trend in London and on the whole is upbeat
“although not complacent” about recruitment. Pauline
Moignard is human resources manager for social services. “In
the last year our ability to attract people has improved
dramatically. Retention has also improved and the current turnover
rate in children’s social work is just 6 per cent with a
vacancy rate of 15 per cent.”

attributes a lot of the council’s success to its investment
in good staff relations and training. “We have put a lot of
effort into supporting staff and the social services department has
been awarded the Investors in People award.”

One area
of concern is the demographics within the department: “Sixty
six per cent of the department is over 45 and only 15 per cent is
under 35. We feel strongly that if we don’t attract enough
young people we are setting ourselves up for a very difficult
future,” Moignard says. .

They are
planning to introduce traineeships in a bid to attract people to
social care from other areas, although finding the funds for DipSW
training continues to be difficult. Croydon social services
director Hannah Miller is worried about the future of funding in
this area. “The government needs to think much more seriously
about how they are going to help local authorities – or people
directly – to pay for DipSW training,” she warns. Miller also
points to inconsistency in salaries in central and local
government. “Generally social workers salaries are pegged
within organisations” budgets, but they compare badly to the
salaries middle of the range admin workers in central government
can command.”

What is
clear, is that while the crisis rumbles on, social workers looking
to change jobs in the capital will have no shortage of potential
employers to choose from.

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