It is no secret that there are severe recruitment and retention
problems in social services departments, and across the public
sector. And fears of a full-blown crisis were fuelled last week
when it emerged there could be a mass exodus from the profession
because of the ageing workforce, writes Clare
The ticking demographic timebomb is highlighted in the latest
report from the Audit Commission which warns that fewer young
people are being attracted to public sector jobs while growing
numbers are set to retire. Twenty-seven per cent of the workforce
is now aged 50 or over. Just 16 per cent are 29 or under.
Demand for public sector staff is outstripping supply and,
according to director of the British Association of Social Workers
Ian Johnston the problem is worst in social work. “Not only is
there a recruitment crisis, but we have serious problems with the
Indeed, the average age of a social worker is now 47 while the
local government Employers’ Organisation social services workforce
survey for 20011 offers further
evidence that proportionally there is a higher concentration of
employees among the older age groups.
The survey found that under-25s made up about 5 per cent or less of
social service employees while between a half and two-thirds were
older than 40. In some groups a large proportion were aged over
Hilary Simon, vice-chairperson of the Association of Directors of
Social Services human resources and training committee, says: “This
is particularly relevant in front-line services like home care and
residential care. In the next 10 years there will be a mass exodus
of those staff.”
And there are few young people wanting to replace them. Andrew
Foster, controller of the Audit Commission, told a symposium in
London last week: “Young people are no longer interested in joining
the public service.”
Simon says this is especially true of social work. “As things stand
it is very difficult to recruit young people who see social care as
an attractive and long-term profession. It doesn’t have the image
to attract 18 to 19-year-olds.”
But then there is the view that people entering social work need
“life experience” and “maturity”, which could deter some young
people. And students joining the Diploma in Social Work have to
demonstrate experience in the profession before entering.
Johnston says: “This notion that in the profession you need life
experience and maturity is a kick in the teeth to young
But Unison’s national officer for social services, Owen Davies,
says: “It is the sort of job where maturity of outlook is
He does not believe that the need to recruit young people while
also attracting those with experience is contradictory.
“There are a number of different access routes into the
profession,” he says, adding that there should be a new opportunity
for 16 to 18-year-olds to join social work undertaking roles
appropriate to their age, and developing their skills as their life
But Davies is concerned about the short-term. “There are already
organisations finding it difficult to provide adequate levels of
service,” he says. “Vacancy rates are so high, staff are grossly
overworked and those are the departments where mistakes
Johnston adds that, if a solution is not found soon, “people would
be forced to cut corners and engage staff without the skills to do
the work rather than not have the work done at all”.
The latest Employers Organisation report shows the number of people
working in social services departments is almost 3 per cent lower
than the previous year. The average vacancy rate is 9.4 per cent,
with vacancies in children and family field social worker posts at
11.3 per cent.
“Unless we can boost recruitment to begin to anticipate increased
rates of retirement, there will be even more serious problems,”
“If we don’t get people while they are young, they are already
committed to other career paths,” Simon points out. Johnson adds:
“Enterprising young people won’t wait around.”
But the Audit Commission says many school leavers and potential
university graduates barely know what the public sector is.
Research manager Maggie Dwyer claims school-leavers asked whether
retail and banking was in the public sector, because it involved
working with the public. “Once they realised what it was, they were
fairly horrified about going into some of those jobs,” she says.
“They saw public sector jobs as low status and low pay.”
But there are a number of factors that could begin to entice young
people into social work. The government’s recruitment campaign was
launched last October to raise the awareness of social work and
increase the number of people applying for social work
The Department of Health claims the helpline has received more than
22,000 calls. But the proof of its success will be later this year
when data will show how many of those callers went on to apply for
social work courses.
A spokesperson says the campaign does not specifically target
younger people, but all ages who might have an interest. A third
phase is planned for the autumn.
Johnston believes the campaign has started to attract young people,
but it needs more investment. He explains that social work loses
out in competition with other public service professions.
“Social work often becomes the poor relation to nursing and
police,” he says.
Younger people may also be attracted by the General Social Care
Council’s agreement with the DoH to remove the age barrier of 22
for people joining the DipSW, and the introduction of the new
degree course, starting next year.
“Young people will now go to university with the aim of being
social workers,” says Hilary Simon. “Currently we have to capture
their imaginations when they may not be studying anything to do
with social work.”
Meanwhile, the commission’s report highlights existing good
practice in tackling recruitment and retention, and mentions Essex
social services’ efforts at promoting a positive media image and
Dudley social services’ attempts to create a progressive management
So there is some hope at least that, as happened in the early
1990s, a threatened demographic time bomb will fail to
As Dwyer points out: “If you can get people to come in to the
profession there is no reason why there will be a problem. But
there will be if action is not taken now.”
1 The Employers
Organisation report is available from David.Mellor@lg-employers.gov.uk