The government’s social work recruitment drive arguably deserves
two cheers: one for the recent increase in student recruits and
another for trying to change public perceptions about the
Student numbers are on the up. When the national advertising
campaign was launched in 2001, applications to study social work
had been steadily declining for some time. Three years on they have
started to increase, the new social work degree is gaining
popularity and there is hope that more people might enter the
profession in the years ahead.
The publicity campaign has also been generally well received. Its
story-book adverts have presented social work as demanding, complex
and yet personally (if not remuneratively) rewarding – an accurate
and positive portrayal of a profession that often feels poorly
So far, though, the campaign has fallen short of warranting three
cheers. The government will be hard-pressed to meet its target of
recruiting 45,000 social care staff and 5,000 social workers by
2005-6. And there is, as yet, only circumstantial evidence that the
national recruitment campaign has been directly responsible for the
rise in student numbers -Êin fact, some suggest that the
advertising campaign has had little discernible impact. Nor has
there been any measurable change in the public’s attitude to social
Even so, the government deserves some credit for presiding over
reversing the decline in the number of people looking to enter the
But isn’t it now time to look at the retention part of the
recruitment and retention problem?
Having focused efforts on attracting more people into social care,
the government’s next big challenge must surely be to stop the
haemorrhaging of experienced staff from the sector. The latest
workforce survey found that staff turnover rates are still on the
increase. And other surveys suggest that few social workers see
themselves as having a long-term future in the profession. Unless
the government takes retention seriously, its efforts to increase
recruitment will have little effect on staff shortages.
The challenge for government is to address the disincentives
head-on. So long as pay levels and the public image of the sector
compare so abysmally with other industries, experienced staff will
continue to be tempted elsewhere. While students’ desire to make a
difference outweigh their concerns about limited earning power or
status, this will not necessarily remain the case once they have
entered the workforce, taken on a mortgage or had children.
The government will not be able to ignore the question of pay much
longer. There have been many warnings of an emerging crisis as
demand for both child care and elder care soars. The traditional
pool of labour on which social care has depended – women with
limited earning power – is rapidly shrinking. No amount of
recruitment campaigning will prevent people leaving a profession if
they feel they will be better valued and rewarded in another.
An increase in pay for social care work is vital to improve the
status of the profession. But money is only part of the solution.
There’s also a need to foster wider appreciation of the skills and
dedication involved in social care, building on the messages
promoted through the recruitment campaign.
One way to improve understanding might be to introduce a social
care component to training courses for a range of related
professions. Some degree courses offer first-year students the
chance to study more than one subject, enabling them to sample more
than one discipline before specialising. The new three-year social
work degree could include a taster module, introducing the role and
benefits of social care, which could also be open to non-social
This type of introductory course would help some students realise
that social work was not for them while introducing a wider group
of students (who would go on to specialise in other disciplines) to
the value of social care.
Improving retention in social care will also make spending more
effective. Social services departments spend as much as £34m a
year on recruitment costs – money that could be better invested in
Unless the retention element of the government’s recruitment and
retention strategy starts to take shape, the gains that have
recently been made in student recruitment will be lost.
Lisa Harker is chair of the Daycare Trust.