Just the job

If you speak to 12-year-olds about working in social care, most of them will be unaware of what you are talking about unless they have personal experience. And when you speak to social care workers about how they found their way into social care, many will tell you they ended up in their chosen occupation “by accident”.

However, relying on people stumbling into a career in social care is unlikely to fill the sector’s large number of vacancies. Neither will this approach prepare people to think differently about the range of opportunities available, as social care services change and adapt to drive forward citizenship and the strategic objectives that will be outlined in the forthcoming health and social care white paper.

In Cambridgeshire, we decided in 2003 to tackle some of the recruitment issues by actively promoting careers in social care. By ensuring that young people and adults had good quality information available to them and a point of contact who could guide them towards enthusiastic advocates, we could begin to tackle high vacancy rates in some local services and address the
poor image, knowledge and understanding of what social care workers do.

As social care staff, we realised that we knew nothing about how careers advice services worked and that our assumptions that everyone would be as enthusiastic about social care as we were might not be as accurate as we thought. So our first task was to set up a steering group that included colleagues from human resources, the NHS, the independent sector, further education colleges and the careers service.

Early on, we realised that the language of the careers service is a very different language from the one spoken by social care professionals. For example, when we interviewed for our careers adviser, it became clear that the trained careers staff were giving us answers to our questions that we did not understand.

When we did appoint someone from the careers service to run our one-year project, we came up with a clear set of what we thought were simple goals. Our first – working with schools to set up opportunities for social care workers to talk to children about their roles – is also one of the key objectives of the Skills for Care-led social care ambassadors scheme similar to the one being developed by the NHS.

We set out from the start to work in partnership with these schemes. Recruiting ambassadors to go into schools takes time, but it is also important to work alongside local teachers with the lead for careers. The key to “getting in” is to plan ahead, as many schools prepare careers sessions months in advance. We found that to get into this planning cycle was as important as having trained, well-equipped and enthusiastic staff ready to go into schools.

Work shadowing is used in many industries to help adults try a job before they apply. So our second goal focused on establishing such a scheme through Jobcentres for adults returning to work. This approach was particularly important to small independent and voluntary sector organisations. They had staff they had taken on after going through the long process of recruitment, only to find they left after two or three weeks, saying they had not realised what the job entailed. Obviously, this is an expensive process to repeat for any organisation, let alone the time it can take before the recruitment process can be completed again.

A key issue in any work shadowing programme in social care is maintaining the dignity of service users. Each person signs a contract which stipulates the terms under which the placement is offered. Our findings suggest that work shadowing for adult returners can aid recruitment, as it allows people to try the scheme before looking for work.

To complete our third goal – improving the knowledge base of mainstream careers services – we had to forge strong links with Connexions and the NextStep Adult Guidance Service and set up a conference on social care careers.

When planning any event for the careers service, working with careers partners is essential. Without their help, it would have been difficult for us to identify whom to invite and even more difficult for us to ensure the content is right. Structures that we think are simple can seem impenetrable to a careers service responsible for providing advice across a multitude of sectors, industries, training options and professions.

Unless you make the effort to explain your sector to the careers service, the information they have will rapidly become outdated or be only as good as the quality of the database on which it is stored. An annual local conference is a cost-effective way of ensuring that locally available information remains useful and up-to-date.

Our fourth goal was to design a map of social care careers, qualifications and routes of progression. We undertook this piece of work in partnership with Suffolk and Peterborough local authorities – with Peterborough taking the lead. We mapped a range of job descriptions to qualifications and progression routes, matching our findings into a model similar to the NHS knowledge and skills framework. The map requires more work, as every version raises more issues for exploration.

The fifth goal – locally focused career materials – involved us finding staff working in a range of social care services, photographing them at work and helping them to write a description of how they ended up doing their job and why they like it. We found that young people and adults responded positively to this type of careers material.

A starting point for our careers project was the need to improve recruitment and retention. Although it is difficult at this stage in the project to pull out detailed cost savings, we can identify that investing in specialist careers advice can save on recruitment and agency costs and improve retention. A typical recruitment cycle can cost upwards of £3,000 a person. Agency costs can nearly double the cost of directly employed staff. Each member of staff retained adds to costs related to training, knowledge and experience. We believe that a specialist social care careers adviser can produce cost savings across the whole of the local care system.

By combining our knowledge and skills in social care, with the knowledge of the careers service, we have found that we can make a difference to recruitment and retention. In a competitive jobs market, with an ageing workforce and a range of work opportunities it is only by taking the initiative that we can encourage more people to choose to work in social care rather than fall into social care work by accident.

Jim Thomas manages workforce development for Cambridgeshire Council’s adult support services for disabled people. He has worked in a range of training roles in social care since 1993. He is also the Valuing People Support Team’s expert adviser on workforce development. Adrian Key is a specialist social care careers adviser for Cambridgeshire Council. He is a qualified careers specialist and has worked in careers advice for 11 years.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article outlines a two-year project to improve information and advice available to mainstream careers services, young people, adults and schools about work opportunities in social care. The article looks at the project’s main goals and what worked, what didn’t and why the project is important for the future.

Further information
To look at Cambridgeshire Council’s social care job profiler go to: www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/roleprofiles

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