Pretty Vacant

The improvement agenda in Welsh social services is being held back by recruitment problems. Derren Hayes reports

Tony Garthwaite, Bridgend social services director and author of last year’s major report into the state of Welsh social services, pulls no punches about the scale of the problem facing the profession.

“We find ourselves in a position where the demand for social workers is in excess of the supply and where this imbalance is likely to remain for some years to come. Very simply, there are too many social worker vacancies in councils and the impact on services is being further compounded by too much movement of social workers,” he says in the summary to Social Work in Wales – A Profession to Value.

While vacancy rates in England have shown signs of dropping in recent years those in Wales have continued upwards unabated. At the last count, the average vacancy rate across Welsh social services departments was 14.8 per cent. That means around one in seven posts remained unfilled (see Vacancy rates).

According to the Garthwaite report recruitment was perceived by councils as being most problematic in children’s services with nearly two-thirds reporting major difficulties followed by mental health services and learning difficulties.

There are many reasons for this. There is evidence that social workers feel undervalued  and this expresses itself not only through dissatisfaction with pay but also with poor working  conditions and levels of employer support, such as supervision, good accommodation and training.

Regardless of this, the net effect is the same: it damages the capacity of local authorities to deliver services and increases the chances that service users will have a bad experience.

Garthwaite believes the challenge is both in terms of recruitment and retention. While children’s services vacancy rates in some authorities now top 30 per cent – an indication of the shortage of workers to go round – equally high turnover levels also highlight how often social workers are moving jobs (see Turnover rates).

A survey of social workers found more than a quarter indicated that they were likely or very likely to leave their current job within the next six months, and nearly as many were either actively seeking another job or already had a job offer.

So how do authorities tackle such a dire scenario? When social workers were asked what might have made them stay in their job a quarter cited better management practices; 9 per cent said more appreciation and feedback from management; better pay and conditions would have persuaded 20 per cent, while 14 per cent said better career development. Solving recruitment
and retention problems and developing more flexible working arrangements were also mentioned.

The shortage has created a situation where councils will raise pay and conditions and even offer one-off incentives to attract staff. This inevitably is a piecemeal and short-term solution.

This has not stopped councils trying. Some, such as Powys offer a range of extra benefits to their social workers including post-qualification payments of up to £1,500, subsidised gym memberships, career break schemes and an £8,000 relocation package.

Many authorities now run “grow your own” schemes, with Torfaen offering trainee practitioners a £2,000 retention payment if they agree to remain with them for two years after qualification.

However, the report found little or no evidence that offering incentives has reduced vacancy and turnover rates to levels below those of authorities not offering them.

Wrexham knows better than most how to address the problem: its social services human resources strategy was praised by the Social Services Inspectorate Wales as one of the best in the country. A testament to this is that it is currently fully staffed.

Working conditions initiative - thumbnail click to enlarge image

Dave Palmer, Wrexham social services HR manager, says the council’s policy is built on developing and rewarding staff and forging strong links with students.

“Sometimes people concentrate on recruitment to the determent of the other  areas. We brought in additional pay for those with post-qualifying awards and dramatically increased the number of work placements we offered to student social workers as if they have a good placement they are more likely to come back to us after qualifying,” Palmer says.

He’s adamant that the introduction of flexible working hours to enable staff to balance professional and family commitments and more home working has not only been welcomed by staff but helped make services more responsive to service users’ needs.

“They can organise client visits at key times after 4pm – it moves away from the nine to five working day,” he adds.

Palmer is particularly proud that the department has the highest number of qualified staff of any in the country. He says the quality of its training is what enables it to compete with its big city neighbours Manchester and Liverpool.

Despite his success Palmer is not resting on his laurels. The ageing nature of the workforce means he doesn’t expect the recruitment and retention pressures to get any easier in the short term.

“It’s a fact of life that we have a mature workforce, but early indications are that the degree is drawing younger people into the profession and we are also engaging children of school leaving age to tell them about careers in social care,” he adds.

Job satisfaction

● Social Work in Wales – A Profession to Value from 

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