The current restructuring of social services and realignment with other statutory sectors is seeing fresh opportunities opening up for staff who want a change of scene. Roisin Woolnough reports
It’s the classic interview question: “Where do you see your career in five years’ time?” Don’t just leave it up to an interviewer to ask that question though. Ask yourself from time to time. It forces you to focus on what you want from your career.
Otherwise, people fall into the trap of being bogged down by the daily grind of work and neglecting their career development, particularly with all the pressures and tight deadlines social care professionals have to work under.
Keeping abreast of your career development also means keeping abreast of sector development. The sector could look quite different in a few years’ time and you need to ensure you and your skills are changing with it.
“Make sure you read and keep informed of the way your service is developing,” says Pauline Moignard (pictured), a freelance human resources consultant specialising in social care.
“Listen to briefings and read internal newsletters so you are informed about new developments and the opportunities available. You want to make sure you are prepared for change and moving with it so that you’re not left behind. In the light of such changes plan how and where you want to go in the next couple of years.”
Think about how you and your employer will fit into all the forthcoming changes. You should be having these kinds of conversations with your line managers and colleagues anyway.
Moignard thinks annual appraisals provide an excellent opportunity for people to reflect on their career and sector change. Look at what is happening, what you have done and achieved in the preceding year and consider what you want from the following year.
Unfortunately, a lot of employees are cynical about the value of appraisals, viewing them as a kind of end of year report when employers give out marks for performance. However, when done well and taken seriously by both parties, an appraisal allows you to take a step back from the day-to-day work and look at the bigger picture. You and your manager should come up with a plan of how to develop your skills and career path over the next 12 months and set some goals.
“That event is not just for your employer to look at how you are doing but for you to assess your own progress as well,” says Moignard. She describes it as a time for taking stock of your progress.
Assessing your career path with your manager shouldn’t only take place on an annual basis though. It should also happen in supervision sessions. Good supervision will help you find where your strengths lie and what skills you need to develop. Like the annual appraisal, these sessions should focus on your whole career and not just your current role.
Don’t expect your manager to give you all the answers though. You need to be on top of your own career development. That can be hard if you are dissatisfied with what you are doing and unsure of what to do next. If this is the case, you need to decide what tasks you are good at and enjoy the most, which you enjoy the least and what skills you need to develop.
Someone who has done this is Gretchen Precey. Now an independent social worker, trainer, consultant and director of Gretchen Precey Social Work Services, Precey had spent more than 20 years working in local authorities before branching out on her own. “I thought long and hard because it was a very difficult decision to make,” she says. “But I felt I was spending too much time trying to deal with regulations and most of my stress was trying to deal with central government.”
When she had made the decision to leave local authority work, she turned her attention to what she wanted to do as a freelancer. “You need to be doing what you enjoy the most and do the best. You have to think about what will give you the most satisfaction.”
Finding your own way doesn’t have to mean doing it on your own though – or leaving your current employer. In fact, if you do want to move into a new social work role or take on responsibilities that you don’t already have experience of, try to do this in your existing organisation.
“As organisations tend to advertise for people who already have the skills to do the job it is less likely that opportunities for development or change would be readily open to people applying on the open market if they need to develop their knowledge,” says Moignard. “It is far better to use opportunities and contacts within your current employer organisation.”
Think about who can help you get where you need to go in your organisation. Colleagues are a good starting point. “Ask colleagues to get feedback and perspective on what they see are your best skills,” says Victoria Winkler, employee adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Winkler also advises speaking to your human resources and training departments. Ask what career development opportunities the organisation offers, what training you could do and if there are any schemes that could improve your skills.
For example, if you want to move into another aspect of social care, find out if you can job shadow someone doing the role you would like to do. HR and your line manager should be able to help set this up. Talk to people doing the role so that you can find out if it is really what you want. Gaining as much information as possible on any career move will help you make an informed choice.
You could find a mentor, either someone who is working in the field you want to work in or who has a good handle on the social care world and how to get ahead in it.
Project work is another excellent way to develop new skills and move your career in a fresh direction. It would also give you the opportunity to work with different people and widen your contact base.
Making the move into management is often a challenge for people. It’s the age old problem of not getting management jobs because you don’t have management experience and not getting the experience because you can’t get the management jobs.
Try to get that experience in your current role instead, says Moignard: “You could become a practice placement supervisor and take responsibility for a student. As an experienced worker there may be other opportunities to assist with the induction of a new colleague, or support any newly qualified social workers starting their first job.” This way you can get the necessary skills and show you are serious about moving into management.
A big bonus about doing all of this in your existing role is that you don’t have to actually make any changes before you definitely know they are right for you. “Having the chance to try something out temporarily gives the opportunity to find out whether it really is the right next move without making a permanent change which might be regretted,” says Moignard. It is also less daunting than jacking in your job for the unknown.
If there don’t seem to be any opportunities in-house or help isn’t readily available, consider external courses or career advisers. Career and life coaching are increasingly popular. Heather Wolsey-Ottaway, a social worker for Cornwall Council and also a life coach, says a coach will never tell a person what to do. “The coach will ask searching questions to help the person look at what they really want out of life, their passions, motivations, where a career fits into their wider life,” she says.
Career development is a process and not something that happens overnight. Don’t feel you have to make drastic changes all in one go. The incremental approach is often best. “Remember that change happens at everyone’s own individual pace,” says Wolsey-Ottaway.
“Some people will make big changes very quickly, others will need to do it more slowly.” The important thing is to get started. “Always do at least one thing every week, such as making one phone call or doing one piece of research on the internet, to work towards your ultimate goal of living the life you want, and you will get out of that rut.”
A word of caution about having an ultimate goal and a five-year plan, however. While it’s important to have a career plan, don’t be too rigid about sticking to it. Keep your mind open to other possibilities or you might miss out on a career path that is even better for you – particularly in these times of change.