Despite a prediction of more redundancies in the public sector this year and tightening budgets, Derren Hayes finds that employers still need to recruit more staff
A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggested 2006 was going to be a tough year for recruitment in the public sector.
It found that public sector employers anticipated making more redundancies than they did recruiting new staff. In fact, 31 per cent of public sector employers intended to make redundancies in the quarter ending March 2006, more than any other area.
Just a quarter of public services employers planned to recruit, compared with 38 per cent of manufacturers, 41 per cent of private sector and nearly half of voluntary sector employers in the same period. Of those public and voluntary organisations planning to recruit, 43 and 46 per cent respectively anticipated difficulties in finding new staff.
Of course, the public sector – particularly social services – isn’t new to recruitment difficulties, but the findings could be significant because they may represent the first time in nearly a decade that the sector experiences workforce shrinkage.
Many would say this scenario is unsurprising: two years ago the government cut the rate of growth in public sector spending and at the same time launched an efficiency drive – the Gershon Review – of local government, which recommended savings of 600m.
And this has come at a time when social care workers’ skills have never been more needed.
Peter Cullimore, chair of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s nurses and carers group, says the demand for care staff is only going to increase.
“It seems to me there’s more effort being put into recruiting because of the continuing shortage of workers and the demand is clearly going to increase as the older people’s population rises. Whether that activity is achieving anything in terms of numbers though I’d question.”
Figures from last year’s local government Employers’ Organisation workforce survey suggest Cullimore is right. It found councils experienced difficulties recruiting children’s (88 per cent), adult’s (72 per cent) and approved social workers (68 per cent). Most councils also said they struggled with retaining social workers.
Angela Baron, resources adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said this shortage of staff and constant churning of jobs will keep recruitment activity strong for the foreseeable future.
“Last year there was quite a lot of recruitment going on and while economic reports show the pace is slowing, indications are it is still quite strong,” she explains.
However, as would be expected, the picture varies across the country. Unsurprisingly, recruitment and retention of professionals was most difficult in London (with an 18 per cent vacancy rate) followed by the North East (14 per cent). While the Employers’ Organisation survey doesn’t break down these figures by type of worker it’s safe to assume social work followed this trend.
“London is the hardest area to recruit in the public sector because of the high cost of living whereas the north tends to have fewer difficulties,” says Baron.
Cullimore agrees that local authorities in the north are under less financial pressure than those in the south – in terms of wages and service costs – and consequently have more flexibility over how money is spent.
Both say that for jobs such as care workers, employers are bringing in migrant workers to fill vacancies in London and other major cities.
“Residential homes and employment agencies are looking more to Eastern Europe to get additional staff,” says Cullimore. “In the past there was a lot of recruitment from the Commonwealth countries but they could only work for a limited period.”
Vic Citarella, employment specialist at the Local Government Association, says there are pockets of recruitment difficulties in most regions. “You have to look at the local circumstances: in East Anglia you have a lot of people travelling to London for work. You have to know what the local labour market is like and what impact increased commuting will have on your workforce,” he adds.
As indicated by the Employers’ Organisation study, the biggest shortage of social workers is in children’s services. More specifically, Citarella says residential child care workers and staff who are the first point of contact are particularly hard to recruit because of the nature of the jobs.
Occupational therapists are also in short supply. “You never see enough come through the qualification route to meet the demand,” says Citarella. “Occupational therapists take one in four of all social work referrals and we need more investment in them.”
When it comes to skills, Iain Booth, deputy director of children’s charity NCH, says local knowledge is becoming increasingly important in the charity’s field of work.
“Knowledge of local social policy is as important now as understanding child care development because we are helping people access services. To apply caring skills you need to have knowledge of how the system works,” explains Booth.
Another trend, he says, is the drive to improve the skills of the whole care workforce, which is raising expectations of staff. “We are looking for a much more able and developed workforce than we once did. It’s a more complex area of work.”
Karen Coghlan, managing director of social care employment agency Quantica, also says its council customers are looking for better quality.
“They are more specific about what they want and look at expertise and experience [of the worker]. Even when they need people in quickly they are still more sophisticated in the way they make appointments than when we started seven years ago.”
While improved skills and increased professionalisation is undeniably positive, some believe it could have a negative effect for those at the bottom of the pay ladder.
“There is going to be an issue over the next few years about the rewards people get for the work they are doing,” explains Citarella. “There is a lot of competition for care home workers from within and outside the sector, and if we’re to deliver the government’s adult social care white paper we are talking about having very skilled and creative people.”
Cullimore says increased expectation of the workforce – driven by new government standards – need to be matched by improved terms and conditions. He adds that the registration of social care workers with the respective UK care councils could lead to some leaving the sector because of the extra burden of paperwork and cost.
All those we spoke to expect recruitment problems to only get worse in the future due to increased competition for a smaller pool of workers. Bearing this in mind, Citarella believes employers will become more focused on retaining the staff they have.
“There seems to be a growing awareness that investment in retention reaps more dividends than recruitment. Things like investment in good management, supervision and appraisal, the quality of the working environment and family friendly policies are emerging as key issues.
“It’s about things that make people think ‘It’s alright working here’.”