Until recently it was common for agency workers to leave councils they may have worked with for months as the financial year drew to a close, only to return a few weeks later at the start of the new fiscal year.
But these days many who leave either go for good – or return to stay permanently. Councils that have been reliant on agency workers for several years are becoming adept at devising strategies to recruit and retain people to permanent posts.
Success in this area had eluded many but pressure to cut bills for agency staff was increased by the 2004 Gershon review, which called on local authorities to make 2.5 per cent annual efficiency savings from 2005-8. From April to September 2004, councils spent £151m on long-term agency staff in social services, up from £120m the previous year, and not including the costs of shortterm placements.(1)
Joanna (not her real name) is a manager at a national recruitment agency. She says the Gershon review has had a major impact on the use of agency staff. “Councils are
under more pressure than ever to bring budgets into line and there has been a large growth in permanent posts,” she says.
The drive to fill vacancies with permanent staff has led some councils to employ aggressive methods, including piling pressure on locums to accept permanent positions, she adds.
Why somebody who has swapped permanent work for a life as a locum because they were attracted to improved pay and flexibility would then be persuaded to return to a permanent job is, on the face of it, hard to fathom.
Kevin Miller, director of adult social services at Wirral Council, explains that although councils cannot match the salaries offered by agencies, they do offer other benefits, such as pensions and favourable sick leave, which agency workers have not always considered.
“When we ask workers ‘why are you working for them and not us?’ they will often say they earn more. But when you sit down with them and look at everything in the cold light of day they will often see that we offer extra benefits.”
For example, he adds, some young, qualified workers do not think about the need for a pension until it’s explained.
But Susan Cranie, managing director of social work agency Careplan and board member of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which represents agencies, describes it as a kind of “bullying tactic”, which is often effective on newly qualified workers worried about job security. Experienced agency workers are often more savvy
and are prepared to reject the offer of a permanent job, confident that their agency will find them another job elsewhere, she adds.
Nevertheless, even loyal locums can be tempted into taking a permanent post if it means they can remain at a council closer to home. “You would never believe how reluctant some people are to travel. They will not work outside of a five-mile radius of where they live,” says Joanna. For these people councils’ selling point is convenience, which agencies cannot compete with.
But authorities such as Wirral realise that in addition to improved pay, workers are attracted to locum jobs because they offer greater flexibility, and have responded by attempting to improve the work/life balance for staff.
Miller says: “We have to consider the consistency and continuity of service and it doesn’t suit all parts of social work, but there are some areas where we can allow people to do a condensed week, for example.”
This could involve working extra hours four days a week and then having Friday off, he adds.
Some councils are sending managers overseas to recruit workers, offering generous golden hellos, training opportunities and relocation packages that the smaller agencies
cannot match, says Cranie.
Joanna says the strategies employed by councils “will have affected some agencies quite badly”. But how badly hit have they been overall?
Cranie says that one outer London borough client used to take between 12 and 18 of workers on her books at one time; it now uses just two. Joanna adds that she currently has 150 locum posts to fill in the south of England, down from over 200 a year ago.
Councils’ success in cutting temporary staff usage has forced agencies to shore up their financial position.
“I could see what was happening and I have had to diversify by branching out into commercial recruitment, such as administrative and secretarial staff,” says Cranie.
The drive for councils to find ever greater value for money means the tough times will continue for agencies, and measures such as those taken by Cranie will be increasingly necessary.
But although the market for agency social workers is noticeably less buoyant, it is far from in crisis. Despite the successes that some councils have had, there are plenty of others that continue to need agency staff so, although it may not be quite business as usual for some agencies, they are far from finished in social work.
(1) Employers’ Organisation for Local Government, Social Care Workforce Survey Report 2004
CASE STUDY: MERTON COUNCIL
In July 2005, 52 per cent of Merton Council’s children’s social care staff came from agencies. A year later the figure had dropped to 33 per cent.
Head of children’s social care Helen Lincoln says: “I know the use of agency workers may still seem quite high but we have done a lot to reduce it. I sent some managers over to the US to recruit 10 social workers. I prefer to do that because if you get a company to do it you don’t know what you’re getting. In the past we have recruited from South Africa and Canada.
“We go for places that have very good academic social work training. In the US it is post-graduate level. We need people who are able to assimilate and get to grips quickly with legislation. We have also started running a trainee social work scheme, whereby we part fund people to do the degree. We run this with Kingston University
and our first graduate has just passed with a first so we’re very pleased.
“We have also targeted students by offering a lot of placements. Last year we had 25 students on placement and we recruited five of them, which shows that the traditional recruitment routes still work. If you have done your placement somewhere it means you’re more likely to apply for a job within that service.
“We have also persuaded some locums to take a permanent post. Word-of-mouth is very important. It can be difficult filling posts in areas such as child protection, especially when there are lots of attractive roles in areas such as children’s centres that are not as stressful. Heavy caseloads are the quickest way to lose people so we
keep an eye on them. We do try and make the office as nice as possible, make sure people have their own space and car parking. They are small things but they make a