Gordon Carson looks at possible destinations for social workers thinking of packing their bags and practising overseas, and presents tips on planning for a new life abroad
Fancy swapping Sheffield for Sydney or Dundee for Darwin, and leaving the UK for new professional pastures? If so, you won’t be alone. In 2008, an estimated 151,000 UK-born people emigrated, according to the Office for National Statistics, and almost a quarter were bound for Australia, the most popular destination.
With savage public sector spending cuts looming in the UK, and no signs of workload pressures easing, particularly in child protection, a one-way ticket to a life of sunshine and surf might seem tempting.
There are no official figures for the number of UK-qualified social workers leaving the country to work overseas, or their intended destinations. However, recruiters tend to focus on countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, where the language, culture, socio-economic situation and career pathways into social work are similar to those in the UK.
David N Jones, a former president of the International Federation of Social Workers, says a lack of language skills can be a barrier to UK workers moving to countries where English is not the primary language.
“Moving to Europe is pretty rare,” says Jones, a well-known figure in the British social work sector. “Social work requires language as its basic tool and you have to be fluent because you need to understand nuances and also the importance of non-verbal communication.”
With the global economy hardly in buoyant health, Jones says that, for UK workers looking to emigrate, there “isn’t an obvious place where things are booming”. Only China booms – but the language barrier may be too formidable.
In contrast, the UK continues to be a “very attractive” option for foreign social workers who learned English from a young age, says Jones. Almost 6,700 social workers who trained overseas are registered to practise in England, according to the General Social Care Council. Commonwealth countries top the list of countries of origin, with more than 940 from South Africa, 910 from India and 887 from Australia.
Although many Australian social workers end up in the UK, child protection social work is still on Australia’s skilled occupations shortages list, meaning Down Under may offer the greatest potential for that overseas career move.
For example, Reed Specialist Recruitment has been asked by Australia’s Department of Human Services to fill 60 social work vacancies by the end of the year, while HCL International is recruiting children’s social workers for the governments of the state of Victoria and Northern Territory.
HCL manager Meaghan Roland says the company received at least 400 expressions of interest in overseas moves last year from UK social workers seeking a better work-life balance, experience of another professional environment, or a “sense of adventure”.
“In the Northern Territory of Australia, social workers find themselves working with indigenous communities in areas so rural that you might have to do bush trips by light aircraft or four-wheel-drive vehicles and stay overnight in a sleeping bag in a makeshift shelter.”
Although this can be a thrill for some, emigrants can often experience isolation when working in remote areas, says Rachel Perkins, a qualified social worker and now senior consultant for Reed Specialist Recruitment in Australia. Some may also have unrealistic expectations of the cost of living, while continuing to cover debts and expenses in the UK.
However, an overseas move enables many social workers to enjoy a better work-life balance and overall quality of life, says Roland. “Most people we place say they do not miss the UK in any serious way although they do cite things like British pubs and food, and one social worker was even nostalgic for the London Underground.”
MAKING THE MOVE
The paperwork: Visa requirements and qualifications vary from country to country (see p30). Jobs in some countries may require a minimum level of experience along with good references and a valid police check from the candidate’s home country.
Shipping belongings and finding accommodation: Reputable recruitment agencies should be able to help with finding and moving in to accommodation, opening a bank account, and even getting pets into your new country. Pickfords, the global removal firm, says transit times for shipping belongings to Australia vary from seven to 14 weeks depending on city of destination and whether you book a shared container or one for sole use. Australian customs can be particularly tough on goods contaminated with soil, and belongings can be subject to fumigation, which incurs extra costs.
Dealing with common problems: Life overseas isn’t all beaches and barbies, so don’t be surprised or disheartened if things don’t turn out exactly as planned. As well as social difficulties, Reed’s Perkins says social workers moving to Australia may struggle to adjust to “extreme weather”.
CASE STUDY: ‘I spotted an advert for a job in Canberra’
Michaela Bell and her husband Steven moved to Australia after seeing a job advertised in Community Care
Michaela Bell moved from Scotland last year to work in child protection in Canberra, Australia, with her husband, Steven. She is now a senior programme officer in the city’s Office for Children, Youth and Family Support, while Steven works in a secure unit for young offenders.
“There wasn’t one thing that led me to move to Australia but a combination of experiences.
“I started a social work degree in 2000, after several years working in a youth centre. Most of my experience since qualifying has been working in area child protection teams.
“But in 2006 I had a health scare which led me to think of what I wanted to achieve. I studied for an MBA which set me thinking a little deeper. I realised I longed to live in another, preferably warm, country.
“My husband and I had three sons approaching adulthood. We had lived in the same house for 15 years and it seemed the right time to change direction. In May 2008, I spotted an advert in Community Care for social workers in Canberra. The employer offered a permanent visa for all my family, and a $20,000 relocation package. We eventually moved in June 2009.
“There are some differences in work practices in child protection in Australia, and a lack of qualified social workers. Some staff have degrees in subjects like psychology, which can cause difficulties with professional expectations. The biggest issue is that not everyone in the office is a qualified social worker.
However, the transition for UK workers is fairly easy, with many laws and procedures similar to those back home. The paperwork is similar, with initial assessments completed at the referral stage and a more comprehensive assessment in preparation for court if needed. Paperwork takes around two days per week, leaving three days to work directly with families.
“Where I work the caseload limits are 15 families and it seldom goes above this number. Less experienced workers are given about 12 families to manage, with regular supervision.
“However, Australia’s privacy laws can limit information-sharing and staff cannot divulge information to the family about the source of the referral, which can cause difficulties.”
COUNTRY-BY-COUNTRY GUIDE TO SOCIAL WORK OVERSEAS
Visa and qualification requirements:
People seeking to work in the US temporarily as a non-immigrant need a specific visa based on the type of work they will be doing.
Most US social workers are qualified to Masters level. UK migrants would need to go through a review for degree equivalency conducted by the Council on Social Work Education, the national accreditation body for social work education, which takes six to 12 weeks.
Registration and licensing requirements vary from state to state – contact details can be found through the Association of Social Work Boards website (see below). Candidates must pass a state-administered exam to obtain a license to practise.
Almost half of full-time social workers earn from $40,000 (£26,000) to $60,000 a year, according to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) latest membership survey (from late 2007). The statutory social work market in the US is depressed due to spending cuts,. However, much service provision is outsourced to the private sector.
Policy and challenges:
The number of children in the US is expected to grow to 86 million by 2030, creating a “critical need for adequate child care services”, according to NASW’s 2009 workforce trends report. There is also a continuation of the “intractable problem” of homelessness among military veterans.
More on making the move to the USA from
Visa and qualification requirements:
Social workers often enter Australia on sponsored working or long-stay business sponsorship visas, known as “457” visas. In these cases, employers nominate a person to fill a vacancy for a highly skilled worker. The visas take six to12 weeks to process.
The standard job offer is a fixed-term, two-year contract, although the visa lasts for four years, meaning there can be an option to extend the contract or apply for permanent residency.
Those who secure a job in Australia will typically have gained at least a Diploma, BA or MA in social work, along with a minimum of two years’ post-qualifying experience. The requirements may be higher for clients investing in sponsorship.
There is no compulsory registration for social workers with a national body. However, local employers sometimes prefer social workers to become accredited through the Australian Association of Social Workers.
Salaries start from around AUS$50,000 (£28,600 at recent exchange rates). According to HCL, a social workers with two years’ PQ experience in the UK can earn around AUS$60,000, with salaries for team leaders ranging from AUS$68,000 to $80,000.
Policy and challenges:
Child abuse and neglect, substance misuse and an ageing population; Australia faces many similar social challenges to the UK. Added to the mix is work with indigenous people, who are often disadvantaged, in remote areas of the country.
More on making the move to Australia from
Visa and qualification requirements:
UK social workers looking to work in New Zealand should be qualified to degree level. The skilled migrant category allows foreign citizens to apply for a New Zealand residence visa or permit. Candidates must first submit an expression of interest to apply, and are then allocated points based on factors including qualifications and work experience. Applications for permanent residence take six to 12 months to process.
Registration of social workers is voluntary, but there are moves to make it mandatory. Social workers need to complete a competency assessment before seeking registration. This can be done through the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers or the Social Workers Registration Board.
Slightly lower than in the UK but the cost of living is lower too. For example, the Child, Youth and Family Service pays frontline workers from NZ$42,000 (£19,000) to NZ$62,000 (£28,000).
Policy and challenges:
ANZASW says more than 100,000 notifications of child abuse and neglect are expected in New Zealand this year. The New Zealand government is developing an integrated model of funding and delivering services for families in need, under the Whanau Ora banner (see www.tpk.govt.nz/en/in-focus/whanau-ora).
In adult care, New Zealand faces an ageing population and is placing more emphasis on earlier discharge from hospital.
More on making the move to New Zealand from:
More on working in social work overseas from:
This article is published in the 9 September 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “The lure of jobs far from home”