Whether you are a newcomer to the social care job market or wishing to progress your career there are some basic rules that will improve your chances. Nick Martindale explains
Moving on from your current job or breaking into the social care sector for the first time is not easy in the current climate, especially if it’s been some time since you last went through the recruitment process.
The following guide – with advice from those in the sector and social care recruiters – should help make your application stand out and give you the best possible account of yourself at the interview stage.
The application stage
Someone shortlisting for a position will have to read 30 or 40 CVs, warns Lai-Har Cheung, employment practice manager within the National Council of Voluntary Organisations’ (NCVO) workforce development team, so it is vital that information is provided in a concise manner with headings, subheads and bulletpoints.
It should list personal information, work experience, education history and any relevant qualifications, in that order and, if there’s room, one or two outside interests. CVs should be tailored to the individual job, says Paul Marriott, managing director of Hays Social Care. “The biggest mistake that many jobseekers make is to use the same stock CV for each application,” he says. “Not only will it be more difficult to determine if you are suitable but it demonstrates a lack of effort and interest in the role. Omitting vital information, such as relevant social work qualifications including DipSW and CQSW as well as GSCC registration, is another major faux pas.”
CVs should be no more than two pages long, he adds.
The covering letter
The job of the covering letter is to provide context for the CV, says Cheung. “It gives you the opportunity to explain briefly why you want this particular job,” she says. “Are you looking for a promotion? Or maybe you want to develop your skills and expertise within a larger organisation? Is this a career change for you?”
Both CVs and covering letters should be thoroughly proofed – by you and someone else – for grammatical and spelling errors, and should be printed on white paper. The covering letter is also an opportunity to explain where you want to be in five years’ time and how you feel this job could help you achieve that, says Manisha
Chauhan, operations director at Social Care Recruitment. “Don’t be too unrealistic about where you want to be, but do show the right amount of ambition,” he adds.
Skills and experience
Both CVs and covering letters should emphasise any relevant experience, says Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for England, at British Association of Social Workers (BASW), even if this is not through paid employment. Good listening skills, the ability to problem solve, empathy, advocacy and valuing difference are all important, as are practical skills such as lifting, washing, first aid and health and safety awareness.
Conversely, any jobs which do not include relevant skills should only be mentioned briefly. “Ensure that you have covered all the competencies from the job description,” says Hays’ Marriott. “Some of the areas that you might want to mention could include management or leadership experience, meeting targets, assessment skills, teamwork and any relevant background in health, education and psychology.” Outlining your own contribution is also important, so always use the first person singular.
Making it stand out
“Remember that you have only a couple of minutes to grab the employer’s attention,” says Marriott. “Focus on the personal statement, as this provides a snapshot of your skill set and social work experience. Try to summarise your technical and interpersonal skills and include keywords to meet criteria, especially if you are applying online. But don’t be tempted to create a flashy design.”
Mansuri, though, warns against trying to be something you’re not. “A genuine enthusiasm to work alongside people in a supportive and sensitive manner are key to good social care work and those that have a passion to work with people in this way are usually the kind employers are looking for,” she says.
The job interview
First impressions are vital in the social care sector as a successful candidate is likely to be working with some of the most vulnerable people in society. Arriving on time and dressing appropriately are essential. Marriott at Hays Social Care says interviews for social work positions are often more informal so a smart casual look is often appropriate. An assertive handshake will set the right tone, he adds. “Body language is often a neglected part of the interview process,” he says. “The key is to relax, keep an open posture and maintain eye contact throughout.”
Talking about relevant experience
The key here is to tell the interviewer what you have actually achieved rather than just what you participated in. If you can give an example it can back up what you are claiming and makes you more memorable, says Chauhan at Social Care Recruitment. But don’t criticise your current employer. “Some people take notes or write down the questions they are asked to help them remember or so they can refer back to them,” adds Cheung at NCVO. “This can be a good tactic if you are nervous or worried about forgetting the question.
However, if you didn’t hear or don’t understand a question, ask for it to be repeated or explained.” If there is a gap between your experience and the brief, the best tactic is to acknowledge this and ask if any training opportunities or support would be available to address this, advises Mansuri at BASW. “Don’t worry about not knowing everything; social care is a lifelong experience of learning and what really matters is people’s willingness to learn and being open to new challenges,” she says.
Questions for employers
Once the main interview is over and you’ve found out the basics, it’s a good idea to ask some questions of your own. Cheung suggests asking about the key challenges the organisation faces and the structure of the company, as well as when you can expect a decision.
“You could ask the panel what they like best about working in the organisation, and maybe what they like least,” she adds. Natalie Hills, senior business manager at Reed Social Care, also suggests asking about how workload is allocated, how your work will be supervised, what their expectations are of you and what opportunities there will be to progress in the future.
Finding out about any induction period is also a good idea but steer clear of any salary negotiations until you’ve actually been offered the job.
What not to do
Sounding as if the job is already yours is a big turn-off for employers, says Mansuri, while Hills warns against being overly forceful or asking for conditions to be changed. And while asking for feedback if you don’t get a position is essential in preparing you for the next opportunity, doing so at the end of an interview is a bad move. “It ends the interview on a negative note and leaves the panel with the impression that you believe you are not actually appointable,” says Cheung.
Finally, it’s important not to become too despondent if things don’t happen straight away. You can also make yourself more attractive to employers by taking on voluntary work or could consider short-term contracts, part-time work or interim assignments.
Careers advice from colleagues
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The Student Zone social work careers guide is supported by Unison.