More newly qualified social workers are reporting difficulty finding jobs, despite high vacancy rates and an overreliance on agency staff. But is the future that bleak, asks Daniel Lombard
When James Edlin applied for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Brighton in early 2008, he had high hopes of landing his dream job as an approved mental health professional. The final years of the Labour government had seen investment in public services rise to unprecedented levels and, with high turnover and vacancy rates in social work teams, the job market in the sector was thriving. “I thought I would be able to walk into a job in mental health,” Edlin recalls.
Special report on newly qualified social workers
Then the 2008-9 recession turned public finances upside down. After taking office in 2010, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats swiftly announced plans to eliminate the UK’s structural deficit by 2015. Councils in England learned they would face 28% grant reductions spread over four years, and the public spending boom was over.
Recruitment freezes are now widespread in social care. For newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) like Edlin, who completed his MSc in June this year, job opportunities have dried up (see case study). “I would love to use my skills to improve the quality of people’s lives through social work and self-directed support,” says Edlin, who has a BSc in psychology. “I had no idea finding a job would be so difficult.”
A quarter of the NQSWs who graduated in England last year are unemployed, reports the General Social Care Council, yet anecdotal evidence suggests most are desperately hunting for social work jobs.
Some people have blamed the high levels of unemployment on a shift in recruitment policies nationally. Croydon Council’s story appears to reflect this: the London borough launched a £13m social work academy in 2010 to strengthen capacity in its children’s services, recruiting and training 35 NQSWs. However, this year, the authority has stopped recruiting NQSWs externally in children’s services because it is nearly at full capacity and the only vacancies are for experienced social workers.
But research by Community Care last year found one in 10 social worker posts in the UK was vacant, suggesting most social work departments were nowhere near capacity.
Many councils are restructuring to accommodate the personalisation agenda and reviewing the roles of social workers, particularly in adults’ services. Bill McKitterick, member of the British Association of Social Workers’ learning and development group for England, says the trend towards reducing social work posts began in the 1990s with the introduction of care management. He suggests the spending cuts are now providing fresh impetus for employers to continue those reforms, leading to more responsibilities delegated to unqualified staff: “When money is tight, there is greater scrutiny of the types of qualifications required by different roles.”
The country’s largest social workers’ union, Unison, is outraged. Helga Pile, national officer for social work, says the trend is a direct result of “huge, front-loaded cuts”, adding: “It is a disgrace that those who train are now seeing their job opportunities dry up.” She suggests that some employers are choosing not to hire NQSWs because “they are not prepared to invest in the additional support a newly qualified worker needs to gain experience and a good grounding in their profession”.
Statutory placement experience is highly valued when it comes to recruitment. Yet a Community Care investigation earlier this year found that councils had reduced their provision of placements in 2010-11 by 11% compared with the previous year. Professor Hilary Tompsett, chair of the Joint University Council’s social work education committee has a warning: “The role of employers in providing [placements] is critical and, at this time, a cause for worry as reports come in that provision in some local authorities is reducing.”
Meanwhile, record number of people are applying for social work degree courses. McKitterick, who is also a senior social work adviser, says: “While we can be fairly sure that there are probably more social workers seeking work than permanent designated posts, great care needs to be taken before sharply reducing the supply.” He believes employers are especially likely to specify two or three years’ experience in high-risk areas such as child protection and mental health, because they want someone who can carry out the full range of responsibilities required by the role.
Council bosses agree that recruitment has become an employer’s market. Barbara Peacock is corporate director (people) at Sandwell Council, in a role which covers children’s and adult services. She has “positively welcomed” the intake of newly qualified practitioners in her authority, but emphasises “we cannot run all our teams on NQSWs and need some skills mix and experience”. She adds: “If the choice is between a good experienced worker and a good NQSW most local authorities will take the former over the latter.”
The problems are not confined to England. Workforce development councils in Scotland and Wales report that most graduates find social work posts within six months of qualifying. However, in Northern Ireland, a combination of public spending cuts and growing use of agency staff has resulted in “anecdotal evidence that some NQSWs are experiencing difficulty finding permanent employment”, says Patricia Higgins, director of registration at the Northern Ireland Social Care Council.
The social work reform programme in England will see the introduction of an assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) for all social work graduates from as early as 2012. Sonia Sharp, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development committee, is confident this and other reforms will lead to more opportunities for NQSWs in the long run. “As local authorities implement the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force and the Munro review relating to supervision and professional development, they will be increasingly well placed to offer a robust package of support to NQSWs,” she says. Yet the success of the ASYE will rely on employers offering jobs to graduates.
Nick Johnson, chief executive of the Social Care Association, believes the government is unlikely to order a cap on social work degree places because ministers will “let the market decide”. What’s needed, he says, is stronger leadership at a local level and a longer-term approach to workforce development.
“Local authorities and other major social work employers should have a succession strategy to bring on future experienced staff,” he adds. “If they don’t, who will?”
‘I can’t even afford the GSCC registration fee’
After spending two years completing a master’s in social work and accruing debts of £2,000, James Edlin finds himself broke and unemployed, unable to land even a support worker role.
He volunteers at a needle exchange and has been living on handouts from his parents. “I can’t go out, if my car breaks down I won’t be able to fix it. I can’t even afford the registration fee with the GSCC. I live in hope that I will become a social worker and my career will take off. It’s depressing but I try to keep my head up,” he says.
Edlin has applied for 15 qualified and unqualified positions and been shortlisted for two social work jobs, but was unsuccessful in the interviews. There are so few jobs in adults’ services in Brighton and Sussex that Edlin has been forced to widen his search to include children and families, even though that is not what he wants to do.
Like Edlin, Jennie Hodson had to put her ambition on hold when she realised there were no jobs available in the mental health field. Since graduating from Wolverhampton University’s BA social work course in 2010 she has been a support worker with a housing association, helping young parents.
Despite a year searching for social work jobs in mental health in the West Midlands, she saw just one local vacancy – which required three years’ post-qualifying experience. So she started applying for children and families positions and recently landed a job at one local authority children’s services department.
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This article is published in the 18 August 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “The jobs gap”