“On my first day at university, our tutor walked in and said, ‘You’re on a fantastic course, you’ll walk out of here and straight into a job’,” recalls Deborah Whitley, who finished her social work degree at the University of Ulster last summer. But the reality proved very different. When she began her first practice placement, Whitley learned that many employers these days simply refuse to hire newly qualified social workers. “We knew as soon as our first placement was over that we were going to have a bit of a wait,” she says. “But even so, none of us expected it to be this difficult.”
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Originally the 24-year-old, who lives in the Northern Irish county of Fermanagh, hoped to find a role in mental health or addiction social work. But even after accepting the lack of jobs in those fields and casting her net more widely, she has struggled to get results. “If a job ad comes up in Northern Ireland, it’s normally to go on a waiting list for the following year. Even getting on that waiting list is difficult because there’s so much competition. I’m competing with people who’ve been qualified for three years and have had a chance to work in social work; whereas I walked out of university six months ago and cannot get my foot through the door.”
Whitley isn’t alone. The job market for recent social work graduates across the UK has changed drastically from just a few years ago, when there was a drive to fill vacancies. Che McGarvey-Gill, who completed her masters at the University of York in June 2011 and now lives in Manchester, thought there would be “loads of jobs”. “There’s funding for the course and it’s on the government’s skills shortage website that [children’s ] social workers are needed, so I thought I would walk out of uni with my master’s and get a job without much bother. It turned out not to be.”
Tom Taylor, a 29-year-old living in west London, was also hopeful on the job front when he finished his social work master’s at London South Bank University last September: “I did think it was going to be fairly easy. When I started the master’s there was a big recruitment drive. They had billboards and TV adverts talking about the need for social workers – and there was the bursary for taking the course.” Like many others, Taylor did not anticipate such a dramatic change in the job market.
‘I’ve enlisted the help of everyone I know’
And this struggle came despite the fact that Taylor was “lucky” with his practice placements. “Some people didn’t have a statutory placement,” he says. “Placements were cutting back on staff numbers and so it was hard to find suitable placements because you need a team that have the right support to take on a student. Some people had a horrid time; I was lucky with mine.”
Faced with the unexpected reality of the job market, Whitley, McGarvey-Gill and Taylor had to become more creative job seekers. Taylor has taken on work experience placements, registered with recruitment consultants and done all he can to network. “I’ve enlisted the help of everyone I know,” he says. “Talking to the people I know from my placements, talking to people I know who are currently employed, talking to people at careers fairs. At the beginning I showed people from my placement my applications to get their feedback.”
Whitley volunteers at a day centre for people with physical disabilities and keeps track of the latest research in case it proves relevant to future job applications or interviews.
Keeping your skills fresh
McGarvey-Gill’s answer to the dearth of posts was to take on roles that had some overlap with social work, starting with a job in a council housing team and then one in an improving access to psychological therapies service. “They were useful in keeping my skills fresh,” she says. “But there is a difference in the values; there’s nothing like social work when it comes to looking at the broader picture.” She warns that taking a full-time job can make the hunt for a social work position tougher: “A lot of councils just advertise their jobs on their own websites. If you’re working full-time, having to trawl through each site for jobs is impossible.”
She also enrolled in the British Association of Social Worker’s mentoring scheme for newly qualified social workers: “It was really helpful to speak to someone about the difficulties I was experiencing in my job and what I needed to be doing to develop my skills and things like that. It gave me a bit of motivation that I needed at that time.”
All three admit it’s hard to stay optimistic when the rejections start to pile up. “The question I get constantly from family and friends is: ‘Have you got a job yet?’,” says Whitley. “I know they mean well, but it’s a very disheartening question when every time your response is: ‘No, I’ve had another interview or another rejection’. You start to lose confidence, that’s the big thing. You don’t go into interviews thinking, ‘I’m going to get this,’ you walk in thinking, ‘There’s a high chance I’m not going to get this but I’m going to try anyway’.”
Another pressure, Taylor adds, is the nagging fear that, if it takes too long to get a social work job, his degree and knowledge might become redundant. Not to mention the need to earn money, which has led some of his course mates into taking jobs without any connection to social work. “Some people fall into doing things out of necessity, which is a shame because I know they really want to do social work. But living in London isn’t cheap and they’ve got to keep their heads above water.”
Worth the wait
The outlook for newly qualified social workers isn’t completely bleak, however. In December, McGarvey-Gill finally started the social work job she had been looking for since qualifying in 2011 with a post at Cumbria council and, she says, it’s great to have finally got there. “It’s brilliant and was definitely worth the wait. It’s got all the values and autonomy of social work – the reasons I wanted to go into social work in the first place.”
And while he hasn’t found a social work role yet, Taylor is optimistic about the future: “I’m going into a position as a project worker at a homelessness charity that I think will be a really good learning experience for me. I know some people who have got social work positions out of it in the past.
He adds: “It is competitive and positions are hard to find – but it’s not impossible.”