By Rachel Schraer and Kirsty McGregor
One in 10 local authority social workers is newly qualified and a third of employers are actively recruiting from the pool of recent graduates, a freedom of information investigation by Community Care has revealed.
Despite rising concern among many students about their future job prospects, our findings show most local authorities across the UK (96%) are open to applications from newly qualified social workers (NQSWs), even if they are not specifically targeting them in recruitment campaigns or job ads.
There are, however, wide variations in the way employers recruit and support NQSWs. Some local authorities employ none, while, at the other end of the spectrum, a third of Birmingham council’s social workers is newly qualified.
English authorities employ a slightly higher proportion on average, at roughly 11%, followed closely by Scottish and Welsh authorities (9%) and finally Northern Ireland’s health and social care trusts; responses received from three out of the five trusts suggested the average was around 4%.
Meanwhile, basic starting salaries range from around £21,400 in some areas to £35,300 in the City of London.
‘Unsuitable’ roles for NQSWs
The data raises the question of how far councils should strive to fill their vacancies with permanent social workers, regardless of whether the candidates are experienced.
There are compelling reasons to employ at least some NQSWs, said Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), in response to the findings.
“All local authorities that employ social workers should commit themselves to the development of the workforce of the future,” he said.
“Social work decisions are at the heart of processes that support families, protect vulnerable people and enable choice, which seems like reason enough to invest a bit in the future.”
Birmingham said it was working towards an “aspirational target” of 20%. A spokesperson said: “Like all local authorities, we are keen to get the balance right between newly qualified and experienced staff; we know that working in Birmingham presents real challenges for both.”
But for some councils, the challenging nature of the positions on offer is the very reason they have lower proportions of NQSWs in permanent roles.
Tower Hamlets said their target of one NQSW per team – a target that has been hailed as a rule of thumb by other councils, including Worcestershire – has not been achieved through “normal recruitment processes”, as many of the vacancies were in frontline assessment and child protection teams, which the council deemed “not always suitable for NQSWs”.
At the moment, only 1% of its social workers in adult services is newly qualified, and 3% in children’s.
Several of the councils that told us they are actively recruiting NQSWs stressed that this could only happen in the context of proper, structured support and guidance.
A spokesperson for Leicester council, where 23% of social workers in adult services are newly qualified, explained: “We have been actively seeking to recruit social workers to support transformation work and this has drawn in a number of NQSWs over the last year.
“An investment of time is required in developing NQSW staff and there is a need to have a balance, to ensure that complex caseload volumes are not overwhelming the more experienced staff.”
Investing in the future
Despite his call to invest in recruiting NQSWs, Webb agreed that team sizes need to be kept at a level at which social workers are adequately supported, and turnover is not at a level that gets in the way of good practice.
“It is vital that NQSWs are provided with a programme of support tailored to their past experiences, specific development requirements and access to competent, confident role-modelling.”
This need to recruit combined with a pool of applicants made up mostly of recent graduate has driven councils like Norfolk to implement an “academy approach” to support the recruitment of more NQSWs.
Joe Godden, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said he hoped other authorities would follow Norfolk’s lead.
“Good employers understand the importance of workforce planning and are recognising that it is important to recruit NQSWs,” he said.
“NQSWs are a great investment and if they are supported well, and the staff supporting them are supported well, then this will go a long way to solving the retention issue in social work.”