Effective retention measures or ‘vanishing posts’: what’s behind Northern Ireland’s low vacancy rates?

Community Care looks into why Northern Ireland has the lowest social worker vacancy rates in the UK and what this means for job seekers

The Spirit of Belfast sculpture. Photo by Ros Drinkwater/REX

By Rachel Carter and Tristan Donovan

When it comes to social work recruitment and retention, Northern Ireland is a success story, boasting the lowest vacancy rates of any UK country. Vacancy figures released earlier this month show that just 1.9% of social work and social care posts in Northern Ireland were unfilled as at 30 September 2013. This is well below the 6.5% of vacancy rate for the UK as a whole, as found by Community Care’s most recent vacancy rates survey.

But what explains this success? Is Northern Ireland simply better at retaining social workers or is there more than meets the eye to its ability to fill positions?

Belfast Health and Social Care Trust may have the highest vacancy rates for social services staff in Northern Ireland but, with only 3.8% of posts lying empty last September, it was still significantly outperforming the UK average. John Growcott, the trust’s co-director for social work governance, gives some of the credit to his organisation’s “holistic approach” to workforce issues.

“Our idea is that the more engaged we are with people, the more manageable the issues and difficulties that arise will be,” he says.

“We are focusing especially on our first and second lines of management to try to develop people’s repertoire skills, so they see their role with staff as not simply about performance and delivery, but about a more whole-person approach focusing on flexibility and providing people support to cope with the difficulties that may arise.”

As part of its retention push, the trust has created Here for You, a support service offering its social workers access to social activities including aerobics and yoga classes. “It is difficult to measure, but in its own way it has contributed to some easement of the other pressures which are currently around for people,” says Growcott.

Low mobility

But, Growcott concedes, the low vacancy rates are not just down to what is going on within the trust; another important factor is that staff are less willing to change jobs than they use to be. “I think that reflects the overarching economic situation where people are less willing to give up a job because it is more difficult to secure another one,” he says.

This lack of social worker mobility in Northern Ireland may aid retention, but it also makes life harder for job-hunting social workers, with high levels of competition for each open post. “The demand for social work posts within our trust is generally higher than the availability,” says a spokeswoman for the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust. “We hold waiting lists following recruitment drives, but this is common across Northern Ireland.”

Scrutiny panels within health and social care trusts are also keeping down the number of open posts. These panels examine the merits of posts that have become vacant and determine whether these jobs should continue to exist.

According to Carolyn Ewart, manager of the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers, this has resulted in the disappearance of many posts. “This has been in place for a number of years and I know from members that lots of posts aren’t being replaced,” she says.

“When someone leaves and moves onto another job permanently there are posts that simply vanish. This is having an impact on social workers as there are significant pressures in terms of caseloads and the requirement to cover for team members who are no longer in post.”

Supply and demand

The shortage of vacancies also makes life tougher for newly qualified social workers, she adds. “In the last few years we have found, increasingly, that newly qualified social workers are being employed through agencies, taking on temporary contracts or taking on social care jobs rather than social work.

“There are a limited number of posts available and increasing numbers of students qualifying and looking to fill those posts.”

More than 200 social work students graduate in Northern Ireland each year, resulting in nine applicants applying for every post. Such is the oversupply of new social workers that in 2011, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) cut the places on university social work courses from 300 to 260.

However, the DHSSPS has no plans to change the current number of student places. “It was reviewed again in March 2014 and a further reduction will not be made,” says a department spokeswoman. “This decision was based on an analysis of employment patterns of newly qualified social workers, which has not substantively changed since the 2011 analysis.”

The DHSSPS says its decisions on how to adjust the supply of new social workers are designed to match employer demand and are informed by the Northern Ireland Social Care Council’s policy of registering social work students.

“Because of registering student social workers as part of regulation, there is robust information about how many go on to enter employment whether permanent or temporary, which is one of the benefits of student registration,” says the DHSSPS spokeswoman. “In the economic climate, more newly qualified social workers are on temporary contracts initially, but eventually they are obtaining more permanent contracts.”

Career development

For those that do get a job, the DHSSPS believes the steps it has taken to enhance the career progression of social workers in Northern Ireland are helping encourage people to stay. “We introduced an Assessed Year in Employment for newly qualified social workers in 2006 to try and improve supports in the first year and the transition from student to practitioner in order to improve retention,” says the spokeswoman.

“We also have a career structure, which includes senior and principal practitioners who may take complex cases, assist others with complex cases, provide on-the-job coaching and support for frontline staff and develop expertise in particular areas of practice.”

The Health and Social Care Board has also commissioned a review of the coaching and mentoring of social workers to inform the development of coaching and mentoring schemes.

But Growcott is less sure about talk of a mentoring scheme. “We would have to make sure it is an initiative we wish to commit to, particularly in terms of training and capacity.”

For experienced social workers the country’s post-qualifying framework for skills development is paying dividends says Ewart. “The post-qualifying framework has always been held up as a model of excellence across the UK and it is about to be relaunched as the Professional in Practice programme,” she says.

“The idea being that there will be less focus on academic routes to attain those qualifications, but more training available relevant to the social worker’s work.”

This, she argues, should help maintain the low vacancy rates by reducing the number of people leaving the profession for good.

“This has clearly been identified in research as supporting practitioners to maintain resilience and avoid burnout.”

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