What if every time you started a new job, your employer welcomed you to the community by finding you somewhere to live, a nearby school for your child, and the best pubs in the area to boot? It might sound far-fetched, but these are just some of the strategies emerging as councils try to not just recruit, but retain the best social workers.
Permanency has become a big concern for councils as more and more social workers turn to agency work for the higher pay and more flexible hours. Historically, councils have attempted to recruit staff by offering “golden hellos”—a lump sum of cash on arrival—or market supplements added as a percentage to their pay packet each month. But there has been a slow realisation that while this may get bums on seats, it doesn’t necessarily keep them there.
Now, two very different local authorities are acknowledging the need to offer a more complete package of support for new starters. The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham began to offer housing for its social workers two years ago, but it’s only recently the offer has been firmed up and actively marketed.
“We haven’t really got the marketing right on it until recently,” says Helen Jenner, the borough’s director of children’s services and lead of the London branch of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).
Can’t compete on cost
“It was something we offered to people who were agency and we thought might want to stay. It’s encouraged a number of people to move from agency to permanent, but I think it’s probably in recruiting [newly qualified social workers] that it is now having the biggest impact.”
While agencies are attracting people by putting down more money, local authorities simply do not have the budgets to compete on cost alone. Jenner says she hopes this offer will help people realise some benefits go beyond cold hard cash.
“What people really want is stability. We’re hoping it could be a good way forward for social workers with families—they’re not massive houses [we’re offering] but they are houses with gardens, near parks and good schools, and we hope that will help in terms of people thinking of Barking and Dagenham as an attractive place to go to work,” she says. On the outskirts of the capital with its sometimes unfeasibly high housing costs, this is a significant offer, particularly for younger social workers and families.
As well as a housing offer, which sees Barking and Dagenham act as social landlords, a lot of work has been put into improving supervision and training. The long-term goal is to reduce caseloads but this, of course, is contingent on recruiting enough social workers to share the burden.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from London’s East End, with its lightning fast urban regeneration and relatively high levels of deprivation, Somerset County Council is a far larger, more sparsely populated and rural authority. But like everywhere, it’s experiencing a massive population increase and urban creep, with all the accompanying increase in demand for social services.
Somerset is also beginning to introduce a housing offer as part of a larger package of support aimed at recruiting, and keeping, a stable social workforce.
Somerset director of children’s services, Julian Wooster says the offer is a recognition of staffing shortages, as well as of the pressures of the housing market. Somerset will be working together with housing authorities to provide social housing.
“Rather than pay staff a lot of money to pay to private landlords, this is an alternative way of supporting them,” Wooster says.
“This is not a short-term fix. We are looking to the long term. We’re aiming to improve the numbers of social workers and keeping experienced social workers in practice. The housing is part of that offer because we want to secure permanent staff who are committed to working in Somerset for long periods and want to be part of the community as it grows.”
Somerset will not only provide housing, but as part of the support package social workers can get advice about local schools, restaurants and pubs and be connected to social activities with their peers. This is all part of a larger investment in children’s services which Wooster says reflects a “commitment to drive up standards”.
As with Barking and Dagenham, however, lower caseloads are always the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow- the dream outcome which at times can seem out of reach. In a bid to achieve this, Somerset is also using an extra £6m investment from the council to recruit 100 new permanent staff members in children’s services. The hope is that additional measures, like the housing and support package, will also make them stay, and make lower caseloads sustainable long-term.
One of the draws of agency work, beyond the higher pay, is the ability to manage stress, be flexible and take time off when necessary, something West Berkshire has taken notice of.
The council is now offering permanent staff sabbaticals for up to three months paid time off after two or three years of service “so they can recover and make sure they are managing the stresses and strains of being social workers,” says Gordon Lundie, leader of the West Berkshire council.
“The biggest challenge we’ve had is having an unstable workforce. Like all local authorities, there is an increasing reliance on agencies to help us with social workers. We are trying to make Berkshire a more attractive employer for [permanent] social workers.”
While agency rates are going up, there still seems to be a reluctance from councils with overstretched budgets to commit to a straightforward long-term pay rise to keep social workers in councils.
But there is no shortage of innovative attempts to get the same result. It seems we might just be seeing a shift away from then straight forward cash incentive and towards a focus on supervision, training, and general wellbeing.