Social work’s great employment challenge

In an unstable landscape, how are councils shaping up to the challenge of recruiting and retaining social workers?

It’s no secret that social work employers face huge problems sourcing employees and holding onto good ones.

Department for Education figures released in early 2016 revealed a 27% rise in children’s social work vacancies between 2014 and 2015.

Meanwhile the grinding pressure many frontline workers face and the prospect of juicy paydays have fuelled an exodus of experienced staff into the agency sector.

Councils have tried various tactics to staunch the flow. These include dangling financial carrots in front of existing staff and potential new recruits, attempting to tame the locum marketplace via regional pay caps, and – thankfully – acting to change working environments for the better.

But how does the wider landscape look as of spring 2016? To try to find out, we sent Freedom of Information requests to councils across England.

We wanted to know what benefits are on the table for social workers, and what’s being done to tackle the temporary-staff conundrum. More than 100 responded, painting a picture that’s turbulent but not without bright spots for the sector.

Money keeps talking

Back in summer 2015, we asked whether ‘golden hellos’ and similar financial sweeteners for social workers were becoming a thing of the past.

It seems the answer, for much of the country, is ‘no’.

Nationally, 53% of councils say they give social workers extra cash. Nineteen percent offer golden hellos, 21% market supplements linked to in-demand roles and 27% retention awards for staff staying in-post for set lengths of time.

Children’s social workers, especially experienced ones, and approved mental health professionals are the most common recipients of extra payments. But localised pinch-points mean all levels of experience and types of role appear to be worth stumping up for, somewhere or other in the country.

It’s hardly surprising, says Maris Stratulis, England manager for the British Association of Social Workers.

“The complexity of social work and the volume of referrals continues to increase across the sector,” she says. “Vulnerable children, adults and families require consistency and access to skilled permanent social workers; employers are endeavouring to recruit and retain them.”

Price wars

In expensive, populous locations, which often have the highest vacancy and agency staff rates, councils have to try that bit harder. The South East (77%), London (70%) and the South West (also 70%) are the most likely regions to offer recruitment and retention payments and market supplements, and dish out some of the largest sums.

Several authorities offer incentives of up to £8,000 and one – West Berkshire – will hand over £15,000 to children’s social workers who stay more than three years.

Speaking to Community Care last autumn, West Berkshire described the bonus as an alternative to starting a basic-salary ‘price war’ with neighbouring authorities.

Other councils we speak to say similar things. Redbridge Council pays a discretionary recruitment and retention add-on of up to £5,000 for experienced children’s social workers.

“Our payment brings our salaries up to assessed market pay levels, compared against other authorities,” says a spokesperson for Redbridge. “Payments are only used where there’s clear evidence about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining employees, and where the indication is that this is at least in part due to salary.”

As well as wage packet top-ups, many councils have introduced incentives aimed at persuading good candidates to relocate for a job with them. Eighteen percent say they offer payments – typically up to £8,000, depending on distance – to help cover recruits’ costs of moving to a new part of the country.

Reflecting soaring house prices, the South East is again well represented by employers offering such benefits. But one authority we speak to in a cheaper area – the East Midlands – is bringing in an interesting twist on relocation bonuses that it hopes will cultivate a long-term workforce.

Mortgage subsidies

From April 2016, Derby council is piloting a mortgage subsidy scheme for all children’s social work jobs. On top of a £5,000 relocation payment, workers passing their probationary period and remaining in post after six months will receive £10,000 towards buying a home. This must be in the city, with a view to them spending money, including council tax, locally.

Provided they’re still in a social work job at the council after five years, the subsidy will be written off while those who leave before the five years is up will have to pay some of the money back.

“Prices are reasonable here – [the £15,000 total] could pay your deposit outright,” says Maureen Darbon, Derby’s director for early help and children’s safeguarding. “We’re keen to ‘grow our own’ social workers, and want to emphasise that as well as being a good council this is a good place to work and bring up a family.”

Beyond its mortgage subsidy pilot, Derby is one of the 47% of councils that say they don’t offer social workers financial incentives. Several other councils that have never offered payments, or have withdrawn them over the last year or two, point out that cash bonuses may work short-term but that the right working culture is the only ultimate key to staff retention.

“We redesigned our frontline services into small ‘pods’ to work more efficiently and creatively with families,” says Louise Rees, director of children, adult and family services at Stoke-on-Trent, which has phased out cash bonuses. “When a vacancy arises we have candidates waiting and ready to take the position – without needing to offer financial incentives.”

Curbing agency spend

Rachael Wardell, director of children’s and adults’ services at West Berkshire, adds that despite her authority’s £15,000 retention scheme, other changes implemented since an inadequate Ofsted judgment in 2015 have been equally important in improving its attractiveness to staff.

“[The financial element] in London and the South East is a reality,” says Wardell, who is also chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee. “But it’s also about effective supervision, flexible working, transport and other factors.”

West Berkshire is one of a handful of councils that have introduced paid sabbaticals to help target burnout, and Wardell points to this as a key element in helping to stabilise the workforce. “Our agency staff rate is still high, though,” she acknowledges.

That’s the situation for many councils – again, particularly in the South East and London, but by no means confined to those areas.

Faced with the cost of the hourly rates being charged by locum social workers, authorities in most parts of the country (58% of our respondents) have established or are exploring regional memorandums aimed at steadying the ship by capping wages and disincentivising permanent staff from leaving.

Council reputations

What impact have they had? While locum numbers remain high, there’s been a “change in dialogue”, according to Debbie Smith, CEO of the recruitment agency Caritas and social work sector chair at recruitment industry body APSCo.

“We can go to people and say categorically, ‘This is the rate,’ and know us and other agencies are sticking to it,” she says. “It hasn’t diminished interest from locums, but they aren’t in a position to drive pay rates further northwards.”

Dave Cahill, Midlands manager at fellow recruitment agency Liquid Personnel, says he’s observed initial “slowdowns” in candidate numbers when caps have come in, and that, at some councils, attrition appears to have reduced slightly.

Like Smith, Cahill says the caps have been positive in tackling an out-of-control situation, but he warns that some councils are still disadvantaged by them.

“The challenge is the caps’ one-size-fits-all approach,” says Cahill. “If you have three close councils with different reputations, all workers tend to want the same one.”

Locum benefits

While that’s undoubtedly a headache for some, the caps are making councils revise their offer to locums. Increasingly, authorities are offering benefits to them that mirror what permanent staff can access.

That extends to flexible working, supervision and training. Some employers, reckons Cahill, will succeed in tempting younger, more career-minded locums back into permanent roles where they see avenues for promotion in an environment they like.

Agencies, too, are having a rethink. “Previously agencies could offer more money and get away with not giving the best level of service,” says Smith. “Understanding the client base and being able to communicate the selling points of different councils is critical.”

Where authorities aren’t offering such things, she adds, agencies including her own are launching packages delivering softer benefits such as support and stress management to locum workers.

Reduced churn

It’s too early to predict what the regional memorandums’ lasting impact will be on councils’ agency costs.

But Wardell says she hopes service users will ultimately benefit from reduced churn, particularly of underperforming locums being able to flit from one short-term engagement to another. “[West Midlands signatories] have been much firmer on how they hold each other to account for passing on poor agency staff,” she says.

Councils’ demand for agency social workers, and the corresponding need for many to offer financial incentives to snare permanent staff, isn’t going to change anytime soon. And even with pay caps becoming more firmly established, there remain plenty of motivations for social workers to opt for the flexibility of locum working.

But both the permanent and temporary marketplaces seem to be pushing the value of non-financial benefits that improve social workers’ lot.

“Overall, I’d expect to see financial incentives increasing but as a small part of the bigger picture,” says Bev Maybury, national policy lead for commissioning at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services.

“Staff want to feel valued in their role, their professional judgment to be respected and to be proud of social work. We need to nurture, to harness their energy – that way you get a full package, the right people with the right values to support service users.”

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