Social worker vacancy rates in councils across Britain have fallen despite the squeeze on recruitment and retention budgets, Community Care can reveal.
The proportion of vacant posts has dropped from 10% in 2010 to 8% in 2011, according to our third annual Freedom of Information investigation.
England still has the highest rate, followed by Scotland and Wales (see p6). This is despite the fact that a quarter of the newly qualified social workers who graduated last year in England were still unemployed as of August, according to the General Social Care Council.
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While the average rate in children's services has dropped from 12% to 8%, the rate in adult services has reduced at a lower rate, from 10% to 9%.
The Department of Health said it had been working closely with the Social Work Reform Board over the past year to implement significant improvements to frontline adult social work.
"However, all this takes times to bed down and make an impact," said a spokesperson for the DH.
"There is no magic bullet; there are no simple solutions to the issues faced by social workers, it is only by working together with the sector over time that we will see the improvements we all want to see."
Community Care's survey also revealed that the average number of social worker posts, both filled and unfilled, per council has remained the same as last year, at 220.
"It would appear that many local authorities have tried to protect social work posts, something they should be commended for," said Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.
"We hope, however, that these are all genuine vacancies and don't include frozen posts which are not in fact being recruited to and which, in turn, would represent higher workloads for those in post."
Some of the councils with the highest overall rates said they had subsequently filled many vacancies.
Slough Council said it had reduced its vacancy rate to below 20% since the beginning of July, while Newham said it had filled all of the vacancies in its adult social work teams and had recently completed a successful recruitment drive in children's services.
Rochdale is going through a similar process in its children's services. Vacancies in adult services have been frozen while the department undergoes a restructure.
Staffordshire said it could not confirm the accuracy of the figures supplied by its FOI department, and was therefore unable to comment.
Responding to the overall findings, John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Services' workforce development network, said: "Vacancy rates can partly be explained by staff turnover; it takes time to advertise jobs.
"Throughout my career, people have tended to assume there will be a 5% baseline vacancy rate in social work because of staff turnover, so the 8% rate should be viewed against that."
Maurice Bates, interim co-chair of the College of Social Work, said it was encouraging that adult services appeared to be "holding their own", despite sometimes being viewed as a lower political priority.
'Adult social workers wondered if they had a future role'
Richmond Council has made the biggest improvement in its overall vacancy rate, reducing it from 36% in 2010 to 8%. Cathy Kerr, Richmond's director of adults and community services, said:
"We did a lot of work last year to understand why we compared so negatively with other areas. The children's rate has been reasonably steady; we were underperforming in adult services - and that's where we've made significant improvement.
" Over 90% of our adult service users are on personal budgets. But, in 2009, we realised that our whole workforce was still using the old, community care delivery model. So we remodelled our workforce, and we took the decision not to recruit to any more posts while we went through this.
"At the end of last year, we began recruiting into the new structure. Once all of our existing permanent staff had been moved into their new posts, we went about filling the vacancies. A number of posts were filled by staff who had been agency workers, because they realised that the new structure meant we would not need so many agency staff.
"There is a lot of pressure on frontline teams to make sure they are managing resources efficiently, as well as making sure personal budgets are meeting needs. We might need to be flexible in terms of staffing because of budget constraints. We have agreed to keep our vacancy rate at around 10%, to give ourselves room to manoeuvre."
Community Care sent Freedom of Information requests to all councils in England, Wales and Scotland, as well as health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland. We asked for the number of posts and vacancies as of July 2011 and received 142 usable responses. Vacant posts are defined as unfilled posts, ie. not filled by any member of staff, agency or otherwise.
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