Skills crisis: you can help

Nationally there is an increasing shortage of social work staff,
especially for work with children and families. This is having a
direct effect on us and our jobs and is stressful and demoralising.
What can we do to manage it?

One way to cope with staff shortages is to take an active role
in helping to solve the problem in your area.

For example, there are vacancies in your group, colleagues keep
going off sick, case management is beginning to turn into crisis
management, and you have the feeling that there is a catastrophe
waiting to happen at any moment. What can the struggling social
worker or manager in the thick of all this do about it? Perhaps
nobody has asked your opinion but that’s no reason for keeping it
to yourself.

Under these circumstances the last thing you might feel like
doing is to make time for a planned response to the problem – but
that is just what you need to do. What are your options? If you
decide to stay and fight your corner you need a survival and
recovery strategy, and you won’t be able to devise one on your own.
You need to meet with your immediate colleagues, as a management
team, as a union group or as an informal colleague group, to work
out a plan of action. There are three questions for the

  • What is the authority doing to address the staffing
  • What does the group think it should be doing?
  • How can the group influence the council and create an active
    role for its members?

Remember that the very nature of the problem has made you into
an increasingly scarce resource. Acting together the group is in a
powerful negotiating position, provided you are clear what you want
to achieve.

The following list of headings may provide you with a useful
agenda. It is based on the more detailed plan we use to undertake
analyses of staffing issues in social work agencies.

  • Recruitment – advertising, information and selection.
  • Induction and in-service training – focus and resources.
  • Work – pay, environment, management, culture, support,
    flexibility, workload, communications and geography.
  • Human relations management – resources, sickness, vacancies,
    turnover and publicity.
  • Special factors at this council.

How do you score under each of the headings? What do you think
the agency can do to improve the score? Do you have enough
information to answer the questions? How can you find out?

Another option is to move out of social work or enter a less
pressured part of the profession. You may not want to do it because
you are committed to your clients and believe in what you are
doing. You may not be able to do it for practical reasons. But if
you are considering it you should be very cautious about moving to
another local authority into the same kind of post. The problem,
after all, is widespread.

The striking thing about the Community Care LIVE
exhibition and conference last December, was the high number of
local authority stands hoping to recruit staff. Councils were
certainly represented in much larger numbers than they were at the
1999 event. It will be interesting to see what proportion of stands
are taken by councils at this May’s Community Care

Suddenly everyone has noticed the staffing shortages that have
existed for at least 18 months. And it has generated the usual
plethora of national and regional working parties and local

Social workers and their managers can make a significant
contribution to resolving the crisis.

If you are tempted to wait and hope that “they” will come up
with solutions, remember that “they” haven’t been doing too well up
to now. “They” need your help; more importantly and urgently you
and your clients need your help.

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