Quick fix won’t work

Can we persuade people to take on long-term careers with
short-term incentives? And perhaps, more to the point, should we?
Social workers are the latest “much-needed but relatively low-paid”
profession to be wooed with cash bursaries at the student stage,
following teachers and nurses. They’re being offered £3,000 a
year in addition to their subsistence grants.

Clearly, if you want to attract people into jobs where we have
shortages but which are not proving popular, money is one obvious
way to do it, particularly if you are interested in drawing in more
mature applicants who somehow have to balance their finances while
undertaking a three-year course.

Two questions immediately occur. The most basic one: is it enough?
We are talking about an extra £60 a week for people, many of
whom will have to replace one total income, arrange child care,
reassign domestic chores, undertake travel and perhaps be away from
home for fairly long periods. There is a question over whether
bursaries like the ones suggested will be enough to balance the
books but, perhaps more fundamentally, is it the right way to
attract people to the job? Will it bring people back or attract
them for the first time for the right reasons? Where are the
longer-term guarantees of support and regard and public

Am I donning my rose-coloured spectacles again when I recall a time
when wanting to be a social worker was an admirable ambition, a job
which many people admitted they could not do but were glad there
were people prepared to take it on? The public image of social
workers 30 or 40 years ago wasof caring, concerned people, prepared
to venture into the murkier corners of life that the rest of us
knew were there but would rather not engage with. This image came
from writers such as Sally Trench, with her stories of soup runs
and of spending not just a night but months on end living on the
streets with homeless people, which could still lend a tinge of
glamour to the job. In TV depictions they were more often than not
the good guys, with the nearest thing to criticism being the
implication that they were perhaps a little too naive for their own

How different from the unforgiving world of today, when the term is
regarded as synonymous with “busybody”, our indignation only
mounting where they have failed to interfere where hindsight says
they should have done.

Equally no-win for the would-be social worker is the perception
that they are either the repository for every soft liberal idea
that excuses people for their failure to face up to their rightful
responsibilities or state-funded social engineers helping
governments tell people how to run their lives.

It is hardly an attractive prospect for someone sizing up a
lifetime career or contemplating a change of direction. Perhaps
more to the point than a bribe of £60 a week would be some
assurances that the framework in which they would be expected to
work would be properly funded, that caseloads would be humanly
manageable, that bureaucracy would be kept to a necessary minimum,
that social workers – particularly junior ones – would receive
proper backing when things got tough, and that they would not be
faced with constant reorganisation that would use up more energy
than doing the job of patching up vulnerable lives. I reckon that
only when I had those assurances would I contemplate taking on the
role of social worker in today’s climate.

I cannot help thinking that public esteem has much more to with the
take-up of professions than short-term, and still hardly generous,
financial advantage. Career seekers are still far more likely to be
seduced by the ubiquitous media studies course or business
management or general arts, or even those traditionally unpopular
sciences, all of which the public perceive as being either useful
or fun.

Who but a masochist would subject themselves to a life of the kind
of carping criticism that social workers have increasingly
attracted when there are easier, better paid and more highly
regarded careers available? Any government that is really serious
about wanting more social workers will have to confront these
issues first; the quick fix won’t work.

Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs

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