McTernan on politics

As we enter the new year there is at least one important hangover
from 2002 for most public services – staff shortages. The problem
is most acute in London where the NHS, schools and social services
find themselves completely unable to recruit enough full-time

It’s not money that’s short – it’s the supply of people willing to
fill the available posts. One senior NHS manager recently told me
that in the south of England there are probably a couple of wards
closed in every hospital simply because there are not enough nurses
to staff them. The system is held together by temporary staff. It
is estimated that in some social services departments in the
capital up to half of the front-line social workers are agency

The view from outside the overheated South East is far better with
a stable workforce in many areas. So, is this just one of those
metropolitan problems like traffic congestion about which everyone
else can feel quietly smug? Unfortunately not. In this, as in so
many other areas, London offers us a glimpse into the future. We
hear a lot about how Britain’s population is ageing and the
implications for health and social care. There is far too little
focus on the corollary of a shrinking pool of younger workers.

For the next 20 years there will be fewer and fewer school leavers
and graduates entering the labour market. Competition for them will
be fierce. Social work, like teaching and medicine, will have to
reach deeper into other pockets of the labour market if it is to
continue to run services with the current complement of qualified

We will have to look at all the areas where skilled individuals are
under-employed – whether that means women returning to work,
disabled people, or men over 50. This is a huge challenge because
we have built our professions around a model of lifelong employment
– recruiting at age 21 and keeping until 60 or 65. The starting
point will be humility: no more “if we advertise it, they will
come”. Social services organisations will have to seek out talent
where it is, spot it, coach it and co-opt it.

Many community organisations from toy libraries to tenants’ and
residents’ associations are run by women with more than enough life
experience, toughness and judgement to be excellent social workers.
They, however, may not have the necessary academic qualifications
or the desire to gain them. So we will have to bend our systems to
fit them. Because the brutal truth is that an age of labour
scarcity is a sellers’ market and social care will have to become
more innovative and more attractive in order to recruit and retain
the people we need.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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