Been there, Done that

Recruitment drives have generally focused on trying to attract young, new blood into the social care sector. But, by doing so, local authorities could be, to their detriment, overlooking a pool of older workers.

According to the annual surveys of local authority staff by the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government, with the exception of care home assistants, only a small proportion of social care workers and managers are older than 60. And the number of older people retiring or simply leaving is well ahead of the number of younger people joining the workforce.

“Middle-aged women are still the biggest group working in social care, and we’re now seeing increasing problems in retaining and recruiting them. Yet we need more people working in the sector,” says Kathryn Kelly, senior consultant in recruitment and careers at the Employers’ Organisation.

“There are major problems with retention. All social care employers need to examine why middle-aged and older staff leave, and also why they stay. For instance, why are some jobs so “toxic” that people want to leave as soon as possible? We should also do more to go out and recruit older people.”

Pressure to recruit and retain older staff has been raised by the introduction next year of regulations which will make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the grounds of age. But the draft regulations, which are out for consultation until next week,(1) have been criticised by organisations such as Age Concern and the Third Age Employment Network. They argue that the proposals are not robust enough to counter discrimination effectively. Even so, few employers will relish the prospect of being hauled regularly in front of employment tribunals for acting unlawfully against older people.

Third Age spokesperson Keith Frost says NHS and social care employers cannot afford to wait until next year before taking action: “Those responsible for workforce planning need to make themselves fully aware of the age profile of their workforce. They also need to be realistic about the future and think about what they can do to retain experienced older staff and how to recruit from older age groups.”

He believes that NHS employers are trying to find solutions, though he is less convinced about the social care sector. The NHS already offers free refresher training to a range of managers and health care professionals returning to the sector and some are also eligible for financial assistance. Some organisations are already offering employment packages to encourage them to stay on and have planned retirement packages. And several mental health trusts are using older staff as mentors to help younger colleagues develop their skills.

But innovative schemes such as those could create worries among staff about their pension entitlements. Inland Revenue rules allowing only occupational pension benefits to be paid if the scheme member retires can deter those who want to make a gradual transition into retirement.

But this could change next April when the rules are expected to relax to allow flexible retirement, though details of the new arrangements are still under wraps. Public sector employers are already under intense pressure from trade unions to avoid any diminution of staff pension entitlements and arrangements. So now may appear to be an inopportune moment to come up with new “retirement” arrangements.

Nevertheless, as James Churchill, chief executive of learning difficulties charity, ARC, says: “Social care employers ignore this pool of experience at their peril and they should do more to capture it. What does it say for our view of 60-plus people if we consciously or unconsciously exclude them from the workforce?”

Churchill, who is a board member of Skills for Care, adds: “One caveat is that some social care jobs, but not all, might be too physically demanding, but there must be lots of scope for action. Perhaps we should ask the Department of Health to run another campaign around the contribution which older people can make.”

Vic Citarella, consultant to the Local Government Association and another member of Skills for Care, is looking closer to home and advocates a care think-tank to consider the issue. “I wonder whether it is a habit we have got into, not thinking properly about how social care might be attractive for older people, or about how social care could benefit,” he says.

“We should also be looking at professionalising the work of the many older people who are volunteering and finding better ways to approach people who have years of experience of being carers for members of their own family.”

Mental health services could also benefit from an input from older people, says Malcolm Philip, director of workforce development at the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. “For support posts in particular we need more people with a lot of life skills and experience, as they are often more likely to be able to empathise with service users.”

He adds that many people are not receiving the level of occupational pension payments they thought they would be getting, and argues that this may be forcing some to think again about retiring.

He is not alone in urging employers to think more creatively about delivering the necessary work in a sector where there are huge shortfalls in the number and type of workers needed.
There is also the well-known problem in domiciliary care caused by the requirement for care staff to show NVQ level 2 competencies.

Peter Cullimore, chief of the nursing and care sector group of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, says: “There is a greater proportion of over-sixties here than anywhere else. But many perfectly able staff are leaving because they feel intimidated or discouraged by the need to prove, on paper, that they can continue to do the job they have been doing. I wish the Commission for Social Care Inspection would think more flexibly and creatively about this.”

Shropshire at least appears to be using flexibility and creativity. Margaret Brierley, the council’s group human resources manager, says: “We’ve recognised that this can be a problem in home care so we’ve developed a paper-free portfolio for NVQs. Staff who might feel overwhelmed by the usual system can be assessed using video and tape options. Our local assessors are very supportive.”

Brierley adds that the council offers choices to social workers who are about to retire, such as supporting them to become much-needed practice teachers. “Also, we gather together bunches of job vacancies, including those from the independent sector and provide applicants with six weeks’ off-the-job training. This has been attracting older people in particular. We, together with independent sector employers, arrange a lot of events to attract people, including older people, into social care, and we’re now working with our pensions section to ease flexible retirement.”

Meanwhile, Kelly is enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the increase in inter-disciplinary working. As this becomes more commonplace, staff who feel burned out or blocked in their current job may be able to move across to another occupation more easily. And as workforce development continues there may be opportunities for new jobs which embrace different skill mixes. “This new working environment should help us to get away from thinking about career progression in a linear way and so offer more ‘lateral’ options for staff, especially older staff,” Kelly says.

Options do exist, not just for employers to avoid employment tribunals, but also to retain and recruit older people more effectively. The big question is whether they will act quickly and decisively.

(1) Equality and Diversity: Coming of Age: Consultation on the Draft Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, Department of Trade and Industry, 2005


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