Social work returners. How difficult is it for professionals to come back to social work after a career break?

Fear of changes in a fast-moving profession deter many ex-social workers from returning to the sector. But in the North West and  West Sussex tailored courses have addressed this, reports Louise Tickle

When a professional describes as  “scary” the prospect of returning to social work after time away, it bodes badly for a council’s chances of filling vacancies with experienced staff.

Many returners, often women who have been raising a family, feel they have fallen out of touch with a fast-changing profession. To remove the fear factor some councils are developing strategies to entice back practitioners.

Wigan Council has taken the lead in north west England, bringing together 11 authorities – the 10 Greater Manchester metropolitan boroughs and Cheshire Council – in a concerted effort to target experienced social workers who are no longer practising.

Susan Furness, team co-ordinator for staff development at Wigan Council, says: “We had a need for more qualified staff, but supporting people through the degree is a very long-term strategy. So I was looking at other ways where there wouldn’t be such a time lag.”

Yet the anxieties of prospective returners were obvious. These included concern that their knowledge on legislation was out of date and a fear of making mistakes. Also evident was a more general lack of confidence that often afflicts people who have spent time out of the workplace.

Furness says: “They lose contact with current processes very quickly, and they also lose contact with their contacts. So they were going for interviews, failing to get the job and coming back saying to me, ‘there’s always something I don’t know’,” says Furness. “They were really struggling to get back inside the heads of people who work in the statutory sector.”

Marcia Hanley, a qualified social worker who has returned to work at Wigan, sums up the fears: “Social work is a fast-moving discipline and, as a social worker, you’re always examining your practice, and you reflect on that with your manager. But if you don’t have that opportunity because you’re at home with your kids, whom do you go to? The prospect of returning to work is scary, like being a newly qualified social worker all over again.”

Battle for funding
The key to Hanley’s return was a skills update course masterminded by Furness and involving the 11 authorities. But it proved far from easy to persuade their human resources teams to hand over money for a course that was free at the point of entry but carried no guarantee that the councils’ vacant positions would be filled.

But by May last year funding had been secured, and a course was developed in partnership with Salford University called Return to Social Work: Professional Update.

Steve Pugh, senior lecturer at Salford University’s school of community, health sciences and social care, who delivered the course, says he aimed to allow participants to discuss their concerns freely and make an informed decision about whether they wanted to return to social work. He adds: “We wanted to boost their confidence so they could approach competitive interviews on a more equal footing.

People who have been out of social work for a while often don’t recognise the skills they have. For instance, they may, through caring responsibilities, have become a consumer of services. That perspective offers invaluable experience that they could carry forward into their practice as social workers.

But our society doesn’t value caring and so people’s confidence drops.” Hanley says: “I had a background in probation, and had done a bit of supply social work in my children’s school holidays, but had found it difficult to get a job in the sector. I’m over 40, and quite a number of people on the course were in that age group; women who’d stayed at home with children and wanted to get back in. We were all lacking in confidence and to make that leap was a massive step. So it was great to feel like we were all in the same boat and we weren’t afraid to express ourselves. It made it easier to learn about changes in the law and discuss all the new child care stuff.”

Furness recognised that the course had to be structured to fit around the lives of participants who would most likely have commitments elsewhere. It ran for five days over a week, and then one evening a week for five weeks. Experts from various social work disciplines lent their knowledge, and in feedback this was cited as one of the most important elements in motivating people to return.

West Sussex Council has also started to nurture social work returners. Alison DeRieu, HR recruitment adviser, says: “Banging out adverts in the usual way doesn’t work in terms of the numbers we need to recruit, so we instigated a six month project looking at what would work to attract qualified social workers back.”

Her approach looked at the help, flexibility and benefits the local authority could offer applicants and supporting individuals through the barriers that face them on their return to professional practice, including re-registration. Anyone who contacts her with an interest is held in a “talent pool” and receives weekly e-mail alerts with details of social  work vacancies. Given that people wanting to return to work tend to be motivated, Furness and DeRieu were determined to tap into this pool of potential and have set up courses to help returning social workers update their skills after a period of time out.

Investing in this kind of confidencebuilding clearly works. Qualified social worker Jan Hawkins is now employed in the West Sussex leaving care team, but before doing the Return to Practice course set up by DeRieu, she had only worked in the independent sector and had serious worries about moving to a local authority

“In the independent sector I could make decisions and was in charge of budgets,” she says. “My sense was that this would be different in a local authority. But attending the course meant I found out that they wanted to be as flexible as they could and that coming from the independent sector was an advantage. It blew away a lot of the misconceptions I had about the public sector.”

Greater Manchester and Cheshire Council intend to run another course next year, after 70 per cent of those who returned their feedback forms said they had secured jobs as social workers for the 11 participating local authorities. West Sussex has run one course with 15 participants and is set to run another in January.

Hawkins says: “Without the course it probably would have been more difficult to get going again. You think you’re the only one having worries, when you’re not – it’s definitely helped me hit the ground with my feet rapidly running.

This article appeared in the 19-25 October issue, on page 36 & 37, under the headline Many happy returns

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