How should social workers prepare to work overseas?

When a handful of social workers contacted Community Care because they were struggling to find information on working abroad, we thought a practical guide would solve their problems. However, 35 e-mails and 28 phone calls later to foreign embassies and social work bodies in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA and Canada, elicited little response and left me with a healthy appreciation of the dilemma.

The difficulty arises because there is no central database or body providing the sort of advice that social workers need. Neither the British Association of Social Workers’ International Relations Panel nor the General Social Care Council could offer much in the way of help even though the latter receives a handful of calls each week from social workers wanting to practice abroad. A GSCC spokesperson says: “We can’t tell social workers whether they will definitely be able to register and practice in another country as the requirements are different from place to place, but we do offer some advice and provide contact details of the relevant authorities where possible.

“There isn’t a mutual recognition process with any other country so it’s up to each one to assess whether a UK-trained social worker is recognised there. When a social worker registers elsewhere they may be asked to provide evidence of their social work qualification, their registration status in the UK and details of the content of their training, including supervised and assessed practice placements. The academic level of their UK social work training may be taken into account – for example, South Africa, the US, Australia and Canada have degree-level social work training.”

Even the International Federation of Social Workers has little it can offer, admits president David Jones. However, he hopes that the first public workshop of social work regulators – including those from the US, Australia and Italy – held at IFSW’s world conference in August 2006, might be a step in the right direction.

“Regulators all have different systems and requirements which make it difficult for social workers who want information on working in another country. We were pleased they met as there’s logic to suggest that there is a need for a global body for regulators as there is no mechanism for discussing issues about mobility. Unfortunately, this can be a less urgent debate for regulators than the national issues they are dealing with, like registration.”

So I was going nowhere fast until I spotted an advert from the Australian state of Victoria, ironically in Community Care, promoting information sessions in the UK in a bid to recruit child protection social workers to its Department of Human Services, which is responsible for statutory child protection services.

Increased demand

Recruiting social workers is becoming a challenge across Australia, as the supply of trained professionals is not matching the increased demand for the service. Lisa Neville, the DHS’s minister for community services, says, “Last time we advertised in the UK we attracted about 50 recruits. This time we are hoping to attract similar numbers. Just a week into this campaign we already have 30 people who are attending an information session.”

It needn’t be complicated for a UK social worker to cross the world and take up a job offer in Victoria, says Neville. “The first thing to do is look at our website to learn more about what is on offer and migration issues.

“Social work degrees and diplomas from the UK are recognised by the Victorian child protection service and there is no conversion assessment needed. Social workers can apply for either a temporary or permanent visa to work in Australia. As your employer, the Department of Human Services will sponsor you to migrate to Australia under a visa class that meets our shared needs.”

Once the DHS has made a formal offer of employment, it will support the recruit through the visa process to ensure they have the necessary documentation. It also helps with local information about housing, health, child care and education as well as paying relocation costs.

“We will also fly you and your family over here and give you a specifically tailored induction programme. We want to make the move over here as seamless as possible,” adds Neville.

While she doesn’t know exactly how many of the DHS’s workers have UK backgrounds, “you could enter any one of our 28 offices and easily find someone with a familiar accent”, she says.

“This is the third time we have come to the UK and Ireland with a specific recruitment campaign, based on the success of earlier efforts.”

Noel MacNamara applied to the first recruitment campaign after seeing an advert in Community Care back in 1989.

“I was interviewed at Australia House in London. Three weeks later I was told I’d been successful. Six weeks after that I had a medical, and once I met all the criteria my passport arrived with the visa and that was that. I can’t imagine how it could have been simpler. The process began in July 1989 and by December I was here.”

Now manager of child and family services at the Department of Human Services in Victoria, MacNamara was a child protection worker for the NSPCC before he emigrated. He had never been to Australia but had two siblings already living in Melbourne and another in Brisbane. Although he wasn’t scared to make the move, he advises that any social worker considering following his example should bear in mind that there is an adjustment factor.

“There’s a pretty relaxed atmosphere here that can be different to a social services team in the UK. And it’s not that there’s no poverty in Australia, but it’s not at the kind of levels that people experience in the UK and there is no such thing as a large council estate.

Different settings

Working abroad feature“The biggest shock I had when I came here was the first time I went to discuss [child protection] issues with a family and we sat in a room overlooking their pool. The last two things I’d dealt with in the UK were a group of children whose mother had left the home and who had decided to move a horse into the house. Then there was an older couple who were burning their floorboards to make a fire to keep them warm.

“But I was there because people with pools can abuse their children too. The settings and circumstances may be very different [between the two countries], but at the heart the issues are exactly the same.”

Neil Carver-Smith agrees. A former UK social worker, he now runs his own training and consultancy social work business in Australia. One aspect of his work is recruiting social workers to the UK and Australia. And, as in the UK, shortages mainly exist in child protection – and remote regions, he says.

“Remote work is not easy and any thought that it might be like working in the wilds of Cornwall or Scotland should be dismissed immediately. The conditions are harsh, services very limited and the cultural differences need some time to grasp.”

In Carver-Smith’s experience there is a great deal of dropout between initial interest and actually moving as “it all gets too hard”.

“My view is that the ‘terrorist threat’ has resulted in tighter controls all round so the administration needed to get through the process is quite onerous.”

Onerous is certainly the word Amanda* would use. A senior practitioner in child protection for a local authority in East Anglia, she spent months trying to find out how she could work in Canada.

“I had grown up abroad and had a wonderful experience and I wanted my children to have that too. However, I probably wouldn’t be looking if the organisation I’m working for wasn’t in such chaos with low staff morale. It is recruiting from abroad, particularly Canada, and I thought if they’re coming here, there must be some way to go over there.

“I started looking about a year ago but found it hard to get any information. It seemed to be a chicken and egg thing – you needed a visa to apply for a job but to get a visa quickly you needed a job offer.

“I was on the verge of giving up. If we recruit from Canada and other countries there must be an easier way to find out about opportunities abroad, but it appears not, it’s very frustrating. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

New Zealand

Fed up with hitting her head against a brick wall with Canada, Amanda started searching on the internet for working abroad elsewhere and she stumbled on the website for New Zealand Social Work Recruitment, the only specialist agency in the country.

“I had been looking at New Zealand a lot on the internet, I talked to a friend there, looked at the cost of living and housing and it all seemed positive, so I sent my CV to the agency. They rang back and said there’s a terrible shortage of social workers and I’d be able to work anywhere. They e-mailed to let me know what documents were required for example, proof of social work qualifications and police checks, and I had to fill in an assessment form which took all of five minutes.”

Kerry-Lee Probert, director of New Zealand Social Work Recruitment, says: “The big thing about emigrating is aligning everything so it happens at the right time and it helps to work with specialists. For example, it isn’t compulsory to be registered in New Zealand but it doesn’t stop employers demanding it and your degree has to meet certain criteria.”

An agency can smooth the way with these matters and Amanda is relieved that she has finally found the help she needed and it now “all seems very straightforward”.

Amanda hopes to move to New Zealand with her partner and children by the end of the summer. Her advice to others who find themselves coming up against dead-ends is to persevere. “One thing I didn’t do was fill in a job application form for Canada. I don’t know what response I would have had, given that I didn’t have a visa and wasn’t in the country, but I would have had nothing to lose by doing it. And bombard the recruitment agencies here in case they can give you any information.”

Bon voyage!

* Name has been changed

Further information

Useful links

Social work in Victoria

New Zealand social work recruitment

Contact the author

Natalie Valios

This article appeared in the 20 March issue under the headline “One way ticket…”

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