Global marketplace puts up the barriers

If you are a social worker from overseas, you shouldn’t expect the British press to be your best friend. Melissa Ganser, originally from San Diego, USA, and now working in a children’s team at Havering Council learned this the hard way.

In February, the Mail on Sunday published an article claiming that inexperienced US social work graduates were being attracted to work here due to the “party lifestyle”, and quoted comments Ganser had made on a recruitment website.

At the time of the Mail on Sunday coverage, Ganser had actually worked in the London borough for more than three years. She is now an acting advanced practitioner on the children’s duty and assessment team.

“I think I’m going to work here for a while,” she says. “I’m committed to Havering and the job, so there are a lot of opportunities for me here. But if I do decide to go back, I will be able to take my experience with me.”

It’s hard to imagine why a social worker would want to leave San Diego (currently a sunny 21ºC) to come and work in Havering (11ºC and a steady drizzle) and be slated in the national press. But we should be grateful that Ganser and the 6,884 other foreign social workers have come to work here. They now make up almost 10% of the UK social work workforce, keeping vacancy levels manageable in hard-to-staff sectors like child protection.

Seeking social workers

Ganser is different from many overseas social workers in that she came to the UK before obtaining her job with Havering. Instead, it has become increasingly common for local authorities to pro-actively seek social workers from abroad. Jackie Lindsay, the head of social care at recruitment agency Pulse, says that such international recruitment has only really taken off this decade.

“It can often be easier to obtain them from overseas,” she says, “and since the need for a degree in social work was introduced, it has upped the standards of our workers.”

Lindsay says that Canada, New Zealand and Australia are good countries to recruit candidates because of the common language and the high standards of social worker training there. About 60% of social workers in the UK who qualified overseas did so in just four countries (Australia, South Africa, the USA and India). Every overseas-qualified social worker is either from Europe, the English-speaking world, Commonwealth countries or the Philippines. It is for this reason – and the fact that social workers are recruited by councils on an ad hoc basis – that a genuine global market does not exist.

But the number of new international social workers registering with the General Social Care Council is plummeting: there were 1,425 in 2006; 1,043 in 2007; and only 518 last year. Why this is happening is hard to ascertain because there is still need for social workers, particularly in children’s services.

One reason could be the tighter controls that have been introduced recently. The GSCC considers each application on a case-by-case basis but since October last year, social workers coming to work in the UK must have qualifications that are comparable with the social work degree and 130 days of post-qualifying training.

There are also workers of a higher standard who won’t work for the lower wages that UK organisations offer for their knowledge. Nadine Warren, originally from Kent, emigrated to British Columbia, Canada, in 1996, and is keen to return to the UK, but only if that means not taking a massive pay cut from her current job.

“I flew over for senior practitioner job interviews, which held the promise of becoming a team supervisor within two to three years,” she says. “In both cases I was told – after the interview and incurring the expenses – that qualifying outside the UK and not knowing the Children Act 2005 thoroughly would mean that I would not qualify for senior practitioner pay.

“Legislation is legislation, it is not rocket science. I can read, digest and apply 10 different child protection Canadian provincial legislations, why would there be an issue with assimilating UK legislation?” she says. “What is important is good social work practice and demonstrable social work skills in the field, mentoring experience, and the ability to engage service users – skills that do translate, if you are familiar with UK society.”

Paperwork bureaucracy

Paperwork is also thought to be putting off potential social workers. They have to deal both with the bureaucracy associated with social work and immigration. Lindsay says that Pulse plans to recruit from the eastern EU member states, in part because there are fewer barriers to entry from there.

International social workers also need support in their own lives once they arrive. Kate Harris, commercial director at Pulse, says: “There are the practicalities of opening bank accounts and obtaining visas, and being able to become a member of your community. That’s particularly important with a job that involves working in difficult circumstances and having a large case load.”

Creating those support networks for people new to the country is vital to ensure they are successful, but Lindsay says that current provision of everything from help in securing housing to meeting local people varies significantly between local authorities.

For now, social workers from overseas are a small but important section of the social care workforce. But their recruitment is being motivated by a shortfall in experienced home-grown social workers in particular areas or sectors. While overseas workers are needed in the short term, many believe that in the long-term it is not a sustainable position. Harris says: “There’s a lot that we can do here in terms of attracting people into training and degree-level courses but in the short term that’s not possible. Right now, we need to recruit from overseas.”

Sashnee Naidoo, social worker from South Africa
‘Here, it’s more about meeting your targets’

Sashnee Naidoo, originally from Durban, South Africa, qualified as a social worker in 1995. She moved to work in a children and families team at Reading Council in 2001, with the intention to pay off her student debt. She worked with children for three years until changing jobs.

“When I worked in South Africa I enjoyed it because it was more interesting,” she says. “Here in the UK, it’s more about meeting your targets; whereas my work in South Africa was more grass roots, working with very poor people and focusing on education, running community projects and fundraising.

“I raised funds for a borehole in a school because the kids didn’t have running water. It was very rewarding and people were more appreciative.

“When I came to England it was a bit of a culture shock. In South Africa we had a big HIV-positive and Aids problem. Lots of people were dying and children were often placed with their grandparents. But here, the system of adoption is totally different, and I couldn’t understand why families didn’t help in the same way.”

Naidoo says that one of the most frequently-made criticisms of social work in the UK – paperwork – is actually a problem everywhere and not specific to here. She also says that there were far more unnecessary meetings in South Africa, “to develop policy and practices and nothing got done. Here, everything is in place”.

She adds: “In terms of career development, in South Africa I would have been a chief social worker and then been stuck in that post for 10 to 15 years. Here you receive more career progression and support.”

But she also says that the onus of sticking to rules and structures was a problem when working with children in the UK, as “we always had to be seen as working with the parents, no matter how much abuse you received”.

In 2004, Naidoo stopped working with children, choosing to move to Stevenage to work as a hospital social worker.

More information

The number of overseas social workers in the UK

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