Private sector workers seek career change in social work

Social work is attracting more and more private sector workers seeking a career change

The government is investing £15m in TV, radio and billboard advertising to attract people into social work in England, with a special focus on graduates.

So far, 45,000 people have registered interest while 52,000 people across the UK applied to begin the social work degree in 2010-11 a 41% increase on the previous year.

Ucas, the universities admissions body, believes many private sector employees are opting to retrain and work in the caring professions because of the recession.

Community Care asked five individuals why they made the jump from the private sector into social work – including two who are having second thoughts following negative experiences on placements.


‘I wanted to work with people’

Neil Swaby, 37, final year BSc social work student, Hull School of Health and Social Care, University of Lincoln

Previous job: fruit and veg delivery driver

I’ve done lots of jobs in my time. When I left school I was a trainee manager at Tesco, and before retraining as a social worker I was a delivery driver for a fruit and veg supplier. I enjoyed it thoroughly – it was a small, close-knit team – but I wanted to create a status for myself and forge a career.

So I sat down with my wife and discussed the types of roles I should be doing. She saw an advert in the paper for a certificate in social care and I soon realised it was a career I’d like to follow. Plus I could do it while still working because it wasn’t a full-time degree; it was four hours a week on a Monday evening. I did that for two years, which was equivalent to the first year of the degree, and this is what introduced me to social work.

I’d never considered it before. I’d been on the parish council, done a bit of voluntary work, and always been interested in the youths in the village where I live, so I suppose I was heading towards a social care role – but I didn’t relate it to becoming a social worker.

I chose social work because of the type of person I am, and the type of people I want to work with. I want to be in a job where I will have direct involvement with people.

When I was delivering, I saw customers every day. Being a people-person helps me now, because I’ll be meeting with people and speaking to them face to face about personal issues. You have to be comfortable doing that.

I’m currently on placement in a youth offending team and managing some cases. It’s so different from my old role. There’s responsibility, time management, adhering to legislation, policies and procedures and achieving targets. In my old job you had to arrive on time but beyond that you had free rein. There wasn’t any pressure then – apart from someone phoning to ask where their delivery was – but now I’m dealing with people’s lives, so the pressure is on.

I’m 95% confident I’ll find a job, but there are no guarantees in the current climate. Some people say there are loads of jobs out there, some say there are none. But there will always be agencies requiring social workers and that’s an opportunity to develop your skills in lots of areas.


‘The right decision’

Sadie Lunn, 31, children’s social worker, Westminster Council, London

Previous job: film and theatre make- up artist

I was a make-up artist for five or six years before beginning the social work degree in 2006. I used to be on film sets and question how my job was helping society or contributing. Would it matter if this film didn’t get made? Then I worked on a small local theatre production by an organisation that trains homeless people to act. All of the actors were homeless, and I found it more interesting hearing about their life stories than doing the make-up. I realised I wanted to do something more worthwhile.

A few years earlier I’d seen a billboard advert on the tube for social workers, but I wasn’t in a position to change careers because I’d just started in the make-up industry. But it was something I kept going back to, until eventually I decided to do the degree.

I knew the minute I started the course that I’d made the right decision. I can’t imagine a job I’d rather be doing. It’s much more rewarding than the private sector, which is about making profit, but we’re here to help children and families in need.

But it’s a big change. I don’t think it’s something you can go into lightly; you have to really want to do it. There is a lot of bureaucracy, there’s no getting away from that. The government has put procedures in place that we have to follow. I try to see it as another aspect of learning. At the beginning I spent a long time doing write-ups but I’m becoming more experienced at it now and find it more manageable.


‘Being able to handle irate people has come in useful’

Michael Earle, 44, children’s social worker, Bristol Council

Previous job: car insurance call centre worker

I was working for an insurance company when a friend told me the Children’s Society was looking for volunteers from black and ethnic minority groups. I had worked with children with my local church before, taking them on trips and that sort of thing. So I made enquiries and became a mentor.

The manager suggested to me one day I should think about becoming a social worker. I didn’t plan to stay in insurance for the rest of my life so I decided to do the diploma, then the top-up degree. I’ve been working as a social worker for four and a half years now.

It’s a great deal different to car insurance, although I did have transferable skills: in insurance you get the odd difficult or irate customer, and being able to handle that has come in very useful. You have to remember you are a professional and the person you’re dealing with might be upset about something unrelated to you. You let them express it and then move on.

Bureaucracy wasn’t an issue for me, but I suppose it depends on where you end up working. Social work is a very challenging job but there are lots of positive outcomes that aren’t always publicised in the media.


…and those who no longer feel social work is for them

Not all students go on to become social workers. A General Social Care Council report last year found that 23% of social work graduates were unemployed. We spoke to two students who have opted against careers as frontline social workers because of negative experiences on local authority placements.

‘I wanted more autonomy’

Paula Doherty, 42, PhD social work student at the University of Lancaster who qualified from the MA social work degree with distinction in 2008

The highly regulated environment Paula witnessed at one local authority placement put her off going into frontline work after graduating.

“I saw [the social workers] sitting there in silence typing up reports,” the former law and injury claims insurance professional says. “I left the private sector because I wanted more autonomy, but it hit home that I might be going from one job where I felt stifled to another.”

Although she has not completely ruled out a future in frontline social work, Paula has decided to focus on research into safeguarding for the time being.

‘There’s too much paperwork’

Kelly Symonds, 34, second year MSc social work student at London South Bank University

Kelly left her job as a television director because she wanted to do something more worthwhile, but is becoming disillusioned with the paperwork and risk aversion in statutory social work.

“In my first year I shadowed a local authority assessment team for one day every fortnight and the paperwork, the bureaucracy and the different levels of ability were a big eye-opener. I’m now in a mental health placement, and again there’s a lot of paperwork because you have to cover your back and make sure everything is written.”

She still intends to complete the course but feels the only solution is to go into the voluntary sector after graduating, perhaps as a youth worker. “I want to be with clients, not just write about it.”

Relevant articles:

Fast track training in social work 

CareSpace discussion on changing careers 

This article is published in the 18 February 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Crossover Appeal 

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