Social work vacancy rates are high in parts of the Midlands, despite progressive working practices and attractive environments. Mark Smulian reports
The East and West Midlands can offer social workers everything from inner city to remote rural environments. Local demographics strongly influence the ebb and flow of social work supply and demand across the region.
Tim Normanton, recruitment strategy manager for adult social work at Staffordshire Council, says one of the more pressing recruitment problems confronting the region is “the effect of demographics on demand of adult social care and in children’s services”. He adds: “we are seeing shortages of occupational therapists in particular and a lot of vacancies generally.”
Pay is a useful lever in this regard. Staffordshire’s social workers have, Normanton says, “done quite well from their job evaluation, which has put their pay in the top quartile for the region.
“That makes quite a difference to newly qualified social workers, who can come out of university and be on £28,000, which is quite attractive both in adult and children’s work.”
Staying on the frontline
Staffordshire is also looking to retain experienced staff long-term and is piloting opportunities for career and salary advancement without requiring social workers to leave the frontline and enter management.
“It means they can be better paid by becoming better social workers, than by becoming managers,” says Normanton.
Staffordshire is home to one of the social work practice pilots, Evolve YP, which began work in November and is responsible for 150 looked-after children and care leavers.
One newly qualified social worker attracted to the Midlands is Sarah Feeley, who works in adult learning disabilities for Telford and Wrekin Council.
She completed her degree at Wolverhampton University and her placement was at Telford and Wrekin, which she liked so much she decided to seek a post there on qualification last year.
“I liked the way the teams were organised and the support the staff got in training and opportunities,” she says. “Teams are very close knit and there is a lot of joint working between them, for example with physical disability and sensory empowerment.”
Darren Bishton manages the team at Solihull that guides care leavers to independence.
He says newly qualified staff will typically be given an average of 12 cases to manage in their first year, rather than the normal 16, leaving them time for further training.
“They would not be expected to be responsible for very complex court work or section 47 investigations, though they might co-manage such work with an experienced member of staff,” he says.
Bishton feels Solihull offers a great diversity of work. “As I understand it, we have the highest disparity in wealth in the country outside Westminster,” he says.
“The south of the borough is very affluent but the north has high deprivation and so there is a lot of variety in dealing with people from different walks of life.”
Solihull is offering a similar scheme to that in Staffordshire to provide a career path in senior social work practice, as opposed to management.
Growth in recruitment
In adults’ services there may be a burst of recruitment this summer after reorganisation caused by the shift to personalisation has settled down, says Eddie Clarke, regional secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services.
“There is a high vacancy rate in the region,” he says, “but we are not necessarily looking to fill posts on a permanent basis until all those new roles and responsibilities are decided.
“I hope all that will be clear by the summer. There are 14 authorities across the region all looking to fill vacancies.”
These posts will depend on how existing staff have slotted into the new structures.
“We will still need qualified social workers although they may be called something different to reflect the changed roles resulting from personalisation,” he says.
Clarke, who is also director at Worcestershire Council, says some posts will be awarded higher pay to reflect new roles. “In Worcestershire, personalisation may mean there will be a central referral team and a brokerage team, but we are still going to need core social work skills, even though people may deal with clients at different stages, instead of right the way through,” he says.
“Personalisation is clearly not an end to social work. In fact, I think it will offer major roles for social workers in future with greater focus and job satisfaction.”
There is belt-tightening coming across local government, but most Midlands councils recognise they will still need to recruit social workers.
Case study of a social worker: Jill Clarke, Derby Council
Jill Clarke, a social worker with Derby Council, has been a qualified social worker for four years and works with disabled children aged under 11.
This is her first post in social work, having previously worked in fields that did not require a qualification in mental health, and in children’s homes.
Clarke is a native of Derby and wanted to stay there when she qualified. It is, she says, “a very diverse city with a lot of people from different cultures, very friendly and with a lot to offer, and it is near the Peak District”.
She had, though, not previously thought of working with disabled children, because her earlier expertise lay in other fields.
“But I have found my skills feed into this work,” she says. “I’m doing the final part of the post-qualification training and hope to finish that later this year.
“There are opportunities to progress on completing the post-qualification training and I’m very fortunate to be in an environment where we are encouraged to do whatever we can.”
Clarke has gained experience of working with other agencies, including the police, with whom she has taken a “better evidence” course to improve her interviewing skills with children.
“If there is training available you are encouraged to take it, even if it is not offered locally,” she says.
She particularly praises Derby’s co-location of services at its Lighthouse building.
This houses an integrated disabled children’s service in a purpose-built environment and is jointly funded and managed by the city council and Derby Primary Care Trust.
“It has health and education in one building with social work upstairs and physiotherapy and occupational therapy downstairs, which encourages us to work together,” Clarke says.
“This is a big plus because a lot of children have very complex needs and I can just pop along to see someone concerned with each aspect, so we work in a very joined up way.”
Midlands key facts
● The East Midlands is a largely rural area but includes the cities of Derby, Leicester and Nottingham. Its southern fringe includes part of the Milton Keynes South Midlands growth area, where 225,000 new homes are planned by 2021.
● The West Midlands includes the Birmingham, Black Country and Stoke-on-Trent conurbations, all of which have suffered the effects of the recession on the manufacturing base, and more rural areas to the south and west.
● Average house prices in last quarter of 2009
West Midlands £144,748
East Midlands £136,492
West Midlands 5.27 million, of whom 840,400 are older than 65 and 1.3 million are aged under 19. East Midlands 4.2 million, of whom 670,600 are older than 65 and 1 million are aged under 19.
West Midlands 9.4%
East Midlands 6.9%
Sources: Office for National Statistics and the Home Office