A career path less ordinary: how experience in other sectors can benefit social workers

From a former military man to a professional dancer, Alex Turner speaks to some social workers who've had unusual routes into the profession

“I fell into social work,” confesses James Sawford. “I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. My plan from school was to be in the armed forces until I was 55, then retire. I’d never previously considered going to university. I didn’t think I was the type.”

Social work is often pigeonholed as attracting a certain type of person – and many follow linear routes into the profession directly from education or via other health or social care roles. For Sawford, a member of Cornwall council’s adult ongoing care team – and a nominee for the newly qualified adult social worker prize at the recent 2013 Social Worker of the Year Awards – the path has been more roundabout. He spent six years in the armed forces, including two tours of Iraq and one of Afghanistan. A stint volunteering with Autism Care after his discharge provided an unexpected entry point to his new profession.

At a time when some regions find social work difficult to recruit into, Sawford’s employer is keen to highlight him as an example of how the profession could benefit by positioning itself as an attractive option for candidates looking for a career change. “I think it was always in me,” reflects Sawford, whose voluntary work led him into subsequent roles at Nottingham’s central duty point, where a supportive manager persuaded him to consider studying social work. “But in the armed forces you don’t really cherish life, not in terms of social work values, where every life is valuable. That was the biggest change.”

Despite this, he’s quick to point out areas – such as risk assessment – in which he’s been readily able to translate military skills into social work ones. “James’s background informs his practice in many ways,” confirms his manager, Maggie Browne. “He draws on that experience on a daily basis.”

Developing a forensic mindset

This process of join-the-dots is familiar to Gary Hickman, director of social work programmes at Birmingham University. In a previous life, he had a “good career” as a police officer, before a refusal by his employer to grant him a sabbatical to go to university – and a desire to work with young people – eventually took him into children and families social work.

“In the police you didn’t fully understand why someone’s in front of you. You’re not necessarily looking at the lead-up factors,” he recalls. “And once they’ve gone through the judicial process, you’re not following what happens next.”

However, Hickman notes, his former and current occupations have more in common than tends to be admitted. “I was always comfortable [working within] a legal framework: powers you can exercise if the evidence is there,” he continues. “Some people who come into practice find that a challenge; rightly, they want to improve people’s situations, empower them to take control. I support that, but equally there are occasions where you have to use a legal framework.”

Hickman also credits his years in uniform for instilling him with an inquisitive, forensic mindset. “It might seem [alien to] the value base of social work,” he acknowledges. “It wasn’t a case of thinking everyone was lying, but I’d never be dependent on one source of evidence, I’d always be looking for something to substantiate it. That’s important, particularly in child protection investigations. I’ve taken strengths the police gave me and utilised them to the benefit of being a social worker.”

Cath Hill, a social worker of one and a half years and a spokesperson for the College of Social Work, makes markedly similar observations despite having a past that could hardly be further from Hickman’s. Hill spent five years as a professional dancer before switching via a two-year social work master’s. She has since worked in child protection and with young offenders.

“I did a lot of work with the British Council, going abroad, working within communities,” Hill explains of her dancing years. “When people have never danced before, engaging them can be tricky. I’ve put those skills – meeting people for the first time and trying to put them at ease – into my work with young people and young offenders.”

Hill also believes her professional experience has helped her handle the stresses brought about by shrinking public services under the coalition government. “In the arts, cuts and people fighting for their jobs [was the norm], she says. “Under Labour, there was more money, but we still had to constantly apply for funds, see how we could maintain staffing levels and so on. It’s made the situation we’re in now less stressful for me than it’s been for some of my colleagues.”

‘The amount of paperwork is a madness’

Pressure is a perennial concern for social workers. A recent Community Care survey of 1,000 frontline staff revealed 96% feeling moderately or very stressed. Sawford, too, believes the circumstances he faced in his former role have helped him deal with some aspects of it. “In trying to defuse situations, whether it’s an irate family that totally disagree with our perception, or someone presenting with challenging behaviour, you’re able to have the self-confidence to defuse it, because there are situations in the armed forces that are a hell of a lot more severe,” he says.

Despite this, he admits that paperwork can be a “madness” quite unlike anything he’s encountered before and notes that, whatever you’ve done previously, “there are things you deal with as a qualified social worker that you’ll never have dealt with in your life”.

These are the challenges that will be faced by those career changers who make it onto the government-backed Frontline training scheme, which is due to begin next year. Frontline’s recruitment director, Katie Purser, says many applicants have had experience in previous careers, including law, advertising, translation, consultation and teaching.

“Outstanding social workers demonstrate empathy, emotional capacity, self-awareness and resilience – it’s important we reach out to such people if we’re to recruit the best and brightest into one of Britain’s toughest jobs,” she says. College of Social Work chair Jo Cleary agrees this is a good thing. “Experienced professionals from all walks of life can have much to offer to the profession, and the people with whom we work. In return, the reward of helping to make a positive difference to the lives of children, adults and families can be enormous.”

No one interviewed for this article makes any suggestion that social work should be colonised by career changers. Without the wisdom of senior practitioners long-steeped in social care, says Sawford, “I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do and where to go”.

But Hill argues that it is important to have fresh faces and a mix of backgrounds and experience in social work teams. “It’s nice to have a balance between people who’ve come straight from college, who contribute energy and knowledge of recent research, and those who can bring other skills,” she concludes.

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