Social worker vacancy rates fall to a four-year low, while use of agency staff rises

The average number of local authority social work posts filled by agency staff has increased this year, leading to concerns that employers are papering over cracks in the permanent jobs market

By Tristan Donovan and Kirsty McGregor

Local authority social worker vacancy rates have fallen for the fourth year in a row, but figures suggest the gap is increasingly being plugged with agency staff.

Community Care’s annual investigation found 6.5% of all social worker posts across the UK were vacant in September 2013, down from 7.1%in 2012.

The fall appears to be largely due to progress in filling positions in adult services. In 2012, 7.5% of social worker posts in adult services were vacant, but this has now fallen to 6.7%.

Vacancies in children’s services rose by one percentage point to 7.1% in the same period.

Use our map to find out how many social worker posts are vacant in your area

The investigation, based on freedom of information requests to all councils and Northern Ireland’s five health and social care trusts, also showed that employers are increasingly relying on agency staff to fill posts.

In 2012, local authorities were using an average of 16 agency social workers across both children and adult social services. This year, the average has climbed to 22.

“Agency social workers represent some of the most experienced and capable social workers around,” said Ruth Cartwright, England manager of the British Association of Social Workers. “But if they are working somewhere long term that can be a problem – you want people there for the long haul.

“The question is whether they being used as a short-term stopgap while longer-term plans are made.”

Continuity in support for services users

The fall in the number of social worker posts over the past few years appears to have come to an end, with authorities reporting an average of 240 social workers posts available (both filled and unfilled).

This is up from 214 in 2012 and the first rise since the investigation began in 2010, when the average number of posts was 226.

This year’s freedom of information request specified that social workers of any level should be included in the response, as long as they hold a caseload, which may account for a rise in the number of posts recorded.

“It is encouraging to see an increase in social work posts as some local authorities did overreact when the recession came in with Draconian cuts,” said Cartwright.

The East of England continues to be the region with the highest overall vacancy rates, as it was in 2012. According to the results, 14.7% of social worker posts in the East of England are vacant; almost double the figure for London, the region with the next highest vacancy rate at 8.7%.

Northern Ireland appears to have the lowest vacancy rate in the UK, with just 1.1% of social worker posts across its five health and social care trusts unfilled.

Vacancy rates charts

Vacancy rates charts


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5 Responses to Social worker vacancy rates fall to a four-year low, while use of agency staff rises

  1. anonymous October 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Are these registered social worker roles with job descriptions which stipulate” registered soical worker”?

    Many local authorities still have “assessors” and “care managers” carrying out assessments. Are these counted in the stats as worker carrying out social work “type” role?
    I would rather see locum agency registered social worker assessing than an unregistered permanent member of staff who has a limited view of what assessment means ( sorry) and who is unable to advocate and challenge her his manager etc.

    • Kirsty McGregor October 30, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      Thanks for your comment. We asked for data relating to qualified social workers, i.e. practitioners holding a recognised social work qualification and registered with a national regulator such as the Health and Care Professions Council in England, so no, it does not include unqualified staff who may be carrying out some statutory social work duties.

  2. Phil October 30, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    The question is then how does the number of social workers in a given local authority measure up against caseloads.
    Many LAs restructure and merge teams to cut the number of managers to save money, which has an impact on the amount and quality of supervision. With caseloads in my team ranging from 35-40 with reports from neighbouring areas of up to 60 children per social worker, there might not officially be any vacancies, however the working conditions are dangerous both for vulnerable children who cannot receive the service they require from their social worker and the social workers who face burnout.

    • Kirsty McGregor October 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      Hi Phil – you’re absolutely right. We’ll be looking again at caseloads in the next couple of months, so hopefully we’ll get a more complete picture of working conditions in some teams; even those, as you say, with no vacancies. Kirsty

  3. CK November 4, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    This is certainly borne out in my experience. I graduated from a master’s this year and have found the jobs market in my region extremely competitive, despite five years pre-qualifying experience in frontline social care services, including care co-ordination. At the same time I notice a profusion of short-term agency contracts being advertised. I am now beginning to see a rise in vacancies in my region, which suggests LAs are indeed becoming less Draconian in their approaches to dealing with resource limitations.