There has been considerable focus from politicians on developing new ways of training social workers, notably the government-backed Frontline scheme. But what are the job prospects like for the current tranche of newly qualified social workers ready to enter the profession after completing traditional social work degrees?
That was the focus of a ‘Starting Out’ workshop at last week’s BASW annual conference. The session threw into sharp relief the challenges faced by NQSWs as they try to get a first employment foothold.
BASW’s professional officer Joe Godden, leading the session, explained that the overall picture is looking marginally better than it was a couple of years ago, with more employers overtly recruiting NQSWs and running ASYE programmes. Yet the comments of students and graduates in the room revealed how tricky the path can still be – especially for people trying to change careers into social work.
Sarah*, (*names have been changed), who’d spent 15 years working in children and family social care at a local authority in the south of England, completed a three-year social work degree in 2012. On graduation she narrowly missed out on an NQSW role with her former employer, but secured a job as a family support key worker and felt she’d be able to “bide my time”.
However, after another unsuccessful interview a few months later, she discovered that councils in her area would no longer consider her for the roles she was chasing.
“It became clear the opportunities had gone – [they’d] shut the gates on people who graduated in 2012 or earlier, so from 2013 I was no longer eligible to apply as an NQSW,” she said.
As a parent who felt unable to uproot her life to apply elsewhere, Sarah said the realisation that she may not be able to get a job labelled ‘social worker’ came as a “huge disappointment, after the hard slog” of academia. Her story has a positive ending – she found a third-sector job “doing what I was trained to do” – but Godden said that her experience was mirrored by that of others elsewhere, including in inner London boroughs.
Stuck on zero hours
Another delegate, Kate*, a former legal secretary, said she’d ‘crashed and burned’ since finishing her degree in 2013 – because there’d been a lack of support towards preparing students for applying for work. She’d had one interview since – which was advertised as an NQSW role, but assessed as expecting candidates to have experience – and was now filling a fostering services support role on a zero-hours contract at an inner city council. This had played havoc with her benefits but had supplied no actual work since March.
Kate said she was still looking for work, but was struggling with demotivation, something that, Godden said, was another common problem for graduates emerging from intense degree courses that have often meant financial and social sacrifices. “One chap I spoke to described the six months after uni as like being stuck in the middle of the Atlantic without any oars,” he said.
Other delegates already working at local authorities described the picture from the other side.
“Eighty per cent of our workforce are agency; the top-down message is that they can’t find social workers,” said one student, currently balancing a social work degree with a social care assistant role. “I’m surprised people can’t get job because that’s not the message we’re getting.”
But another explained that this kind of employment-pool moaning is often a symptom of departments constantly chasing after experienced staff because of a combination of financial and caseload pressures.
“We don’t have enough money to pay external ASYE assessors, so it’s up to managers to assess NQSWs,” she said. “What they’re saying is it’s a double whammy – you’ve got someone who’s relatively inexperienced and you can’t find time to offer support, so we’re where we were three years ago: job ads are going out saying: ‘No NQSWs, minimum two years’ experience’.”
Godden described the picture as offering employers the choice between taking an upward spiral – ensuring the medium- to long-term supply of social workers via placements, good working conditions and development opportunities – or a downward one.
“The downward spiral sees social workers leaving because they feel they are not treated well, an increase in agency workers, with then existing workers feeling undervalued and leaving to become agency workers,” he said.
“The government seems to think that the problems of recruitment and retention will be solved by programmes such as Frontline, but the bigger picture is far more important – employers recognise the crucial role that they play in workforce planning and the importance of good links with local universities.”