An “exit into locum work” caused by spiralling caseloads and a dwindling work-life balance could be behind a staggering 74% increase in social work vacancies, according to Unison. The trade union describes the trend, observed by public sector job site Jobsgopublic, as “very worrying”.
The figure comes from data collected by the site, whose research also showed an increase in advertised local authority posts across children’s and adult social services from 2,700 to 4,700 in 12 months from May 2013.
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care, said a combination of poor working conditions, growing caseloads and a move by many social workers towards temporary locum work could be to blame for the number of posts councils are struggling to fill.
“Working conditions are worsening as stress levels and workloads go up,” said Pile. “I think that there are people who do veer to locum work because it’s a means to get more control over their working life and stress levels. As the market gets tighter the premium they can earn goes up, but at the expense of job security.
“People are finding that locum work is the only way to maintain a work-life balance and that’s something employers really need to be looking at, particularly because they can’t afford to keep paying sky-high agency fees.”
Joan Beck, joint chair of the Association of Directors of Adults’ Services (ADASS) workforce network, said the figures cannot be put down to any single factor.
“Undoubtedly certain factors operative during the past five years might have made careers in local government less attractive than before,” she said.
“On the other hand, many authorities will be creating new posts in order to take on the new duties under the Care Act. As our budget surveys have consistently shown, austerity has impacted on social care despite the steps local councils and the government have taken to protect them.
“There are no easy answers to the increases in social work vacancies. There will be specific local variations, and particular recruitment strategies in different regions and authorities.”
Factors alluded to by ADASS include a 1% cap on public sector pay rises along with an increasingly unsustainable workload. Widespread burnout among social workers means even if a council is not having trouble recruiting for positions, they may struggle to recruit experienced social workers.
An investigation carried out by Community Care in January showed an average of one in 10 local authority social workers is newly qualified – a level many consider unsupportable.
However Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said most councils enjoy low rates of vacancies and turnover. While some councils do experience high vacancy rates, Wood attributes this largely to a growing demand for services and the creation by councils of new jobs. He describes the rising number of posts as a “positive” step.
“Figures published by the Department for Education show that the majority of local authorities have a low turnover and low vacancy rate,” he said.
“Some local authorities do have significant problems with recruitment and retention of staff, particularly those who have recently received an ‘inadequate’ judgment by Ofsted. In one local authority, the social worker vacancy rate rose from 4% to 40% following an inadequate judgment.
“Demand for services is increasing and over half a million children in England were referred to children’s social care last year alone with nearly 53,000 children becoming subject of a child protection plan.
“As more families need help, local authorities are creating a number of new social worker posts to find staff who have the right skills and appropriate experience to be able to help those most in need. More social worker posts in the system is a positive sign of the importance of social work to local authorities,” he said.