The on-going challenges local authorities face in recruiting and retaining experienced social workers are hardly a secret.
Community Care’s survey into vacancy rates last autumn showed one in 10 posts is currently vacant. Even when councils are able to recruit enough newly qualified staff to fill the gaps, they still face the challenge of having enough experienced workers to support NQSWs and take on the most complex cases.
With this in mind it seems surprising that a whole section of the workforce—qualified, experienced, motivated—seems to be neglected when it comes to staunching the flow of skilled-up workers out of the profession.
Despite growing need, social workers returning from career breaks, extended maternity leave or from a period in a parallel profession are finding themselves unable to re-enter roles for which they are fully qualified.
Thurrock council has begun specifically targeting returning social workers in a recruitment campaign launched this year, but its head of children’s social care, Andrew Carter says he would like to see the scheme being rolled out nationally.
Social workers will take a ten day course with the opportunity to shadow a team, before being offered a guaranteed job interview. Candidates pay £500 for the privilege, but if successful will be refunded the money once they secure a job in the council.
“Thurrock was part of the scheme previously when it was still government funded and we found we got a very high calibre of candidates coming forward,” Carter says.
“We found they had very good transferable skills and were very motivated. It really helped our recruitment and retention and we’ve managed to hold on to a lot of very good staff.”
He points out it makes perfect sense for the council to target those social workers who already have the skills and experience to do the job.
“They tend to be a highly motivated section of the workforce and we are very happy to support people who want to return to social work.”
A scheme for returners was funded by government quango the Children’s Workforce Development Council until 2012. Now, some councils run local schemes like Thurrock’s, but no one body or organisation has an overview of the national picture.
British Association of Social Workers’ professional officer Sue Kent describes this as a missed opportunity.
“Some councils and higher education institutions are looking at delivering programmes for return to work. There is a movement, but no one’s leading on it on a national level- it’s a shame.”
“It would be a really good opportunity. There are lots of people who would like to go back into a statutory field and could bring really good skills. They just need to brush up on legislation, policy and guidance.”
A targeted programme to help returners back into work seems particularly logical in a workforce that is almost 80% female, a group far more likely to take extended career breaks for child care.
‘Block to returning’
Vijay Patel, professional practice advisor for the College of Social Work, says the organisation receives at least two or three calls each month from social workers who want to return after a break but are struggling to get a job.
“One block to returning is re-registration. How do you get the required days in practice to demonstrate your continuing professional development? Finding an authority that’s happy to take you on and give you a chance to demonstrate your skills in practice is difficult.
“We hear from employers that there are some very good people out there, but it’s about resources. When you need to just get work done, it’s difficult to have someone in shadowing.”
The College offers online learning modules that can be completed by social workers wanting to return to practice, but Patel says these alone are not be enough.
Dave Hill, workforce development lead for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services is surprised return to work schemes are being neglected when the need to recruit experienced workers is so acute.
“We are always prepared to consider flexible working and we do have people return to work, but it’s much more a local arrangement.
He points out: “There’s a difference between allowing people, and really valuing people returning to work.
“I would have though it warranted some exploration to see what is required now,” he says.