Joanna* qualified as a social worker in 2010 and spent five years as a permanent staff member mostly in child protection teams around the South West of England.
In summer 2015 she made the switch to locum work and is now on a short-term contract as a senior children’s social worker in a team heavily stocked with agency staff.
What was her motivation? “Everyone does it for the pay,” she says. “That’s the big difference for me – I used to be on about £30,000 before tax and now earn £30 an hour. Because I’m set up as a limited company I have an accountant and now take home about £900 a week.”
But money isn’t the only driver. “If you work for a good local authority with strong supervision, support and training then you might decide to stay,” she adds. “But when you get to the point where you’re too stressed and busy for that, you think, ‘I might as well go agency’.”
While it’s often said that social workers switch to agency work for an easier life with less responsibility, Joanna says that this doesn’t represent the whole picture.
At her current council, she acknowledges, agency workers are treated well, with her overall experience being positive – but that’s because they make up the spine of the team.
“But I’ve met many others who are having to work harder because they’re agency – you come in, there’s a full, overdue caseload, you’re expected to hit the ground running,” she says.
Regional pay caps
Joanna says she’d recommend trying locum work for anyone looking to move around and get a feel for different roles.
But, she says, regional caps on agency pay that have come in over the past year or so are making more expensive parts of the country less appealing destinations than they used to be. In London, she points out, she’d now be making less per hour than she does currently despite the cost of living being far higher.
Many other locums Joanna knows have left permanent jobs to save for a short-term goal such as getting married or putting together a mortgage deposit. When personal priorities change, whether that’s wanting to start a family or to sink your teeth into a longer-term work challenge, the stability of a permanent job can regain its attraction.
“I change my mind about what to do next,” she says. “Recently I’ve been thinking about going back to permanent work, to have the security of sick pay, annual leave and pensions, and to be able to access more training, because local authorities aren’t keen on giving that to locums.”
If you’re after moving up the ladder, she adds, permanency is probably the way forward.
“The next level for me would be to apply for a deputy management job – I could get one as an agency worker but I’d get minimal support and training,” she says. “If you want to step up, and to do something well, it’s worth going back into the local authority for those perks.”
*not her real name