Why councils are looking overseas for social workers

The number of overseas social workers hired to work in the UK each year more than tripled between 2012 and 2016. Community Care reports on a small, but increasingly important, part of the workforce.

Picture: giorgos245/fotolia

Last year more than 450 social workers from overseas came to work in the UK from places like Zimbabwe, Romania, Portugal, Australia and India.

This group marks a small but important part of the overall social work workforce – there are more than 26,000 children and families social workers in England alone. But it is also growing, with figures obtained by Community Care from the UK social work regulators showing the numbers of annual overseas registrants more than tripled, from 113 to 473, between 2012 and 2016.

The most significant increase has been in England, where the number of overseas social workers registered with the HCPC rose from 79 to 416 over the four-year period, partly due to some local authorities stepping up efforts to recruit from abroad after finding it difficult to attract experienced social workers.

Harrow council, for instance, recently hired 20 children’s social workers from India. The most recent official statistics on the local authority’s workforce show it had around 115 children’s social workers in 2016, and recruited around 40 that year.

A report to the council’s overview and scrutiny committee said the new staff hired from India was helping ease the pressure on children’s services. But the council, which had a third of its children’s social work posts filled with agency staff last year, also says the recruits bring extra skills needed in the local community.

“The project has recruited 20 very experienced, well-qualified practitioners,” a council spokesperson says, flagging up the “excellent worldwide profile” of Indian accreditation. Importantly, they add, “social workers from India come with a range of linguistic skills that meet the profile of the community in Harrow”.

It’s a similar story in Herefordshire, which took on 10 social workers from Romania during 2015 at a time when its vacancy rate was running at 37%. Jo Davidson, who was until recently Herefordshire council’s director for children’s wellbeing, says the authority had been looking “at all angles” to get a mixture of new and experienced workers through the door.

“Our research showed a lot of similarities [with the UK] around how workers are trained; we also had quite a number of Romanian families so were looking at Eastern Europeans,” Davidson says. In total our FOI requests picked up 179 Romanian social workers registered across the UK between 2012 and 2017, with 150 in England – the second-largest nationality, after Australia (which contributed 284 workers).

Getting up to speed

Some social work recruitment agencies specialise in sourcing practitioners from overseas. Laurence Lennon, director at Tripod Executive, has worked for various major suppliers in this area. He says there are plenty of advantages to councils in recruiting talent from abroad.

“There is a workforce argument that you know you have X number of starters on a given day, which only tends to happen in the UK market with academy programmes, when people graduate or with [schemes like] Frontline and so on where there’s specific sponsorship,” Lennon says. “[Overseas recruitment] enables councils to plan and do a full induction, and get a number of people up to speed at the same time.”

The recognition that ‘getting up to speed’ with UK legislation and culture is crucial, says Lennon, adding that both councils and agencies have become much better at ‘aftercare’ to help workers settle into a new country. “This can’t be seen as a quick fix,” he says. “If you fling 15 experienced social workers into a chaotic structure, or into fire-fighting, they will struggle like anyone else.”

Davidson says that at Herefordshire, Romanian recruits were “treated like NQSWs” and put into the council’s social work academy; other councils we speak to say they have done similarly. “It was a good six months before many were ready to take on a full caseload,” Davidson says. “But if you’re looking for permanent staff [you have to ask], are you in it for the long or short game?”

A question of loyalty

Questions of longevity also inform perceptions of non-UK social workers. Lennon says that in his experience, practitioners from countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand are more likely to take jobs in the UK to gain short-to-medium-term work experience that will better their employability back home.

By contrast, he goes on, “recruiting from countries where it’s a life-changing opportunity to work overseas, people are committed to bringing their families over for a better quality of life and greater opportunity”.

Interestingly Zimbabwe, which Lennon points out has recently adopted a child-focused social work model, saw its numbers of HCPC registrants soar from nine in 2015 to 68 in 2016 – making it the largest nation that year.

Rachael Wardell, workforce lead for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says recruitment trends always go through “ups and downs”. She cautions against assuming that staff recruited from overseas will be automatically be any more loyal than UK social workers, and feels that working conditions for all social workers is what ultimately makes the difference.

“What makes people loyal is good working environments,” she says. “In the end, if you’re not a local authority who can retain staff, you might keep an overseas worker because they depend on your sponsorship – but that’s not loyalty, it’s an obligation.”

Sarah Hammond, Kent council’s assistant director of children’s services for West Kent, admits that in her experience the council’s sponsorship – essential for its non-EU/EEA nationals’ work visas – plays its part in retaining social workers. But she argues that there would be nothing to stop another council from taking the sponsorship on, and says that “development opportunities” at large councils like Kent are just as important in terms of holding onto good staff.

Direct dealing

Kent is unusual in that, having previously gone through agencies to source overseas staff, it has now begun direct recruitment drives in South Africa.

“We had two South African team managers here who had been working long-term and used their expertise to think about where we should explore, where we know academic qualification is very good, and we might get some interest,” she says. A fringe benefit has been an increase in the number of male recruits – always in short supply in children’s social work – at the council.

Hammond adds that for Kent, overseas recruitment is a “long-term” element of its recruitment strategy. “The best outcomes for children are achieved through permanent staffing so that’s what the driver is really,” she says.

Kent’s experience, Lennon says, reflects one of “two schools of thought” around international recruitment. Pointing out that, five or 10 years ago, the approach of many councils and agencies was less well-thought out in terms of supporting workers, he says quite a number of authorities have had bad, costly, historical experiences and “won’t look again”. But he cites others, including some London boroughs, where international workers have risen through the ranks to senior management positions.

“Done properly, there are so many new skills and different practice approaches [that can be added to workforces],” Lennon says.

There will always be an extra training investment involved, Lennon says. But he points out that tools such as Skype mean interviewing can be done more cheaply and flexibly these days, and that pure recruitment costs of taking on an international staff member need not be vastly more than for a domestically trained one. Most authorities we speak to say overseas social workers are offered similar relocation packages to UK ones.

Whether the numbers of overseas registrations continues to rise remains to be seen. The HCPC was the only regulator to disclose 2017-specific figures to us, which run to the end of April. But during those four months, 63 social workers from abroad were registered into the largest market, England. If extrapolated across the year this would bring registrations back below 2013 levels. The drop-off among European registrants is even sharper.

It’s too early to say whether Brexit uncertainty – which in any case won’t affect markets for workers from places like India or African countries – is having an effect. Two councils, Harrow and Buckinghamshire, tell us that having taken on 20 and 33 overseas workers respectively, they will simply have no need to look abroad any time soon.

And as homegrown NQSWs fostered by many councils mature into a sector where tax changes are making going locum less financially attractive, there may simply be more experienced UK workers looking for permanent roles. Either way though, international workers are likely to be continue to play an important part in the workforce.

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16 Responses to Why councils are looking overseas for social workers

  1. Charles Bell July 20, 2017 at 10:29 am #

    I have been recruiting international social workers for much of the last seventeen years.Many years ago I achieved what was then thought to be the impossible and started finding Romanian social workers jobs: extremely well educated, career orientated and resilient. At the same time I also placed many Zimbabweans. I have recently extended my source countries to include the Philippines, New Zealand, India and others.

    It is a contradiction that in April the government introduced a skills tax of £3000 payable by the employer for those who are not EU citizens. The total amount payable for the work permit and visa process is now £4700. Official shortage occupations were not exempted from the tax.

    The other point to mention concerns HCPC and registration. I know a number of social workers where HCPC have taken 18 months to two years to process applications. That is not acceptable. Getting registered is one thing: getting a job is another!

    • Milagros abiqui July 22, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

      Hi. I’m wondering how I would get in touch with you. I am a qualified Social Worker from the Philippines and I am registered with HCPC.

  2. Gary July 20, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    This story is frustrating for me. I am a family support work with over 10 years experience. I have not got an acedemic background and can not support my family leaving work to study but desperately would like to be a social worker as I feel I do make a difference and feel capable of doing the work yet I can not progress up to being a social worker.
    I agree that these people could be good for the teams they are in but I wonder how many unqualified stuff could also do the same!!

  3. June July 20, 2017 at 9:23 pm #

    All the money spent on recruitment overseas and obtaining work permits could be used to raise wages. I was permanent for a short period of time and nearly went into bankruptcy. I want to be permenant but simply can’t afford it.

  4. Jonathan July 21, 2017 at 5:11 am #

    Lolz! “For a better quality of life in the UK”.. lol. Wow, they must be coming from some really hellish conditions if they want to come to the UK for a better life. Fun fact: world poverty is halved in the last 10 years. I imagine the number of hell holes has diminished considerably. And what will the UK do then?

  5. Charles Nyamhotsi July 21, 2017 at 8:55 am #

    Huge Difference
    I am a social worker who was brought here from Zimbabwe by CHARLES BELL in 2001. I am still working in Children and Services. Overseas social workers do make a huge difference to vulnerable children and adults’ lives, and their work ethic is awesome.
    It would be helpful for the government to re-think and GET RID OF the constraints that hamper the recruitment of overseas social workers.
    The support I got from my employer and Charles Bell really helped me to settle; from arranging my bus-pass, bank account, accommodation and helping me to ring my family back home.

  6. Gill Sandwith July 21, 2017 at 10:15 am #

    Don’t listen to a recruitment agency re longevity of Australian, US and NZ social workers and don’t assume it is to ‘better their employability’ here, as if their systems are ‘less than.’ It is interesting to come over and try a different system and to be able to travel in Europe.

    As an Australian SW some of us decide to return because it is more about family, PAY, caseloads, respect and what you are familiar with, plus no Ofsted and a bit more sunshine back home. Australia would welcome short, mid term social workers for their diversity rather than their longevity.

  7. maharg July 21, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    It is good to see you and know that social workers from other countries meet the standards that we all adhered to, If they come and work in this country. However, Gary comment about getting qualified reflects unless you can afford to find your own education or can get a bursary . The reality will be, that there will always be a shortfall.

    Individuals from another country which may have linguistic skills and writing skills may be very beneficial in some areas and may be the obvious solution to promote engagement from different ethnic groups, so ultimately a win-win situation. But with educational debt being a consideration for students in this country, ultimately, recruitment may be a ongoing issue which cannot be resolved, especially in some areas.

  8. Sam July 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

    It is good to hear many of the positive reasons for hiring foreign social workers, such as cultural and linguistic needs. In a diverse society I agree a combination and variety of workers in the field is essential.
    But I question the move to hire experienced workers into teams where the mood is “fire fighting” and put them through a NQSW programme, over the idea of hiring British trained social workers who may be “NQSW’s” anyway. Until recently, I have been working in a third sector agency as a team leader because I lacked statutory experience for statutory work. This was a standard response locally for over five years. Except, similar thinking to many Universities, by hiring NQSW’s or those with little statutory experience (on paper I should add), Local Authorities are able to mold workers into the type of workers they need as opposed to experienced workers who also need to be molded and adapt to British Laws, cultures, etc, Local Authorities can begin to build a workforce of Social Workers who are more likely to be loyal, promote longevity within the vocation and actually be able to give those Social Workers work with a better standard of support.

  9. Ruth Cartwright July 21, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

    I have enjoyed working with social workers from all over the world at various times, some just visiting and working, others actively recruited by employers. Something that concerns me is that employers seize upon a supply of social workers who have been trained at the expense of another country (where their skills may be desperately needed) and don’t engage in ‘growing their own’ and supporting people like Gary above to gain the SW qualification. But I would not like to see the doors slammed shut and no place for social workers from other countries joining us from time to time.

  10. chrissie July 24, 2017 at 11:10 am #

    I work with families and on online groups and there are endless complaints about overseas social workers who a)don’t understand the system b) don’t understand our culture c) can’t speak or write English. Why are we not supporting people like the Family Support Worker and others to qualify and move forward? Ridiculously short term planning which has a significant impact on families in crisis and on the elderly

  11. JJ July 26, 2017 at 7:50 pm #

    I worked in 5 London Boroughs as a senior locum . I trained and lived in the USA so I am a foreign worker. I noted that those Social Workers from countries where English is not the first language were of a very poor standard and would never be accepted in the USA. In the UK, “equalities” seems to mean letting poor standards for foriegners be ignored in the name of political correctness. When will you guys wake up? When will you pay your compatriots a decent salary? I would ban foreign workers on the grounds that the people they serve(your clients or service users ) are foreign nationals and need to acclimatize to the UK culture as I had to. By giving them Romanian/Polish/African/latvian/Indian/Sri Lankan Social Workers you are encouraging them to be isolated and alienated by meeting them on their cultural terms rather than the UK cultural terms. I m so glad to be back in USA and Im sure many reading this will be glad Im back too. You can keep your Foriegn National Social Workers thanks.

  12. Angel July 27, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

    I’ve read through all the above comments and they all have a ring of truth in them. However Chrissie’s reply also summed it up nicely for me. I totally agree with her statement about those overseas SW’s who can’t speak or write English. As a qualified SW I was twice interviewed by so-called team managers ( I won’t say what nationality) who could hardly speak English and I must admit it crossed my mind how they even worked themselves up the ladder. Similarly I’ve worked as a hospital social worker and it scared the living daylights out of me the number of times I witnessed medications (and patients) names getting mixed up by nurses who can’t speak or write English clearly..a most dangerous practice which will obviously continue as long as this recruitment practice continues.

  13. Mary August 16, 2017 at 8:34 am #

    I worked as a social worker for over a decade, for various local authorities in London. I trained abroad and registered with the regulator at the time. Wherever I worked I had excellent feedback from my managers. In terms of performance, I have always had some of the best results in the team. I have met many social workers who had trained abroad and had excellent English and work ethic. in fact, Eastern European social workers are very sought after, in particular the Romanians. This is mainly due to the fact that they work hard and have loyalty for their employers.

    Regarding the smaller number of social workers registered with the HCPC so far this year, this is due to the fact that the HCPC assessors often request additional evidence from the candidates such as long essays and this was not the case in the past.