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.
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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