Children’s social worker Kelly Zukewich, now 40, came to London from Canada in 2001 and spent a decade working in and around the capital before returning home for family reasons.
A recent rise identified by Community Care in recruitment of overseas social workers is largely down to councils looking for experienced staff. But 15 years ago, Zukewich says, the impression was simply of a “dire need” for social workers. While she, at 24, had a couple of years’ practice under her belt, she was offered nothing in the way of a structured induction process on arrival in the UK.
In at the deep end
“When I went over to Newham council, I was straight into a child in need team,” Zukewich recalls. “If I hadn’t had previous experience it would have been completely overwhelming.”
Thanks to an “amazing, encouraging supervisor” Zukewich stuck it out, and describes practising in the capital as a huge payoff for the initial stress. “In terms of the work you do in London, it opens up your eyes to the world – the diversity is so rich, you would not get the same experience anywhere else.”
After leaving Newham in 2003 Zukewich went to Waltham Forest. Her team at the time had a truly international flavour, she recalls.
“We had people from India, Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, the US and Zimbabwe as well as white, Black, Asian British,” Zukewich says. “The chats we’d have would help enrich the social work practice – it gives you an opportunity to be open minded.”
At Waltham Forest Zukewich acted as a “welcoming committee” to other Canadian newcomers, helping them adjust to London life, something that many councils now recognise as an important part of overseas recruitment. Nonetheless, she says, she felt there “were things that could be improved” around how English councils were taking on international staff – notably around vetting to ensure people’s skills and motivations fit the roles they are coming over to do.
For a time Zukewich set up her own agency to specialise in bringing Canadians to the UK, before returning to Waltham Forest and then moving to Essex council as an independent social worker. She is soon to begin working again for a UK recruitment firm, Tripod Partners, to help refer potential candidates who wish to cross the Atlantic.
More responsible recruiting
Zukewich says “the industry is much more responsible” now than when she came to London, with cowboy recruiters looking for a fast buck having largely been rooted out. “The quality of the agencies is imperative – I have spoken to some social workers who were recruited and then had horrible experiences, of not being supported, or of being promised things that weren’t possible, only to find out when they had already made their move,” she says.
On the flip side, she goes on, poor screening procedures used to mean that candidates who were more bothered about seeing the world than actually delivering good practice would sometimes be taken on. Making matters worse, Zukewich adds that certain councils would anger homegrown employees by throwing money at international staff, for instance by paying their rent, something that local authorities we speak to say would not happen now.
Zukewich is now looking forward to helping other young social workers find their feet in the UK, she says. “It’s a great experience, though perhaps not one for everyone – there are so many good things about living in the UK, but you are going there to do a job and getting that right has to be the first priority.”
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