Drop in adult social workers employed by councils as vacancies and turnover mount

Fall in practitioner numbers comes amid assessment backlog and with the government needing to attract more social workers into adult care to implement cap on care costs

Old metal sign with the inscription Vacancies
Photo: Zerbor/Adobe Stock

Story updated 7 March 2022

The number of adult social workers employed by English councils fell last year as turnover and vacancy rates rose, show official figures released by Skills for Care.

Councils employed 15,655 social workers, both permanent and temporary, in adults’ services as of September 2021, down 1.5% from 12 months previously. The number of social work jobs in authorities also dropped, from 17,455 to 17,280*.

At the same time, the vacancy rate rose for the first time in six years, from 7.5% to 9.5%, while turnover also ticked upwards, from 13.6% to 15%, as more people left their roles in 2020-21 (2,355) compared with the previous year (2,155).

The increases in churn and the proportion of unfilled posts replicate what is happening in children’s services; however, there, unlike in adult social care, the number of practitioners is increasing.

Significant pressures

The drop in social worker numbers comes amid significant pressures on adult social care, manifest in a mounting backlog of assessments and reviews and delays in arranging care packages, as reported in successive surveys of directors.

Also, the government needs more social workers to come into adults’ services to deliver on its funding reforms, including a cap on care costs. These will be implemented next year and require hundreds of thousands of more assessments a year.

It intends to expand the number of qualifying routes into social work, and the number of trainees, to tackle this, and is exploring how to enable councils to accommodate more students on placement.

Pay rises following years of stagnation

The data also showed a rise in average full-time equivalent pay for council adult social workers, which increased by 2% in real terms, from £35,800 to £36,700, from 2020 to 2021, following years of stagnation that left pay no higher in 2020 than 2012.

Women continued to represent 82% of social work job roles, the average age of social workers was 44.8, a similar figure to previous years, and 29% of posts were held by someone from a black, Asian or ethnic minority group.

Jackie Mahoney, an adult social worker and co-chair of the the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) adult group, said: “These stats are very concerning, especially as BASW members are telling us that rebound demand and pressure, following the initial Covid restrictions and possible reluctance to have support from some of the community, has been relentless over the past 18 months.

“Social care is at the forefront of responding to the most challenging needs and circumstances within communities and is fundamentally key to ‘levelling up’. In this respect, I would say the government is failing and is not focused enough on social care.

“Having an effective social care system which is valued at all levels will in turn increase the level of people who are independent, contributing and living lives without or with as little financial support from the state but putting back into the system themselves.”

To tackle the vacancies revealed by the figures, BASW called on the government to “urgently invest in a national recruitment campaign”, and urged employers to offer more part-time and flexible opportunities to improve retention and encourage experienced social workers back into the profession.

* The difference in the number of jobs and employees is likely explained by some practitioners doing more than one role.

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26 Responses to Drop in adult social workers employed by councils as vacancies and turnover mount

  1. Anonymous March 4, 2022 at 3:16 pm #

    I left the profession (24 years qualified) due to the Regulator, being bullied for 1.5 years by them and it all came to nothing as it should have done. The laborious process killed my passion and confidence. 101% best decision I have ever made. Will never go back.

    • Sinking ship March 5, 2022 at 1:14 am #

      Anonymous I stand with you. I am currently being dragged through the same thing. Yes the regulator is a bullying organisation. They cherry pick bits of evidence to suit themselves and choose to ignore truth and real evidence.
      Their own evidenced bad practice is covered up but still they hound social workers out of the profession for lesser crimes than their own. I have a story to tell once they’ve done their worst to me.
      I wish more social workers would stand up and call them out.
      Come on you academics it’s time for more research, speak to their victims and expose them, like you did with the HCPC

      • DB March 14, 2022 at 6:59 pm #

        I’m with you both on this one. I’m still going through an unjustified process that started with HCPC and SWE took over. 3 and a half years so far and still waiting. I’m currently in a team that has less than 50% of the social workers we should have and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

  2. Frida K March 4, 2022 at 3:31 pm #

    If local authorities were more open to employing part-time social workers instead of insisting on full-time staff, much of this problem could be resolved. The majority of social workers are female, many juggling family and home-caring commitments. Their need to work part-time often gives them no choice but to leave social work in favour of more flexible employers. Why is social work so rigidly full-time? Is it because it’s simply easier for managers to allocate cases within full-time teams? If this is the case then management skills should be updated appropriately rather than penalizing and ultimately losing skilled and dedicated social workers who happen to have additional responsibilities.

  3. Les Mis March 4, 2022 at 4:00 pm #

    This article really resonated with me.

    I’m an Adults SW and it echoes what’s happening in the wider profession, and how SW’s are feeling right now after the worst global health crisis in our lifetime.

    This was already happening long before the pandemic as SW’s were suffering stress/burnout due to poor working conditions, poor pay, working unpaid hours/lack of resources/supervision etc.

    The pandemic has just brought it into sharp focus; many SW’s can’t take any more as it impacts their physical/mental health/family life/wellbeing, with negative consequences.

    There are many reasons why SW’s are leaving in droves:

    I left my full time SW NHS role just as the pandemic started due to family caring needs: I planned to find a part time or agency role within reasonable travelling distance from home, which would mean I could continue working whilst meeting my family commitments.

    We all know what happened next; pandemic, lockdowns, working from home etc etc.

    Since then I have been earnestly trying to find a part time SW role without success.
    I have devoted much of my spare time and energy into trying to find paid employment for best part of 2 years now.

    In my experience Invariably all SW roles advertised are full time; LA’s are without exception.
    The NHS have advertised the odd part time role (with a requirement of a 7 day shift pattern inc nights)

    Most Agency roles are also full time (although might be short contracts).

    If I spot a SW role advertised in my area within reasonable distance, even if full time I always email asking if there’s any scope for part time. I’ve lost count of number of emails I’ve sent; most times I don’t get a reply, and those managers that do always give same response; sorry it’s full time only.

    So currently I’m still trying very hard to find a role that fits for me.
    I’m managing to keep up my SWE/CPD by being involved in relevant SW unpaid roles.
    However I’m not sure how long I can maintain this, I have no income and I’ve seriously considered leaving the profession a few times this past year.

    I find it difficult to understand why SW managers/directors are not offering opportunities to harness the skills and experience of motivated SW’s available to work part time, especially given the current recruitment crisis/staff shortages. I’m a good, hard working Social Worker and am available, but flexibility it key.

    My experience is not unique, as I know there will be many SW’s who for whatever reasons; near retirement/family/health, or have just reflected on their work/life balance in current context and need or want to work part time or reduce their hours.

    Employing part time SW’s should be facilitated and needs to change; it requires foresight, policy change, and maybe courage to speak out, but we all need to get behind campaigns to change the full time culture.

    It can and should be done.

    ..and If you’re a SW reading this, you never know when I could possibly be you.

    • Jacqui Prior March 5, 2022 at 12:08 pm #

      Absolutely! I’m CEV and disabled but I’ve been on the temp. register as I’ve 30+ years of experience in all adult groups. SWE have asked me to contact my LA ( no response) and agencies have tried to place me – I’m happy to work remotely or meet in a well ventilated space wearing a mask. Like others I’ve been doing plenty of pro bono work but the rigid, and quite possibly discriminatory approach from employers seems impossible to get past. I’ll try for a bit longer, seems sad to give up when I’ve so much to offer – just need some commonsense reasonable adjustments. Jacqui

  4. Mel March 4, 2022 at 4:26 pm #

    I left Adult Social Care last year. Unfortunately, you could be the best social worker in the world but you cannot magic care from thin air. Even when you do find a care package, it probably isn’t going to be fit for purpose because of the staffing pressures that care agencies and care homes are faced with. There are pressures on all essential NHS services including dieticians, OTs, physios, nurses, podiatrists which help to determine and meet health needs that run side by side with social care needs, so people are going months waiting for assessments from every angle. Mental health support is non-existent for too many people, again due to underfunding and lack of professionals to do the work.
    And guess what, it doesn’t matter if the government do a U-turn and pump cash into services at this point because people like me and the aforementioned qualified professionals are too burnt out and angry to even contemplate returning, many of the professional roles take years to train for and more years to gain experience on top and newly qualified staff cannot carry a service managing complex work, and care staff can be treated better for the same money working in a supermarket and have a lot less responsibility.

    I feel guilty at how desperate LAs are for my skillset but I am not sacrificing my health and wellbeing out of goodwill when there is zero support in return. It is exploitative and we all deserve more, and so do the people relying on the support of these services. I thought about returning but my ex-colleagues warn me not to as they say it has only gotten worse since I left 12 months ago. I won’t be the last to go.

    • Mary March 5, 2022 at 2:18 pm #

      Me too

  5. Shuan March 4, 2022 at 5:00 pm #

    Maybe if adult social workers got additional pay and recogniton for taking on additional tasks such as being practice educators and best interest assessors, staff may opt to remain in the profession. Whats more, there are front line adult social workers with 10 to 15 years plus experience who have no ambition to go into management. Why are these staff not having the same recognition as their children’s social work colleagues and offered advanced front line practitioner status. The above may go some way to retaining adult social work staff. Some adult social workers see themselves as the poor relations to their children’s social work and health colleagues such as local authority based occupational therapist who are paid in higher salary bands than their adult social work co workers. No wonder experienced staff are leaving the profession. We need to do more to retain these staff and to pay them for additional task they do in support of the council and the occupation.

    • DB March 14, 2022 at 7:02 pm #

      Where I work children’s social worker salaries are significantly higher than us in adult services. It’s an insult and goes a long way to evidence why vacancies can’t be filled.

  6. Don Quixote March 4, 2022 at 8:21 pm #

    Recently having returned to front line adult social work I can only echo agreement with many of the comments made. I have just completed 7 months in a mental health team as an agency worker. Formerly retired thought I would do my bit! Previous to retirement I had worked at a senior management level in the NHS, though retained my SW registration. A profession and role I’m passionate about.

    The time ‘served’ to date has seriously eroded what I believed were my skills, commitment towards trying to make a persons life a little safer, bearable! Even if it is just by listening, putting their bins out, paying for the electricity to be put back on when their benefits have not been paid! ( I am fortunate, I have a good pension. Paying £20 on someone’s ‘Smart Electric Card’ seems a lot smarter than spending hours on the phone, filling in forms etc to get a response: ‘The computer says: ’No’! ( A well known comics phrase that I thought was long out of fashion to say’!

    This is not a crisis just due to COVID! These are long standing systemic problems. Yes. The government should be doing this or that!

    Yet some of the problems are so basic, and arise from organisational cultures & routines, that should have long ago been seen as parody’s akin to an Orwellian style ‘Animal Farm, or a Kafka novel! (Feeding the beast of the electronic system, completing pages and pages of forms, which duplicate questions, that at the end won’t realise a service the person needs, because there is no capacity anyway! [ Though for ADAASS, and the like it can be ‘measured’
    as a percentage as to the decline in productivity when quoting to Government!

    You need to look closer at home for some of the solutions that will make a difference.. You don’t have to go to Harvard Business Scool or get a MBA to know that. Solutions are within the knowledge, talents & experience of those front line staff.

    Come on ADASS who are you kidding! How about getting your members to have conversations with their staff- then you will really be informed ( and I don’t mean putting around a ‘How are We Doing – Feedback Survey Form’ to complete!

    Put your own houses in order first – listen to the real experts the front line workers & the service users themselves..

    In case you are thinking that this is true for all LA’s it is not. There are some who are still managed by social workers passionate about what social work is and use the knowledge & grass routes experience of their front line workers to be creative, to feel valued. Valued people value the organisation they get out of bed for! Valued staff who know a thing or two about what makes a difference bring results for the very reason why we have social care – Care for your staff & they will do the rest!

  7. Vim March 6, 2022 at 9:33 pm #

    There’s one simple reason why there are few P/T roles- cost.
    You have to pay training,DBS, registration costs etc. twice. LA’s just don’t have the money. It is a broken system. Both adult and children’s services need millions. Preventative services needs millions. Sticking plaster can no longer cover the cracks.
    There is a government think tank on why more and more people rely on state support. Because the preventative services aren’t there.
    I love my work, but if I could find a job that would pay the same amount I would be gone in a flash. In real terms my salary has gone down in the last ten years as well as the roles I’ve been in. I wouldn’t go into LA as I’m not prepared to work a 7 day rota and not be paid for giving up my week ends. When I was a youngster you got double and triple time. All been eroded for pretty much everyone and now the week end is classed the same as M-F. Who gains- the emplyers/companies.
    Social work is not respected, but we are slowly being swamped with ever more red tape, paperwork, costs (SWE) and yet none of it is supportive.
    People are earning substantially more than Social workers and they haven’t even had to go to college never mind University. If I had my time again, would not consider a career in Social Work, it sucks the life out of you.

  8. Andy March 7, 2022 at 8:13 am #

    I was going to leave my post after nearly thirty five years of practice, but now its all changed, the Russian invasion has taught me a valuable lesson, at the age of sixty two the only way I can help humanity is to stay and fight my own corner, I know we have all the issues as above but I cant help feeling that I am needed ? is it me ? . I am no fighter but seeing those images of Children and Adults being massacred and driven out of homes makes me think harder about my own values. Yes it is just me but I am making a stand. Sorry if I have missed the point .

    • Shaun March 7, 2022 at 4:22 pm #

      We all entered social work for the right reasons. And many of us still hold those values strong. However, we have ask ourselves why are colleagues are leaving and newly qualified staff don’t last two years. We come to work to get paid and to pay our bills. It just happens to be that our job is about supporting and empowering people. My recent shock was my wife has started in the NHS and I look at how well she is treated compared to local authority workers. If she works weekend she gets time and half and double time. Enhanced rates for working nights. We get non of the above. I have recently experienced my local authority paying an outside agency £250 and assessment. When staff said they would do the assessments for less money they was ignored and dismissed. Come on Andy I care and have strong values but why should we be treated as though we don’t matter and ain’t worth an overtime rate. You are better than that. No wonder we can’t attract staff even my friends who work in warehousing get paid time and half and double time for additional work. Don’t let them beat you. People have fought dam hard over the years for good working rights and conditions. Good will can only go so far and mine is spent.

  9. Claire Henderson March 7, 2022 at 2:50 pm #

    I have worked in Adult Social care since 2011 and it has slowly been eroded,lack of funds resources and care, more and more paperwork and red tape, those coming for placements are seeing the grittty end and not wanting to come into adults, lack of real increases in pay and more complex cases made worse by lack of packages of care. High waiting lists and reviews,some councils are prepared to pay agency rates to get savings instead of giving the existing sw a pay rise, offering flexible working part time and value. Above all being respected and valued and being told so would help. I am in a team where 5 sw have left in the past year and gone into other jobs. Its demoralising and I struggle every day but keep going. Swe are no help at all and hinder us rather than help. We need a power with a voice to represent us but fear that its all too late..

  10. Anne March 7, 2022 at 11:48 pm #

    Hi, I’m a student social worker who is helping to work in adult social services. Reading all these comments here makes me wonder if I really want to practice when I graduate.

  11. Shaun March 8, 2022 at 7:48 am #

    Over the past years I have sat in a frontline adult social work office watching my adult social work colleagues taking on additional roles such as Best Interest Assessors and Practice Educators. These staff have to complete additional work related tasks whilst also balancing a complex caseload. They are given no extra money in recognition of these extra task. I have addopted a new attitude, no extra money or addition banding no extra tasks. Simple pay me for taking on a Best Interest Assessor role, then I will put my name forward to do the training and complete the work. If we all adopted this attitude, the local authorities would soon start to reconise if they want Practice Educators and best Interest Assessors we are going to have to pay for them. If we continue to do these tasks for no extra monies then the council’s will continue to fail to pay for these roles to be completed. My council has 60% shortage of Practice Educators and Best Interest Assessors. I simply refuse to apply for these roles until we start to get paid and recognised for the additional work completed in these roles and not for getting the extra responsibility these roles require too.

  12. Abdul March 8, 2022 at 9:48 am #

    It’s all about the money now is it? At least there is honesty in declaring self interest as the motivator. Better than the we are here “battling” every day to save lives, whatever the impact on our personal lives narrative. Our PSW says being a social worker is a privilege, get out if you are a moaning misanthrope. Mind the £58,000 salary does rose-tint the reality.

    • Shaun March 8, 2022 at 3:18 pm #

      1.75% pay rise Abdul, feel valued, speaks volumes to me. I don’t have to say anymore.

  13. Alison March 8, 2022 at 1:43 pm #

    And just like that pay problem solved by a 1.75% pay ‘rise’. Please remember to keep some tucked away for when SWE come demanding their cut.

  14. Paul March 9, 2022 at 9:06 am #

    Our shop steward called a meeting to discuss how we wanted these negotiations to progress. Two of us turned up, rest of our collagues were apparently ” too busy”. We get the treatment our apathy deserves. Actually Shaun social workers put pay above workload in their survey responses so it really is all about the money. Why wouldn’t it be?

  15. Anonymous March 10, 2022 at 6:13 am #

    If the average social worker salary was £35000 at the beginning of a pay freeze, the average salary after 8 years with a 2% increase each year would be £40000. That’s nearly £100 more pay every week we lost from now, on every week for the rest of our careers. If you have 20 years more service to give, that’s £100,000, plus interest.

    We are only in a mess because the government want us to be. Social care needs to be valued by the government and the nation. Until that happens….

  16. Claire March 10, 2022 at 9:38 am #

    What’s the average salary these days I wonder? If you want more get off your moaning chair and force your unions to do a better job of negotiating fir you. Today there is an RMT strike where I live. Today bin lorry drivers are on strike, teachers are on strike, lecturers are on strike bin collectors are on strike across England. They may win or they may lose but they are doing not just moaning. You may ofcourse say social workers are not apathetic but unlike other workers we are “saving lives” so need to be martyrs.

  17. Elizabeth March 10, 2022 at 9:31 pm #

    I think you should tone down the cynicism Claire because we do actually save lives daily and we do it often to the detriment of our personal lives and our health so in that sense our selflessness does make us martyrs. I for one make no apologies for owning that. I would never go on strike because without us the children we work with would be even more traumatised. I care more about them than the pittance we are paid. My reward is in smiles not pounds.

  18. Claire March 11, 2022 at 2:28 pm #

    First of all, you are not paid a pittance Elizabeth. Gig workers have that burden. As for rescuing and saving, I think perhaps the best judges on that are the people whose lives we come into. Cynic I may be but I know the difference between humility and aggrandisement. I am glad your days are filled with smiles.

  19. Beth March 13, 2022 at 1:43 pm #

    Why is it cynical to remind us that most social workers are apathetic? It’s a self evident truth both in ourselves and in our teams. That’s why we are mostly ignored by our employers. Our whole profession revels in a narrative of how badly we are treated, how hard we work, how we suffer for our compassion. Some of us may be martyrs, some may save lives daily but none of that disguises the malaise infecting social work. Poor leadership, even poorer training, no real post qualification learning all add up don’t they? Add also the fetishising of individual caseworking. Saying that is pointing out reality. Cynicism would be in not acknowledging that.