By Clare Jerrom
Social worker vacancies have fallen in Wales as staff shortages in England have risen, show official figures.
The social worker vacancy rate fell from 10.8% to 7.9% in the year to summer 2022 across Welsh council and local authority-commissioned services, according to Social Care Wales statistics. The vast majority of the data covered councils.
This is in stark contrast to England, where the vacancy rate rose from 16.7% to 20% for social workers at all levels in council children’s services, while that for adults’ frontline practitioners in local authorities jumped from 9.5% to 11.6%, from 2021-22.
The fall in vacancies in Wales comes despite them having risen in children’s services over the same period, from 210 to 263 posts, suggesting the improved workforce position has been felt predominantly in adult social care.
Most social workers in Wales – 2,177 – worked in children’s services, with 1,666 social workers in adult social care and 338 working across both, as of 2022, said Social Care Wales.
Agency staff use lower in Wales
The use of locum social workers was also far lower in Wales, where 10% of practitioners were on agency, zero-hours or temporary contracts as of summer 2022, according to Social Care Wales’s annual workforce report.
By contrast, in England, the proportion of agency social workers in council children’s services was 17.6% in September 2022, up from 15.5% in 2021, while in adult social care, 14% of practitioners were on agency, bank, pool or temporary contracts as of last autumn.
Wales also saw a growth in social worker numbers, from 3,954 to 4,181, between 2021 and 2022, while the headcount of social workers in England was stable year on year in adults’ services (at 17,300) and fell by 2.9% in children’s services (to 33,700).
However, as in English children’s and adults’ services, Wales saw in increase in social work turnover, with the number leaving their roles rising significantly from 295 leavers in 2020-21 to 468 in 2021-22.
The Welsh data covered practitioners working in roles up to including team manager, and the figures suggested the workforce had grown more experienced from 2021-22.
Shortage of new social workers
The biggest group – 46.4% – were main grade social workers with three or more years’ experience, up from 44% in 2021. By contrast, the proportion with one to three years’ experience fell from 17.7% to 12.8% and there was a drop, from 5.9% to 4.4%, in the share who were in their first year of practice.
Wales is currently struggling to train enough social workers to meet its needs, with Social Care Wales reporting that, of the 326 social workers the country needed to enter the workforce each year, only 202 were qualifying through Welsh courses annually.
In a recent report, a committee of Senedd members called on the Welsh Government to take steps to address this through a workforce sufficiency plan that addressed routes into the profession, pay and conditions and career pathways.
Last year, the Welsh Government boosted the value of bursaries for social work trainees – which had been frozen since 2012 – to encourage more people to join the profession.
Lack of diversity
Among social work teams as a whole – including staff in non-social work roles, such as support workers and occupational therapists – the workforce was less diverse than the Welsh population, with 97% being white against a country-wide figure of 95.8%, said the Social Care Wales report.
This was similar to 2021, as was the fact that women occupied 85% of posts in social work teams.