Qualification levels and average real-terms pay have fallen for care workers, official data has shown.
The findings come as an analysis shows that adult social care staff with higher pay, a relevant qualification, access to training and more job security are significantly less likely to leave their roles than counterparts without these characteristics.
Drop in qualification levels
While an estimated 49% of care workers held a level 2 qualification – equivalent to a good GCSE – as of March 2018, this had fallen to 41% by March 2021. The proportion rose only slightly to 42% as of March 2023, showed Skills for Care’s annual State of the adult social care sector and workforce report, published yesterday.
Half of care workers (52%) had no relevant qualifications, found the workforce development body, whose report is based on data supplied by providers. Of this group, half (51%) had been working in the sector for five years or more.
At the same time, the high level of inflation in the UK since early 2022 has eroded average care worker pay. This is despite significant increases in the national living wage (NLW), the pay floor for those aged 23 and over that many sector staff are paid.
Fall in average pay
Median average real-terms pay for independent sector care workers fell from £10.62 an hour in March 2021 to £10.11 in March 2023, a similar level to three years previously.
And while the NLW was £1.90 an hour below median care worker pay in March 2021, it was just 61p below two years later. The NLW rose to £10.42 an hour in April 2023 and the government has pledged it will top £11 an hour from next April.
As previously, the state of the sector report revealed the lack of reward for experience in independent sector social care. Care workers with five years’ experience or more earned, on average, just 6p per hour more than those with less than a year’s experience, as of March 2023.
This has remained stable since March 2021 and is well below the 33p gap in March 2016.
Overseas recruitment filling some vacancies
Skills for Care identified some improvement in the overall state of the workforce. The vacancy rate fell from a record high of 10.7% in March 2022 to 9.9% in March 2022, a trend that has continued since, with the rate among a sample of independent providers reaching 8.4%, as of August this year.
Skills for Care said this was largely driven by recruitment from overseas, as a result of care workers being placed on the government’s “shortage occupation list” in February 2022, enabling employers to recruit staff from abroad on skilled worker visas.
In 2022-23, 70,000 staff were recruited into direct care roles through this route, up from 20,000 the previous year. The government has said that an estimated 40,000 additional care staff were recruited from overseas from April to August 2023.
At the same time, the turnover rate – the proportion of staff leaving in the previous year – fell from 28.9% in 2021-22 to 28.3% in 2022-23.
Factors behind staff turnover
A Skills for Care analysis of factors influencing turnover found that the likelihood of a staff member leaving in 2022-23 was higher if they were lower paid, aged under 25, less experienced, on a zero-hours contract, without a relevant qualification, lacking in training, off sick more often or travelling further for work.
It also found a significant turnover gap when five of these factors were combined:
- Being paid more than the national living wage.
- Not being on a zero-hours contract.
- Working full-time.
- Receiving training.
- Having a relevant qualification.
Among independent sector workers who had none of these factors, almost half (48.7%) left their roles in 2022-23, compared with just under a third of those who had three factors (31.6%) and just a fifth (20.6%) of those who had all five.
“Implementing these factors should make it easier for the people who love what they do to stay, by improving terms and conditions and investing in their career development,” said Skills for Care chief executive Oonagh Smyth, in her foreword to the report.
Challenges facing sector workforce
While she noted the “green shots” evidenced by the improvements in vacancy and turnover rates, Smyth said the sector faced significant challenges.
These included “not enough people working in adult social care overall, too many people leaving the sector and too many people churning in the sector which disrupts continuity of care and support and uses precious resources”.
This explained the workforce development body’s decision to develop a 15-year strategy for the adult social care workforce, in partnership with other sector bodies, but independently of government, she added.
In response to the Skills for Care report, sector bodies stressed that adult social care could not rely upon international recruitment to solve its staffing problems.
“International recruitment has been a welcome boost to the workforce, but it’s a sticking plaster to the bigger problems of poor pay and working conditions – without solving these, we will never solve the staffing crisis in adult social care,” said Association of Directors of Adult Social Services president Beverley Tarka.
“The next government must commit to a long-term, fully funded plan for social care which will offer fair pay to care workers, to enable us all to live well, work and get the care we need.”
International recruitment ‘propping up sector’
Martin Green, chief executive of independent provider body Care England, said: “Government must urgently heed the warnings in this report. International recruitment is currently propping up the sector.”
“To ensure the stability and resilience of the care sector, government investment is not just advisable, it’s imperative,” he added.
For UNISON, general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The only reason vacancy rates have not plummeted further is because employers are recruiting overseas. But this comes at a huge human cost with many migrant workers facing exploitation and receiving insufficient training to deliver quality care.
Call for fair pay
“To tackle the workforce crisis, care workers must be paid fairly, have secure employment and proper access to courses. Ministers must make good on their promises and solve social care’s many problems now.”
Think-tank the Nuffield Trust issued a similar call.
“Tackling pay rates that are not higher than the national living wage, improving terms and conditions and moving people away from temporary and unstable contracts would all do a great deal to improve the situation, but these problems have persisted for some time,” said fellow Camille Oung.
“We welcome the development of a long-term workforce strategy for social care outlined by Skills for Care and urge the government to support serious measures to ensure our care system has a valued and well-equipped workforce to meet the challenges now and in the future.”