Is there a permanent solution to social work?

I’m quite sure that if I logged onto any local authority website right now, there would be a job advert for a permanent social worker, certainly in the London boroughs at least – but chances are, it would be nationwide, and they’re likely to have more than one position up for grabs. So why, with over 94,000 social workers registered in England, are there all these vacant posts?

My last role saw me working on site at a local authority, recruiting for all sectors, so I saw the challenges they faced on the permanent side of things, but one sector stood out in particular as never seeing that transition of a team of locums to a team of permanent staff – and that was social care. Now, working for a social care agency, I can see things from both sides of the coin and wanted to delve further as to why this issue exists in the first place.

Now I know that any social worker reading this will be screaming back at their screen “I can earn double as locum – why would I go perm?”. We are all well aware that public sector pay needs to be reviewed and that it’s those in the vital, on the ground jobs that are the ones who feel the effects hardest. But is it solely the pound sign stopping people crossing over to something that used to be so desirable? Security, benefits, a great pension – are these no longer a priority for workers? The exit interviews conducted at one local authority of those leaving permanent roles, shows that many were going off to be agency workers and (apart from the earning potential) they were looking forward to not being effected by frequent restructures, regrading of roles and generally not having to get involved in office politics. There is no denying that social work is an ever evolving industry, often creating an increasingly tough environment, so if you can knock the systematic problems on the head for a go in, do your job, go home setup – why not? As a career long perm employee myself, even I have to admit, when put like that, the freedom does seem appealing.

But where does this leave a service? The families in the system seeing a new face every few months? That security and longevity that used to be so desirable for staff, is even more desirable for the service users. And one would like to think, that this is still at the heart of every social worker when they’re looking for their next role, after it all, they worked so hard to qualify to help people.

We know the government aren’t about to hand over a bag of gold with “Social Workers Salaries” stamped across it, so is there something that can be done more locally to attract social workers to boroughs and stay there.

I attended Compasses Social Work Innovation this week as part of my own development, but was also keen to see if any local authorities could draw me in as a “student”. I have to say one in particular stood out and had I actually been a social worker I would have got myself an interview then and there. I probably shouldn’t name names, but you could immediately tell that this local authority had done something that I’ve not seen done in the public sector before. They had put a huge amount into their marketing and making you want to go and work for them. Rather than just being offered a job description and a salary, I came away knowing a huge amount about this particular area, what there would be for someone like me with a young family, the work/life balance I could expect…heck I was ready to pack my family up and relocate! (Don’t worry boss, I’m not going to). They had me drawn in and I went away with them firmly in my mind.

I think it’s acknowledged within the public sector that marketing is not their strength, simply because they’ve never needed it. Local councils, the NHS, they’ve sold themselves by just being who they are. By certain roles only exiting within their bodies and people having to work for them. But in an industry that is seeing competition between boroughs for the top talent as fierce as it is already amongst us agencies, perhaps a revamp is needed. The log on, fill out a war and peace application, get an automated email saying someone will get back to you within 48hrs, (and invariably they don’t) system is totally outdated. If you’re to lure people away from the locum life, there has to be an impressive alternative to offer.

I’m probably doing some local authorities a disservice, and there could well already be some on this bandwagon with campaigns of candidate attraction, but with the sheer volume of locum business going on, there must be something more that can be done.

We all know the chances of seeing all authorities having social work teams made up of 100% permanent staff is extremely unlikely, but I’m sure there is room to make a dent in the current percentages. The question is simply how?

I’d love to hear from social work managers within local authorities as to their recruitment strategies and success rates – so please get in touch!


By Laura Baxter

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