Facing Up To A Recruitment Crisis

For some time now there has been concern that social work is a “demographic timebomb” in terms of the nature of the qualified workforce. The influx of recruitment into social work in the 1970s is now nearing retirement and some departments are concerned about losing significant proportions of their qualified and experienced workforce over the next decade.

Recent government recruitment campaigns have targeted social work and social care in an attempt to encourage people to consider this as a worthwhile career.

However, alongside adverts promoting social work are the negative images portrayed by the media both about social workers and the service users they work with. This is highlighted by current government initiatives and media attention regarding young people, “problem families” and refugees and asylum seekers.

Given the lack of respect afforded to such groups themselves, is it any wonder that the social workers trying to support and empower them are likewise undervalued?

Simon Cauvain, a social work lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, is undertaking his PhD research in this area and says that among social workers for children and families “there is a frustrated acceptance of the reality that they are as undervalued by society as the people they work with”. Simon’s research is confirming that the negative image of social work remains a major stumbling block to addressing recruitment problems.

Improving recruitment into social work needs a genuine commitment to enhancing the status of the profession, which in turn requires that government policies reflect an ethical and positive approach to the sections of our society with whom social workers engage. This does not occur in the context of campaigns and policies that marginalise and criminalise those in need of guidance, support and the resources to enable them to lead worthwhile, valued and independent lives.

Despite this negative perception of social work, Sheffield Hallam University, along with many other universities, has had no problem attracting applicants to the social work degree. While the social work bursary has clearly been helpful in encouraging students to consider a career in social work, it would appear that the negative image of the profession has less impact upon university applications than it does upon recruitment. The social work degree has helped raise the status of social work as a profession but it will clearly take time for this to have a positive impact upon recruitment problems.

The relationship between practice learning and recruitment is an area that can be developed by employers, who often acknowledge that they can successfully recruit from students who have experienced practical learning within their organisation. However, there is some evidence of negative attitudes towards younger students that manifests in decisions that they cannot undertake certain types of practice learning because of their age, such as residential child care settings.

This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least being the legal and ethical basis of such decisions. However, in the context of the need to not only increase the workforce but also enhance its diversity, it is essential that social work students are attracted from a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and ages. The workforce needs this diversity, and the wide ranging practical opportunities are essential to the training of all social work students.

The changing nature of the workforce is another key factor, as increasing numbers of social workers are employed in integrated teams, delivering inter-professional services. Discrepancies in pay and status have been highlighted by social workers within inter-professional teams, who feel that “the professional status of the social work role is less valued and respected”. Strategies to enhance social work recruitment and retention therefore need to reflect the nature of the settings in which social workers now function and ensure that there is parity between professionals, in terms of pay, status and recognition.

The ability of newly qualified social workers to undertake the tasks and roles required of them is frequently cited by employers as a cause for concern. In effect, students completing a generic social work degree are being expected to “hit the ground running” in specialist areas of practice as soon as they qualify. Thus there is a discrepancy between the requirement set by the Department of Health for universities to deliver a generic social work degree, and the expectations of employers for newly qualified workers to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to manage complex and challenging work in specific areas of practice.

The new post qualifying award framework should provide some means of addressing this mismatch of expectations, as social workers will be required to undertake post qualifying training in specialist areas of practice. As this becomes embedded, it is to be hoped that it will provide some means of addressing retention difficulties in some of the more challenging areas of social work practice.

Good staff development and a sense of being valued by their employers is crucial to providing an environment in which social workers feel able to manage their work and enhance the knowledge and skills needed to keep up with the ever-changing legal, policy and research context of practice. Management training and development is also key to retention, with good supportive management cited as a significant factor in determining whether they felt positive and valued in their work and organisation.

The leadership and management post qualification award should provide an impetus for employers to address the challenges identified by a report last year by the Commission for Social Care Inspection on the state of social care which highlighted the importance of competent, qualified and experienced management.

· Jane McLenachan is subject leader for social work at Sheffield Hallam University