The danger of a ‘lost generation’ of social workers

A large number of the newly qualified are struggling to get that crucial first job

If there’s a clear demonstration of public spending cuts, it’s when people newly qualified to provide crucial frontline services are left without work. Figures from the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) show that 25% of those who gained social work degrees this June have yet to find a job.

Unison’s national officer for social care, Helga Pile, believes that budget cuts are certainly a factor. The newly qualified need extra supervision, mentoring and a reduced case load in their first year, and with all the pressures on services, a lot of local authorities are opting for people with more experience.

“It’s a bit of a vicious circle, because there is a shortage of social workers, but then you have all these people coming out of university who can’t get jobs,” she says.

Ruth Cartwright, England manager for BASW, says: “It’s like a new Equity card isn’t it. To get your card you have to be in a play and to be in a play you have to have your card. In order to be an experienced social worker you have to have some experience.”

It’s two years since Sofie Franklin qualified in social work at Leicester’s De Montfort University, and she has yet to find a job. She thinks budget cuts are a big problem: teams have been cut, workloads increased and early intervention work dropped. Her lack of work experience is also a factor.

She is able to do something about the latter, and is currently gaining some relevant experience by working with a family support team, while continuing to attend interviews for qualified social work and “trying to get my foot on the ladder”.

Cartwright points out that there are schemes to employ newly qualified social workers, but they are not compulsory.

The Assessed and Supported First Year in Employment scheme, recommended by the Social Work Reform Board, would give all newly qualified social workers additional supervision and support, as well as consolidating and building on what they have learned at university and in their placements.

But Pile has concerns: “The big problem is that the current government does not want to make it mandatory… And we are concerned that these reforms are not going to embed unless there are some teeth to it.”

Another issue identified by BASW is that universities are having major problems in finding enough placements for undergraduate social workers. About 50% of the course is spent in placements, mainly with local authorities, and this is crucial to learning on the job.

“Those very people who are complaining that social workers are coming off the course not prepared for social work, are the ones who are not offering them placements,” Cartwright argues.

One social care recruitment officer at a south London borough, who did not wish to be named, believes that newly qualified social workers are often unprepared in other ways: “In child protection work there is a lot of court work to do, and the main issue that a lot of employers find is that the standard of English to write court reports is not very good.”

She believes that the Step Up to Social Work initiative could help attract a better calibre of candidate and provide all round preparation for the job.

Keith Brumfitt, director of social work at the Children’s Workforce Development Council, which is responsible for funding the initiative, says that more than 2,700 candidates have applied for 240 places next February. “We have gone for high calibre candidates with at least a 2:1 first degree and experience of working with children,” he says.

Step Up to Social Work offers graduates a master’s degree in social work alongside experience of working with children and families.

A third of local authorities in England are involved in the scheme. They provide work based training, so that students gain first hand experience of the council’s culture and practices, while academic work is based at one of six universities: Salford, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Liverpool John Moores, Manchester Metropolitan and Goldsmith’s college.

Broadcast journalism graduate Petros Careswell-Schultz was among the first intake this September. He is doing his practical training with Nottingham city council and says the course has a great balance of both academic and practical learning. “It is a well rounded programme and really allows us to put our academic learning and key skills into practice,” he says.

Although there are some doubts about the future for the scheme after the Children’s Workforce Development Council is abolished next year, Brumfitt appears confident that Step Up, along with the councils’ other social work functions, will be picked up by the Department for Education.

Despite feeling disheartened by her situation, this summer Sofie Franklin launched a campaign to highlight the problems that many newly qualified social workers are currently facing, and to urge local authorities to invest in more newly qualifieds and recognise the potential they can bring to a team.

“Actually, with a little bit of nurturing and guidance in the right way, they can be a valued member of that team,” she says. “And the newly qualified social workers are our future. If we don’t invest in them, we are going to have a lost generation of social workers.”