So You Want To Work In Social Care?

Career opportunities are expanding as social services heads into the new century, finds Debbie Andalo.

Social workers employed in local authority adult services nowadays have real opportunities to use their skills to help people live more independently in the community than they would have done 30 years ago. The move away from caring for people in large, remote, institutions towards supporting them in their local community or in their own home has brought more professional satisfaction to the job.

Bernard Walker, director of adult services at Wigan metropolitan borough council and secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) workforce network, says: “Social work is no longer practiced as if in a single organisational setting. Twenty or 30 years ago people lived in institutions, but today we are able to support them to live independently in the community and social workers have a great role to play in that.”

The government’s commitment to offer adults using social services personal packages of care, paid for out of their own individual budget, will change the way that care is delivered and make the rewards of the profession more transparent, according to Jane Ashman, strategic director for adult social services and housing at Bath and North East Somerset council. Her council has been piloting the project. In future, she says, it will not be unusual for somebody with a social need designing their own package of care which could include paying a relative to provide some of their support to daily having their lunch “in the pub next door.”

Ashman, who is also assistant honorary secretary of the ADASS, says the role is changing from focusing on client assessment and matching entitlement to services that are already established, to one where clients have much more choice, personal control and flexibility in identifying and designing the care they need. She says: “Adult social care is about to change dramatically in terms of working, which is more akin to what most of us came into the profession for originally. It’s a much more proactive role, and about helping people sort out their own support needs.”

The recruitment and retention problems that have hung over children and family social work have been less severe in adult services, according to local authority directors. This view is borne out by official statistics from local council employers which show that more authorities reported problems recruiting and keeping social workers in children and family teams compared to staff based in the community in the last three years. Walker says: “My understanding is that the recruitment and retention isn’t as critical as it was two or three years ago.”

A qualified social worker in adult services should expect to earn the same as a colleague in a team for children and families – starting on around £21,000. However, the difficulties recruiting to children and family posts has lead some authorities, especially those in London and metropolitan cities, to offer higher salaries as an incentive to join.

Social workers in adult services do have well-established and varied career opportunities across the different public sectors – and these are only just starting to appear for those working in families and children teams. Strong professional links with the health service and a tradition of working as part of a multi-agency team means it is common for social worker managers to move out of council adult services to management roles within primary care or other health trusts.

Ashman says: “I think there is more movement between the NHS and adult social care than there is around children and families social services, although I think that will change in the future. But it is not unusual for somebody with adult social work management experience to move to a PCT and the other way round as well.” The transfer of skills across health and social care is also well acknowledged at healthcare assistant level too, she points out.

The new social work degree introduced in 2003, which entitles graduates to professional registration allowing them to practice in the UK, is helping to change the traditional profile of a newly qualified social worker. Walker says: “Social work has attracted late entrants, and while life experience can help it, is not a prerequisite to becoming a social worker. Because of the degree social workers are getting younger and I think we need a balance of entrants coming into the profession.”

He is hopeful that the new social worker post-qualifying awards framework introduced this September, which offers three levels of qualifications and five specialisms including one in adult social care, will help improve career progression. He says: “I hope that the degree and the post qualifying framework will start to have an impact particularly where authorities are able to link pay and grades and where senior practitioner posts relate to post qualifying awards.”

Now at the top of his profession, Walker has no regrets about the career decision he made 35 years ago, and says he would still make the same choice today. He says: “I would still choose to be a social worker because you can influence and make a real difference to people’s lives – it’s the small stories which count and I think that is what keeps people going.”