Retaining and recruiting social workers
Retaining and recruiting social workers

Social working is as rewarding as it is challenging but a number of different factors have led to local authorities having problems recruiting and retaining permanent staff.  This has led to an increasing reliance on agency workers, which has caused costs to rise and a lack of continuity for service users.

In the East of England, 11 councils decided to tackle the issues head on and, thanks to the support of the East of England LGA, they are making headway and their system is to be replicated across the UK.

In some areas of the UK 60% of social worker roles are filled with agency workers, with the remaining 40% on permanent staff.  On top of that competition for the most qualified staff means authorities compete for each other’s staff.

So why has it become so difficult to attract, recruit and retain permanent staff?

Caseloads increased dramatically in the wake of scandals such as Baby P which prompted a spike in phone calls from members of the public concerned about the welfare of other children.  This meant that a number of agency workers had to be drafted in to help tackle the influx of work.  It also meant that the number of people applying to take social work courses at college or university dropped significantly.

Meanwhile more social workers were choosing to move across into social worker roles in other realms – such as through the court service or move to the agencies. And some were moved into positions in other children’s services departments which were deemed “inadequate” by Ofsted creating a vicious circle where the authority they had left was then left struggling instead.

In short what councils were left with is the age-old problem of over demand and under supply.

How to solve the problem

In the East of England we knew that the only real solution to the problem was to take a collaborative and strategic approach.

With regional funding, 11 top tier local authorities signed a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) on how to address the supply and demand challenges.

Initially it was to deal with children’s social worker roles but was also extended to adult services.

Those who signed agreed to:

  • Unify pay rates for agency worker suppliers
  • Encourage moves into permanent roles
  • Improve retention rates
  • Forecast demand and supply
  • Create minimum standards for employment referencing
  • Foster strong links with universities
  • Look at talent, leadership and succession planning for social workers
  • Prevent poaching of staff
  • How it works in practice

The MoC essentially created a unified approach to handling some of the common issues councils were facing in relation to social worker roles.  By working towards agreed pay rates for agency workers, pressure was placed on the market. Agency work seemed less appealing and permanent roles, and the security and stability they bring, more attractive as a result.

This in turn meant that the best staff were recruited, plugging vacancy gaps and there was less recycling of poor quality permanent and agency workers.

It has also reduced the aggressive headhunting and poaching of staff within local authorities and the agencies.  On top of this we have worked together to encourage young people to see social work as a viable career path.

This has involved working closely with the LGA to develop a Local Government “World” on Plotr – a career’s advice platform – which utilises gamification to engage with 11 to 24 year olds exploring different job roles and further education choices.

Success by numbers

As a result of our hard work in the East of England we have seen the following:

80% of roles are now filled with permanent workers and only 20% by agency staff (down from 60%).  We are aiming to bring this down to 10%.

The number of vacancy rates has decreased to 17%, down from 21%. We are aiming to bring this down even further to 10-15%.

Staff turnover has reduced to a more stable level with a target of 15%.

Leading by example

A protocol to achieve a similar end, agreed by 14 authorities in the West Midlands, went live in January. Councils in the East Midlands are also now close to signing up to similar deals while talks on such an approach have begun between authorities in the South East and the South West.  And in London more than half of the 33 authorities have already pledged to follow in the footsteps of the East of England when it comes to managing their social worker roles.