The Blog

The Whole System Needs to Come Together to Address Critical Workforce Issues

We need another 400,000 people working in social care by 2035. The workforce gap is the result of population growth, people living longer and the associated increased pressure on support services.

We all know the employment expert mantra "right people, right place, right skills, right time", but this is a tough nut to crack - especially for a sector like social care which is not renowned for workforce forward planning. Building employment capability and capacity will be an uphill struggle as we grapple with extreme austerity measures (adult social care budgets, for example, fell by £4.6 billion over the last five years - a drop of 31%, according to the Association of Directions of Adult Social Services). Add to this the fact that voluntary sector and not-for-profit care providers must recruit to reflect the values of their sector, the scale of the challenge is huge.

The workforce issue is one of the top three priorities identified by members of the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG), on a par with funding and commissioning and legislation and regulation in the sector. Our organisation, which represents leading voluntary sector and not-for-profit providers, recognises the urgent need to create a competitive edge for social care work in local labour markets and ensure the sector becomes a career of choice.

We recently brought together over 100 social care chief executives and senior directors to identify solutions to recruitment and retention problems and explore ways to improve communication and collaboration. The key messages from that meeting are outlined in our publication, How do disability organisations recruit, retain and develop the right workforce?

It is barely a month since the government introduced the national living wage. This, in principle, is a welcome policy and an important opportunity for workforce investment. If successful the initiative, which sets a new minimum of £7.20 per hour for those aged 25 and over (50p more than the previous minimum of £6.70), could help with recruiting and retaining the right staff. However, we need extra funding if the policy is not to pile further financial pressure onto frontline services. The Local Government Association, for example, estimates the living wage will cost at least £330 million in this financial year alone.

To take the case of one national disability care provider and VODG member, Hft, staff wages make up around 70 to 80 per cent of organisational costs, and by April 2020 the wage bill will have risen by 25 per cent. Hft's campaign, It doesn't add up, calls on the government to properly fund the national living wage, warning that without additional financial support, essential state funded care and support services risk being significantly reduced or cut altogether.

The national living wage is also flattening out pay structures, especially in social care, which relies on pay progression to support careers. Competition with other low pay industries is set to intensify, as employers that have strived to pay above the minimum wage will no longer be able to afford the differential. In addition, the national living wage is only one of a number of workforce-related cost increases this year. What's more, because the new wage only applies to people aged 25 and over, it also potentially undermines efforts to attract younger people to the sector. Meanwhile, new pensions auto-enrolment rules and a recently introduced apprenticeship levy add to the financial pressure on social care employers.

So faced by rising workforce costs and increased competition, what are the solutions?

Through VODG, care providers are challenging themselves to work better together. There is a strong ethic of collaboration, alongside the practical constraints of competition within the group. It is early days, but some organisations are already discussing how they might share back office costs. Given the workforce shortages in some areas, it is not inconceivable to imagine that certain specialist staff could even be pooled across organisations, as long as this fits with support needs and preferences.

In addition, in an environment of tight financial constraints, the sector is managing significant recruitment and retention issues. The turnover of staff is adding unnecessary costs into the system, when we know a highly engaged workforce leads to lower turnover and absence, higher levels of performance and better services for people supported. VODG, the National Care Forum and Agenda have launched a review of these issues to provide insight into what influences workforce engagement in social care in order for organisations to better plan and develop their workforce.

Another option would be for all social care organisations to join forces and develop a national marketing and recruitment campaign to create a better brand and attract more people to it as a career. A movement that is sector-owned, funded and led might provide the powerful force needed to transform perceptions of care work.

It is also vital that people who use services actively contribute to the workforce debate - they are well placed to advise on who supports them, how and when. And as people who use services move through different points in their lives, so must the workforce adapt to these changing needs. The workforce plan therefore needs to be an iterative and inclusive one that focuses on the values within the sector.

At this time of extreme austerity the need to shatter preconceptions about social care work and to secure future talent in the sector are essential next steps. No one organisation can provide all of the solutions; real progress can only be made through partnership, influencing decisions and actively working together.