Recruitment and retention have been prominent and longstanding issues for social care. At the start of the year, approximately 10% of social care jobs were unfilled. That equates to over 130,000 carer vacancies around the UK. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, these issues have been considerably exacerbated. Self-isolation has further impacted social care’s beleaguered workforce. Across the country, care providers are struggling to meet the needs of their service users as staff members are required to stop working for weeks at a time. In response to this brewing workforce crisis, the government has launched a new social care recruitment and training programme.
Make a Difference
The government’s campaign is titled: ‘Care for Others. Make a Difference’. The goal is to have more people consider a career in care. As part of this campaign, they are developing free-to-access e-learning courses and webinars for local authority and care provider staff. Key topics will include: safeguarding, person-centred care, dementia, Mental Capacity Act, infection control and supporting care at home to reduce pressure on the NHS. The goal is to raise the profile and accessibility of social care to increase interest. Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock says:“I want this campaign to reignite the search for people with a zest for caring and protecting our most vulnerable to step forward to join them.”
Is Every Campaign the Same?
It is a noble cause. However, the government launched a similar campaign last year. Last year’s campaign was titled: ‘Every Day is Different’. The goal of that campaign was to help fill the then 110,000 vacancies in social care. Again, it aimed to attract the ‘right people’ by highlighting the wide variety yet universal importance of social care work. Yet, as evidenced by the increase in vacancies over the past year, it was clearly not a runaway success. So why did it fail?
Recruitment AND Retention
One explanation might be that social care recruitment campaigns only address half of the problem. They don’t address the issues surrounding staff retention. Retention is typically a matter of money. The chronic underfunding of social care means that average pay for carers is always around the minimum wage. In effect, approximately half of all care workers earn less than the living wage. They are also four times more likely to be on a zero-hour contract than the average worker. When this is combined with the high level of emotional and physical investment social care demands, it is understandable that so many find it unsustainable. It is an unreasonable commitment to ask of someone, and it should come as no surprise that it’s mostly heroes who agree to the terms. Heroes that the government has been letting down. CEO of Scottish Care, Dr Donald Macaskill says:“I think the danger of a campaign is that it is window dressing. It makes politicians feel as if they are doing something to address systemic issues. Whereas the systemic issues are about the lack of value, the lack of adequate resources to remunerate staff, the lack of adequate resources to enable care homes to function.”
Isolated from the Frontline
The lack of funding for social care manifests itself in the day-to-day realities of carer’s lives. Realities that have become markedly harsher during this crisis. When describing the need for the recruitment campaign, Skills for Care CEO Oonagh Smyth says:“We know that significant numbers of social care staff are unable to work, so realising this ambition of recruiting thousands of people to where they are needed by providers right across the country is absolutely vital.”This touches on the reality for frontline social care workers who have to self-isolate. Suddenly being unable to work for two weeks would be difficult for most people. But it is particularly impactful for people on minimum wage or zero-hour contracts. This particular powder keg is currently being dampened by organisations such as The Care Workers Charity. Executive Director of The Care Workers Charity Karolina Gerlich says: “As a charity, the truth is we shouldn’t have to exist. We are having to provide financial support to key workers that are giving themselves, all of themselves to support people. And they should never have to struggle for money, but the reality is we have to exist.”And even this is only a temporary solution. The charity is giving out more grants than ever before due to the coronavirus crisis.
Funding Through Local Authorities
In response to the need for additional social care funding, the government gave £1.6 billion to local authorities in March. An amount they doubled in April. The goal is that this money will support adult social care providers and workers. It is a desperately needed injection of funds to prop up local authority services. However, it is important to bear in mind how wide a scope those services have. UKHCA’s CEO Dr Townson says:“The Local Authorities are as short of money as we are. They’ve got the money [the government’s £3.2 billion] but they are worried about bankruptcy. Their costs have risen dramatically as well.”There are different opinions on how best to resolve care’s funding crisis. Some have called for a centralised structure for social care, similar to that of the NHS, although the complications involved in such a process remain of concern to veterans of the sector. Karolina Gerlich says: “It’s always been true: people don’t understand. Social care is more complex than healthcare…in terms of delivery because you get care at home. Social care doesn’t have one brand like healthcare does in the form of the NHS. What people don’t understand is that social care and health care budgets are separate. That social care and health care cannot exist without each other, and social care is as important as healthcare. But is nowhere near funded to that extent, or supported to that extent.” There are also concerns about how this will impact service users’ choice and control of their care. Regardless of the complications, the consensus is that the answer must involve a significant increase in funding.
Recognition and Unification
On the surface, the major functional difference between the two social care recruitment campaigns is the context in which they are operating. Social care is on the frontline and at the forefront of the public’s sentiments. The government hopes to attract people to social care by raising its profile, by highlighting the inimitable grace with which social care workers have conducted themselves during this ongoing pandemic. As well as the weekly salute across the nation at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. The government is further promoting social care by creating a unifying CARE brand, comparable to the NHS badge. In the hopes this could help raise public recognition of social care. The idea started last year as a collaboration between Care England and Everylife Technology. The result was a literal badge of support, with the proceeds going to support social care charities. Over the past year, it has grown considerably, moving from the corners of the occasional Facebook post into the House of Commons. The government recognised the applicability of the project and have taken over ownership of the CARE badge. While the initial announcement was met with scepticism by some, care workers were largely grateful for the national acknowledgement it gave them. It is something that has been conspicuously missing in the first few weeks of the crisis, not to mention the preceding decades.
Social Care Recruitment and Retention Going Forward
There remain over 130,000 vacancies in social care. The government is trying to make the occupation more accessible for those who are interested, and yet accessibility has never been a barrier to entry into social care work. Many people take up social care after a direct experience with it, either through a friend, or family member requiring care. It is a noble calling, one that has many emotional rewards. The problem is that the delivery mechanisms simply aren’t sustainable. There isn’t enough money in social care to support the workers it already has, without adding another 10% on top of that.Recognition is increasing, the role of social care workers on the frontline is as undeniable as it is inspirational. Introductory courses will hopefully make it easier for people to pursue an interest in social care. But without a sustained and informed injection of funds, the system cannot survive as it is.