How to recruit and retain social workers

Joe Lepper
Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Recruitment and retention challenges in children's services mean councils are searching for new ways to attract and retain social workers. Joe Lepper looks at different approaches and investigates what actually works.

There has been a sharp fall in the number of successful international social worker registrations in England. Picture: xixinxing/Adobe Stock
There has been a sharp fall in the number of successful international social worker registrations in England. Picture: xixinxing/Adobe Stock

Children's services across England have been hit by ongoing shortages of social workers, with more than half of posts vacant in someareas.

Latest Department for Education children's social care workforce figures show there are seven regions with a vacancy rate above the September 2016 national average of 16.7 per cent.

The problem is particularly acute in the capital with a 25.8 per cent and 23.2 per cent average vacancy rate in outer London boroughs and central areas respectively.

Retention is also a problem, with four regions - the North East, East Midlands, central London and outer London - all recording a turnover rate in September 2016 above the England average of 15.1 per cent. Meanwhile, 2010 research showed the average working life of a social worker is around eight years, half that of a nurse.

To address this, councils are becoming increasingly innovative in attracting staff and ensuring they stay.

For some, one-off payments or "golden hellos" are being offered to entice staff.

But Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, believes the most successful recruitment strategies are those that focus on retention.

"If you don't have a retention problem you never have to recruit at the kind of scale where it is challenging," she says, adding that the importance of a good reputation as a supportive employer cannot be underestimated among a "highly networked" social care workforce.

"The first thing a social worker interested in a role will do is ring people they know at that authority," she adds.

West Berkshire Council, where Wardell is corporate director of communities, is an example of a local authority that has successfully tackled high vacancy and turnover rates by focusing on retention (see below).

Strategies deployed by the council include so-called "golden handcuffs" bonuses and the offer of a 12-week sabbatical for those who remain for more than three years.

While these incentives have helped, Wardell believes the council's promotion of professional development and strong management supervision have been just as influential in attracting and keeping staff.

Supportive working environment

Findings from a Bath Spa University report into social workers' attitudes, with support from the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the Social Workers Union, backs this up. This found that a supportive working environment was far more popular among social workers than pay and cash incentives.

Among 1,300 social workers asked for suggestions to improve their working life, reduction in caseload, cutting red tape and hiring more social workers received 739 mentions. Managerial support was mentioned 360 times and reflective supervision cited 248 times.

By stark contrast, improved pay was mentioned just 95 times.

"Salary is not being raised as a concern by our members," says BASW England manager Maris Stratulis. "Instead the concerns are around working conditions. If councils get that right, word will spread that it's a good authority to work for."

Attention to important day-to-day details such as the ease of claiming travel expenses can also cut vacancy and turnover rates.

"A lot of authorities had terminated the essential car users' allowance for social workers, which offers an enhanced rate in terms of mileage, but some councils are reinstating that, which is proving popular," Stratulis adds.

While evidence from Bath Spa University indicates that a supportive workplace rather than money is the most successful way to recruit and retain staff, sometimes a suite of solutions is required to meet a wide array of challenges.

Oxfordshire County Council's attempts to address a 19 per cent social worker vacancy rate in November 2015 is an example of how such a diverse approach has been successfully adopted.

The council's deputy director of children's social care Hannah Farncombe explains that the vacancy and turnover rate was particularly high among experienced frontline child protection roles.

As a result, golden hello payments of £3,500 were offered to new recruits in these hard-to-fill roles, as well as the chance to take a three-month study sabbatical.

Plans are also in place to offer those taking up such roles annual retention bonuses, to be paid just before Christmas.


Extra support

The council has also adopted a strong focus on supervision to attract and keep staff. This includes extra support during social workers' third and fourth years into their career, which Oxfordshire has identified as vulnerable points when they may be more likely to leave.

Newly qualified social workers are also enticed into joining the authority through an "assistant social worker" scheme whereby graduates can build up their experience under close supervision before starting on their Assessed and Supported Year In Employment.

In addition, Oxfordshire has set up a social work academy, covering all its social workers' continuing professional development. Through this, social workers devise presentations about their work, which are then delivered to social work students across the country to further aid recruitment efforts.

"That has proved really powerful with students hearing from social workers themselves about good supervision, great career progression and a network of support," says Farncombe.

Such efforts have already paid off. By September 2016, Oxfordshire's vacancy rate had fallen to 12.8 per cent and last month 20 newly qualified social workers joined the council.

Another strategy that has proved successful is to link up with other nearby councils to agree not to poach staff and work together to attract social workers to their region.

Yorkshire and Humberside pioneered this approach in 2011 after a number of children's services in the area, notably Doncaster Council, were the subject of high-profile, negative stories about their performance.

"Morale among social workers was very low across the region and it was realised that we needed to work from a position of collaboration not competition," says Rachel Dickinson, Barnsley Council's executive director for people and chair of the ADCS's Yorkshire and Humber region.

A consultation among social workers across the region followed, which recommended action was taken to help them to feel valued.

A focus of this has been the creation of the region-wide Children's Social Work Matters website, which acts as a recruitment hub, listing vacant posts and publishing content to attract social workers to the area.

It also doubles up as a valuable retention tool by hosting tools for continuing professional development, including webinars, chatrooms for networking and a daily news feed.

The site, which also involves the region's universities and teaching partnerships, attracts 5,000 unique visitors a month.

Children's services across Yorkshire and the Humber also run an annual "festival of social work", with the next one taking place in November. "This is about raising the profile of social work and celebrating social work in the region," says Dickinson.

It has included filming social workers speaking positively about their jobs - videos displayed at the conference with some put online.

Could this collaborative approach help other areas improve their recruitment and retention?

The children's social care workforce figures, published in September 2016, suggest it could: Yorkshire and the Humber's vacancy rate of 6.5 per cent, turnover rate of 11.2 per cent and agency worker rate of 8.9 per cent are all the lowest in England.

The North East of England's 11 councils have taken note, launching a regional recruitment campaign in May to counter an increasing reliance on agency workers between September 2015 and September 2016.

A joint recruitment push was staged at the North West Social Work Show in Manchester in May and further events are planned in London in November and Birmingham in March next year.

Retirement timebomb

Latest figures around those leaving and joining the profession show the pressing need for such action. While 4,720 children's social workers joined in the 12 months to September 2016, a worrying tally of 4,190 left.

"There is a timebomb of practitioners reaching retirement age, some are also moving abroad or just leaving the sector," warns James Rook, chief executive of social work recruitment agency Sanctuary.

Children's social work workforce figures for September 2016 show that 24.1 per cent of children's social workers are aged between 50 and 59 and 5.1 per cent are aged 60 and above.

Mounting evidence from academics and councils indicates that further regional collaboration and a strong focus on a supportive working environment will be needed England-wide if a social work recruitment crisis is to be averted.

Rook says the focus on creating a supportive environment is particularly important to ensure that newly qualified social workers are retained within children's social work for decades and do not leave within a short space of time.

"If they come into an environment where the local authority is in intervention, there is a blame culture and a lot of complex cases, you can easily lose them from the profession," he concludes.



Two inadequate judgments from Ofsted between 2013 and 2015 were a hammer blow to Somerset County Council's attempts to attract social workers.

Between September 2014 and September 2015 its vacancy rate shot up from an already high 23 per cent to 35 per cent.

An over-reliance on agency staff, which was highlighted as a concern in the second of its two critical Ofsted reports, was also exacerbated with the proportion of staff who were agency workers rising from 24 per cent to 31 per cent over the same period.

But since then steps have been taken to make the council a far more attractive place to work for social workers.

An extensive recruitment campaign began in May 2015 to add an additional 80 permanent new roles to the authority's 100-strong social work team in a bid to reduce caseloads, which have since fallen from an average of more than 25 in 2015 to 16.8 this year.

The council also began offering homes through its social housing partners to entice new recruits and their families to this large, rural county.

In addition to reducing caseloads, further measures have been taken to attract and retain staff. These include a "try before you apply" initiative, where social workers who may be cautious about working for an improving council are encouraged to spend a day with the social work team and see working conditions for themselves, before sending in a job application.

Recruitment and engagement officer Claire Nuttall says everyone who has visited through this initiative so far has applied.

Somerset has also reorganised its workforce to better support new social workers and offer stronger career progression for experienced practitioners.

Consultant social work roles have been created. These are senior frontline posts that command a management salary and focus on dealing with complex cases and supporting new staff.

An eight-week mindfulness programme is also offered and has proved popular, with 50 staff taking part.

In addition, if a social worker is thinking of leaving then a "talk before you walk" initiative kicks in where consultant social workers and other senior staff look to see what measures can be taken to ensure they stay with the council, which could include moving to a different part of children's services or changing department.

Human resources director Chris Squire says the authority's social work recruitment marketing strategy is to be "upfront and honest" about the council's past and showcase how it is improving.

"When you are going through an improvement programme there is an opportunity for social workers to further their career and really make a mark," he adds.

Such efforts have already improved the turnover rate, which fell from 21 per cent in September 2014 to 12.3 per cent in September 2016.

On top of that, by September 2016 the vacancy rate had fallen to 26.8 per cent and the council's use of agency staff fell to 29.8 per cent.

Among its 185 children's social worker posts there are currently just nine vacancies, suggesting the next set of annual children's social care workforce figures will show even further improvement.

Such initiatives have impressed Ofsted inspectors, who reported that staff feel "well supported and morale is good" following a monitoring visit last year.





The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham has sought to attract and retain social workers by helping tackle the capital's inflated cost of housing.

Below market rent properties from the borough's social housing stock, including new builds, are offered to social worker recruits. In addition, up to £7,500 in relocation costs are on offer and the council also promotes the area as the cheapest London borough to rent or buy. Such housing incentives have been on offer for the last four years and more actively marketed since 2015.

IMPACT The measures have helped retain staff, with the turnover rate falling from 35 per cent in September 2015 to 21 per cent a year later. However, it has had little impact on the vacancy rate, which has remained static, increasing slightly from an already high 49 per cent to 49.7 per cent over the same period.

Efforts to address this over 2017 have included a recruitment advertising push focusing on "social work super powers" (pictured above).

Additional benefits on offer include a £5,000 "golden handshake", a £15,000 retention bonus for three years' service, a two-month paid sabbatical, improved supervision, reduced caseloads and training opportunities.


Social workers who stay with the council for three years receive a £15,000 bonus plus the option of taking a sabbatical of up to 12 weeks, of which two months is paid and the other month is accrued through working extra hours. The sabbatical is not tied to any conditions and it is up to the social worker how it is used.

IMPACT The scheme was introduced in 2014 following consultation with social workers and the first payouts are being handed out to around five to 10 members of staff this autumn. Between September 2014 and September 2016 the vacancy rate had reduced from 31 per cent to 19.4 per cent and the turnover rate had dropped similarly sharply, from 37 per cent to 15.4 per cent. Latest council figures put the current vacancy rate at around 10 per cent.


In handing Buckinghamshire a rating of "inadequate" in 2014, Ofsted was particularly critical of social workers' high caseloads and "poor quality" supervision.

In the same year children's social care workforce figures showed the staff turnover rate was 23 per cent, six percentage points above the England-wide average at the time.

The council sought to counter this in February 2015 through financial incentives to new recruits and existing staff. As part of a £1.4m investment, "golden hellos" of between £2,625 and £5,125 were offered to new recruits depending on experience. Retention bonuses of between £3,250 and £8,250 were also offered.

IMPACT The turnover rate successfully dropped to 14 per cent in September 2015 but had crept up to 19.3 per cent by September 2016.

In addition, the vacancy rate rose from eight per cent at the end of September 2014 to 33 per cent over the next 12 months. As of September 2016 the rate was 28.6 per cent.

Latest council figures show that between April 2016 and March 2017, 60 social workers joined, an improvement on the 51 over the previous 12 months. But between those two periods the number of leavers rose from 28 to 34.

However, there has been success when it comes to the turnover rate of social workers with less than one year's service, which dropped from 4.2 to 1.2 per cent between 2015/16 and 2016/17.

"Turnover is relatively high, but lower than it was, which is positive given that it was a significant issue for us," says executive director of resources Gillian Quinton.


Wiltshire County Council launched a recruitment campaign in September 2014 with a strong focus on promoting support and supervision.

This campaign pledged that children's social workers will not have a caseload of more than 18. In addition, pay incentives are offered to those taking on safeguarding roles, including working in the county's multi-agency safeguarding hub.

To help promote the service as a supportive working environment Wiltshire also developed its website. This also details its investment in IT to reduce administrative burden on social workers, "robust oversight" by managers, coaching, mentoring, opportunities for continuous professional development and a "positive culture that values social work".

IMPACT Between September 2014 and 2016 the vacancy rate had dropped from 26 per cent to 12.1 per cent and the turnover rate had halved from 20 per cent to 10.4 per cent.

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