Recruitment problems stifle Bridgend Social Services

Earlier this week, Bridgend Council’s Children & Young People Committee discussed staffing levels in children’s social services (pdf). Ongoing issues are said to “challenge many authorities” and are “well-documented”.

The meeting was primarily held to discuss the reasons why recruitment and retention are problematic and what BCBC, and other local authorities, are doing to tackle the problem.
The report highlights that a management restructure has taken place in Bridgend social services, in addition to the creation of several specialist multi-agency hubs. A new deputy management post was also created to provide extra support.

In order to recruit more social workers, BCBC reviewed its recruitment and professional development policies, including a revamp of its first-year training for newly-qualified social workers and increased mentoring.

Despite this, two vacancies remain at senior practitioner level, which are said to be “difficult to fill, with little external interest and limited eligible internal applicants.” The situation is made worse by a high number of social workers recruited to BCBC with less than two years experience, which is said to present “a real challenge to the service”.

Six agency workers have been recruited to provide experienced cover, while a further two agency workers have been recruited to fill gaps until permanent staff take up their posts. Agency workers tend to be more expensive to hire than permanent staff.

25 social workers have left BCBC since August 2014. Exit interviews were conducted with them to determine what reasons lie behind their decision. The most popular reasons were :

  • Job dissatisfaction (54%)
  • Dissatisfaction with working environment (54%)
  • Problems with managers – said to be because of a high turnover of senior staff (54%)
  • A desire to work closer to home (38%)

BCBC also surveyed present staff, and their feedback showed that 57.8% of social workers were either satisfied or fairly satisfied with their work. 27% said they were not satisfied, though just 2% were very dissatisfied.
Staff were happy with the levels of job security, team working and opportunities for professional development, but were mostly unhappy with work demands – a figure’s given of each social worker handling up to 18 cases. When you consider what those cases might involve it’s not surprising that it’s the most demanding and stressful part of the job.

The majority of respondents were unsure whether they would remain at BCBC in the short-term but, in a bit of good news, more said they were likely to stay than leave.

Nobody said they would leave because of pay, though an analysis of pay rates in neighbouring local authorities along the M4 corridor showed that while Bridgend has a higher starting rate for Grade 1 and Grade 2 social workers, the top salaries were lower than other authorities and there are also fewer pay increments.

In addition, agency staff are likely to make far more money, and six experienced social workers have left BCBC for recruitment agencies since April 2014.

For younger workers, 36 student placements were provided at BCBC for 2014-15 for trainees and ten of these placements were in children’s services. Although trainee places are said to be a good way to “grow your own”, they’re expensive in both salary and university tuition costs.

In conclusion, although all social work posts have been filled, they’re primarily done so by newly-qualified workers who are inexperienced and unlikely to be familiar with the levels of complex work expected of them. This, in turn, could lead to mistakes and errors. There’s also had to be an increased focus on retaining these workers in the medium to long term.

There’s no crisis here yet, but it does present a somewhat worrying scenario, particularly as Bridgend social services have documented high profile failures in the past.

Like many other professions nowadays, the damaging impact of private recruitment agencies is showing itself – the Assembly have uncovered similar things during in an inquiry into supply teachers, while agency nurses are a known drain on NHS finances due to sky high fees.

If there’s one industry I would love to see properly investigated – whether by Westminster or the Assembly – it’s recruitment agencies. I suspect there are serious scandals waiting to be uncovered, whether it’s “ghost jobs” (advertising for vacancies that don’t exist), zero-hour contracts, lack of employment rights or underpaying workers and overcharging public bodies to maximise their own profits.

It might not be happening with experienced social workers and other professionals because they’re highly-valued wherever they go, but it could one day, and it’s making everybody below senior management level a disposable commodity that can be bought and sold like cattle.

It’s a direct result of public bodies and companies cutting back on their own HR functions as budgets shrink, and you can certainly argue that profiting off the back of the needs of the most vulnerable people around is mercenary-like behaviour.