Vacancies are falling but social care still needs a long-term workforce plan

When you dig deeper into the numbers, it becomes clear that this fall in vacancies is due to an increase in care workers who are coming to the UK, up from 20,000 in 2021/22 to 70,000 by 2022/23. While these new overseas workers are welcome, they alone cannot solve the long-term social care recruitment crisis.

The change in government policies that took place in December 2021 is what led to their arrival. The government lowered its barriers to allow care workers to work in the UK, based on advice from the Migration Advisory Council and a record-high vacancy rate. The ‘ shortage occupations’ list included care worker and assistant roles. This meant that if a UK-based company was willing to sponsor the workers, they could receive visas to work in relatively low-paid positions.

YouTube is the easiest way to find out what’s happened since. You can find a number of videos explaining how to apply for UK care home jobs (an example) if you search “care assistant visa sponsorship UK.” The videos often provide step-by-step instructions on how to apply for specific roles for care providers who are currently hiring. The videos and the recruitment campaigns by care providers and agencies have been well-received in other countries, particularly India, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

Adult social care managed to keep afloat in the last 12 months, thanks to the new staff. However, this should not obscure the difficulty the sector has in attracting staff from the UK.

Even with recruits coming from abroad, 9.9 percent of social care positions (were vacant) in 2022/23. This was only marginally higher than the 10.6 percent vacancy rate for 2021/22. The monthly tracking, although less accurate, indicates that the rate could have dropped to 8.9% by June 2023. This is still higher than the 7.3% rate before Covid-19. It is even more alarming that it is much higher than the unemployment rate for the entire economy (3,4%). It is a sad fact that people choose to work in other fields of employment rather than in social care when they have the opportunity.

Pay is one reason. Social care workers are not only paid low starting wages, but they also make very little progress in their pay. A worker with five years of experience typically earns 7p per hour more than when they began. The low pay is also a result of the market where most social care services are commissioned from private providers at rates that are usually too low for staff to be paid much more than the National Minimum Wage. These low care rates are a result of the underfunding that local authorities have been experiencing for years in order to meet their social care obligations in light of an ever-increasing demand.

It is not only about the pay. The public is aware that the value of care in society is low. Roles in the care sector, which are dominated by men (less than 1/5 of the workforce), are not attractive to them.

This is the sector that 70,000 foreign workers will enter in 2022. These workers, and those who have since joined them, should be welcomed warmly. But work must also be done to make social care more appealing for UK workers. Otherwise, there will be no chance of recruiting the 480,000 additional social care staff estimated to be needed by 2035. It is now time to create a social care workforce plan. The NHS already has a 10-year plan.

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