Social Work: Many Happy Returns ; Encouraging Former Social Workers Back into the Profession Makes Better Financial Sense Than Training New Recruits from Scratch - and Conditions Have Improved, Says KATE HILPERN
Hilpern, Kate, The Independent (London, England)
So severe is the nationwide shortage of social workers that people who left the profession years ago are being targeted by local authorities. "It is expensive to qualify a new social worker from scratch. So it makes sense to win back those who have already trained, and spend much less on brushing up their skills - particularly as there are thousands of qualified social workers currently not employed as such," says Ian Johnston, the director of the British Association of Social Workers.
Vic Citarella, adviser to the Local Government Association, has been involved in researching why so many people have left their careers in social work. "Two of the main reasons are bringing up children and moving sideways into other areas of work," he says. "Many of these people would be interested in coming back into the profession for the same reasons that they joined initially, so it's important that we start communicating with them and find ways to meet their needs."
The Training Organisation for Personal Social Services (TOPSS) has been funded by the Department of Health to do just that. "We are at the very early stages of looking into developing a re-training package for returner social workers that would consist of a combination of training input and employer support," explains Richard Banks, the principal of the standards and qualifications framework at TOPSS. It's no mean feat, he admits, because the 150 local authorities - the main employers of social workers - all work completely independently. "But we have created regional forums of employers in the past couple of years. Through these, we hope to get groups of employers to take part in pilot schemes and then roll out those that are successful."
In the meantime, a growing number of local authorities have already started creating their own local campaigns to recruit returner social workers and are working in partnership with local academic institutions to create tailor-made refresher courses. Michael Leadbetter, the president of the Association of Directors of Social Services and the director of social services in Essex, explains, "What we have done in Essex is to determine the major gaps in skills and knowledge, which may be due to the passing of time or old qualifications. Then, we have agreed with an academic institution to put in place appropriate modules as well as providing additional practice placement opportunities." Generally, training is accompanied by a mentoring service, as well as intense supervision and support in the workplace.
Both employer and employee gain, says Leadbetter. "Re-training and support doesn't cost the new recruit a penny and the employer pays a lot less than they would to put a new recruit through the two- year Diploma in Social Work (DipSW), which is the recognised qualification in social work."
Even for those who left the profession some years ago as unqualified social workers, there are increasing opportunities not only to return but to be seconded by the local authority to qualify. Indeed, the Department of Health is increasingly supporting employers to take on such people and then put them through part- or full-time DipSW courses.
Among the greatest fears and anxieties of people who left social work years ago - whether qualified or unqualified - is that they are simply out of touch. "But in fact, the skills involved in bringing up children or being in other employment tend to be highly transferable into the field of social work and are therefore not just valued but sought after by local authorities," explains Leadbetter. "We have a couple of social workers at Essex who took time out to do VSO and they have a better perspective of social work because of their outside experiences than if they'd never left."
The increased use of computers, and changing standards and legislation are other concerns. But, says Leadbetter, these areas tend to be covered in-depth by employers at the re-training stage. …