Why you’re better off being a cleaner than a care worker

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Does the latest data on the social care workforce offer much optimism for the sector? In a word, no. The trends are largely a continuation of last year’s – a slowing almost to a standstill of the growth in jobs, an increasing vacancy rate and a high turnover rate.

It is true that there has been a 27p an hour increase in pay for care workers, driven by the rise in the national living wage, but this rise is pushing up pay in other sectors even faster, making social care less competitive. The result is that in 2012/13 shopworkers and cleaners were paid less than care workers but in 2018/19 they were paid more. The data does not tell us specifically about the pay of assistants to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers but it seems likely that they would now also be better paid than care workers. Kitchen staff and hairdressers are catching up.

'The data does not tell us specifically about the pay of assistants to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers but it seems likely that they would now also be better paid than care workers.'

Can anything be done? The Department for Health and Social Care is now running the second phase of its recruitment campaign for adult social care (subtly rebranded from ‘Every day is different’ to ‘When you care, every day makes a difference’.) The first phase of the campaign had some positive results. Research conducted in advance of that phase showed that although one in five people said that they had at least considered applying for an adult social care job in the previous year, only 1 in 25 of those people had gone on to do so. That was in part because only 12 per cent of people thought there were local jobs available in the sector – a surprising perception given that there are 122,000 vacancies at any one time across England. So one of the objectives in the first phase of the campaign was to make more people aware of those vacant roles, and it had success in that: searches for care jobs on the Department of Work and Pension’s ‘Find a job’ website, for example, nearly doubled. However, it is hard to quantify the difference this has made to recruitment. While one in four care staff in a small, self-selective survey said they had seen an increase in enquiries, applications and positions filled during the campaign period, more comprehensive evidence is needed to confirm this.

'Only much wider reform, based around sustainable improvement in the sector’s funding, can ensure that social care and its users have the workforce they need and deserve.'

The campaign research also demonstrated the barriers it will have to overcome. For example, a key problem is that only 4 in 10 people think social care offers career progression. Unfortunately, if we look at pay levels as a measure of progression, they are right – and the situation is worsening. On average, care workers with more than five years’ experience earn just 15p more an hour than those with less than one year’s experience, down from 37p more in 2013. That is because employers, faced with local authorities aiming to hold down the rates they pay for care at a time when the living wage has been pushing up staff costs, have responded by compressing pay. Last year, the top earning 10 per cent of care workers received a 3.6 per cent real-terms pay increase while the bottom earning 10 per cent received 9.4 per cent. Experience is counting for less and less in care workers’ pay packets.

So prospective care workers are right to worry about career progression, certainly in terms of pay. Who would blame them if they took the experience, knowledge and skills they have developed to the higher pay on offer as a healthcare assistant in their local hospital? No advertising campaign alone can address this and other deep-rooted issues in the social care workforce. Only much wider reform, based around sustainable improvement in the sector’s funding, can ensure that social care and its users have the workforce they need and deserve.

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