Why social care is losing the 'generation game' in recruitment (and what can be done about it)

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The Channel 4 drama ‘Help’ memorably features the actor Jodie Comer as 20-year-old Sarah, who starts a new job as a care worker in a care home, only to experience the devastating effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sarah proves to be brilliant: caring and organised, she takes on new responsibilities as staff and residents are stricken with the virus. You would want a lot more ‘Sarahs’ in social care – young people starting their careers in care and finding they both love it and excel at it.

The problem is we don’t have enough of them. People under 25 years old make up just 10.6 per cent of care workers in England, and the trend had been getting worse. There were just under 100,000 younger care workers in adult social care in 2019/20, down from 111,500 in 2013/14. The initial stages of Covid-19 did bring in more younger workers but, at a time of huge turmoil in the labour market, only time will tell whether they stay.

In 2020/21 there were around 105,000 vacancies at any one time in the sector and turnover of staff stood at 34.4 per cent.

The difficulty in attracting and retaining younger care workers of course compounds in a wider recruitment and retention issue in social care. In 2020/21 there were around 105,000 vacancies at any one time in the sector and turnover of staff stood at 34.4 per cent. And this is without considering the need to recruit up to another 490,000 care workers to respond to increasing demand from a population that is ageing but also has more working age adults with disabilities.

It was against this background that The King’s Fund carried out a short piece of exploratory work for The Prince’s Trust into the younger workforce in health and social care. The work was intended to put together some preliminary analysis on younger people in health and care – and begin thinking about how we can attract more of them.

We found little in a literature review to help us – this appears to be an under-studied area, particularly in adult social care – so we relied on analysis of the current data on the NHS and social care workforces, and a small number of qualitative interviews with representative bodies and provider organisations across health and care (we were acutely conscious that we were not speaking directly to young people themselves – this would need to be a further stage).

Our tentative conclusions were that there are four broad areas for health and care to focus on if it wants to increase the number of younger people working in the sector: routes into the sector; support for young people; organisational structures and collaboration; and leadership.

In all these areas we heard tantalising ‘snapshots’ of innovation as providers adapted to attract and support young people.

One homecare provider had sought to attract staff by offering free driving lessons – a real draw for young people but also development of an often-essential skill for home care provision. We also heard that less formal, ‘values-based’ recruitment into social care – now adopted by many organisations – can have real advantages over more formal approaches in the recruitment stage because they focus on attitudes rather than formal experience, which younger people may not have.

Providers told us that young people with little or no work experience may not be ‘employment ready’ and may need tailored coaching and development. One social care provider said they asked young people to be honest about their working preferences – if, for example, they would prefer to avoid early morning shifts or particular weekend days. Meeting these preferences might require a change in rota planning but would increase chances of retention.

We also heard about organisations working together to provide career and other development opportunities for younger staff. In one case, five local providers had created a shared pool for ‘bank’ staff, creating opportunities for them to develop and gain experience within different settings.

Providers also told us that it was important for leaders to take on different roles with young people, acting as ‘coaches’ as well as managers.

Providers also told us that it was important for leaders to take on different roles with young people, acting as ‘coaches’ as well as managers. Leadership could also create an inclusive culture that enabled staff to stay in post. One social care chief executive told us that he’d stocked a fridge with free food when he learned that some staff were struggling to feed their children during the school holidays.

Inevitably we heard only partial views and they were sometimes contradictory or unclear: was it the case, as we heard, that smaller organisations could be more flexible with younger staff or that larger ones in fact offered more scope? We don’t know (though this may be a case where size is not so important as the willingness to adapt).

The findings are, we hope, the first stage of more work in this area that will be a contribution to one of the most urgent challenges facing social care – how it recruits enough quality staff to meet demand. We will need thousands more ‘Sarahs’: the task for the sector is to find the best ways to recruit them and ensure they stay.

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