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


First, the good news. Vacancies in adult social care fell slightly in 2022/23, from a record 164,000 in 2021/22 to 152,000 in 2022/23.* The number of filled posts increased and there was also a small fall in staff turnover. Together, the figures demonstrate a small but significant release of pressure on the social care sector. Providers, and people who draw on services, will be desperate for it to continue.

Digging into the numbers, however, it’s clear that the fall in vacancies was due to a large increase in the number of care workers coming to the UK from abroad, from 20,000 in 2021/22 to 70,000 in 2022/23. These new overseas workers, while welcome, are not by themselves the answer to the long-term recruitment crisis in social care.

Their arrival is down to a change of government policy in December 2021. In the face of record-high vacancy rates, and on the advice of its Migration Advisory Council, the government lowered the barrier for care workers to be allowed to work in the UK. Care worker and care assistant roles were added to the ‘shortage occupations list’, which meant that – if they could find a UK -based company willing to sponsor them – workers could be granted visas for relatively low-paid roles.

The simplest way to understand what has happened since then is to use YouTube. Search on ‘care assistant visa sponsorship jobs UK’ and you will return scores of videos aimed at workers overseas, explaining how to find and apply for jobs in UK care homes (an example is here). Often, the videos give step-by-step guides to applying for individual roles with specific care providers that are currently recruiting. Workers in other countries – particularly India, Nigeria and Zimbabwe – have responded with enthusiasm to the opportunities outlined in the videos, as well as to the direct recruitment campaigns of care providers and agencies.

The influx of new staff has meant that adult social care has managed to keep its head above water in the past 12 months but it should not blind us to the severe difficulty that the sector faces in recruiting staff from the UK itself, nor to the underlying weakness in the sector that this difficulty reveals.

Even with the new recruits from overseas, 9.9 per cent of social care jobs (were vacant in 2022/23, only marginally better than the 10.6 per cent vacancy rate in 2021/22. Monthly tracking, albeit less accurate, suggests that the rate may have fallen to 8.9 per cent by June 2023. However, that it still much higher than the pre-Covid-19 rate of 7.3 per cent. Even more worrying, it is also much higher than the vacancy rate in the economy as a whole (3.4 per cent). The sad truth is that when there are other opportunities in the jobs market, people take them rather than work in social care.

One reason for that is pay. Not only is starter pay low in social care but pay progress is very weak – a worker with five years’ experience will typically be earning only 7p more per hour than when they started. Low pay is, in turn, a consequence of a marketplace in which most social care is commissioned by local authorities from private providers at rates that are typically too low to pay staff much above the National Minimum Wage. And those low rates paid for care are in turn a symptom of long-term underfunding of local authorities to carry out their social care responsibilities in the face of ever-rising demand.

However, it is not just pay. The public understands that care is undervalued by society and roles in the care sector are particularly unattractive to men, who make up fewer than one in five of the current workforce.

This is the fragile sector into which 70,000 overseas workers stepped in 2022. They – and their colleagues who have joined since then – should be welcomed with open arms. But at the same time, work needs to start now on making social care a more attractive option for UK workers, otherwise there is no hope of recruiting the additional 480,000 social care staff that estimates suggest are needed by 2035. The NHS has a 10-year workforce plan, now it is time for one for social care.

*This and all other statistics in this blog, unless otherwise indicated, are from industry workforce body Skills for Care.