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Social care 360: workforce and carers

7. Vacancies

Vacancies fell in 2022/23 due to overseas recruitment

Over the past year the social care vacancy rate in England fell but remains higher than the overall unemployment rate

Why is this important?

The vacancy rate is an important indicator of providers’ capacity to deliver social care services. Staffing also affects quality: higher staff-to-bed ratios in care homes correlate with higher Care Quality Commission ratings. In an open jobs market, it is also an indicator of the relative attractiveness of social care as a career compared to other sectors.  

What was the annual change?

Between 2021/22 and 2022/23, the vacancy rate fell from 10.7% to 9.9% and the number of vacancies fell from 165,000 to 152,000. There was a continued gap between the vacancy rate in adult social care, the wider unemployment rate (3.9%), and the vacancy rate in the wider economy (3.4%).

The vacancy rate was lowest in Yorkshire and the Humber (8%) and highest in London (12.1%). 

There was variation between roles, with higher vacancies in domiciliary care (12.5%) than in residential care (7.4%), and higher vacancies for regulated professionals (11.2%), care workers (11.8%) and personal assistants (11.4%) but lower vacancy rates for managerial and supervisory roles (5.3%).

What is the long-term trend?

At 9.9%, the vacancy rate in adult social care was the second highest it has been since Skills for Care began collecting data in 2012/13.  

What explains that trend?

The fall in the vacancy rate, from the historic high in 2021/22, was driven by a sharp increase in the number of overseas staff recruited to work in adult social care. Between March 2022 and March 2023, around 70,000 people started direct care roles after arrival in the UK from abroad. The increase happened because changes to government immigration policy in February 2022 enabled overseas care workers to take up care worker roles in the UK providing they had a licensed sponsor and the role had a salary of at least £20,480.

However, the number of UK domestic workers fell by 30,000 over this period, and pay remains a significant factor in domestic recruitment. While pay for care workers has increased in real terms year-on-year since 2014 (see indicator 8, pay), the rate of increase has failed to keep pace with some other sectors. As a result, people can now earn as much working as sales and retail assistants, while in similar roles in the NHS they can earn more.  

The vacancy rate in social care continues to be much higher than the overall unemployment rate and it appears that as unemployment falls, social care vacancies rise. This suggests that for many people other work is more attractive than social care. Vacancy rates in adult social care are higher than in the NHS (8%) and much higher than in other areas of the economy, such as retail (2.9%), education (2.6%) and manufacturing (3%). The gap between social care and the overall vacancy rate in the economy has also grown.

However, pay is not the only factor in recruitment. Employees also value wider terms and conditions, good working conditions, especially flexibility, and a positive culture and leadership.  

What has happened in 2023/24?

In April 2023, the government published its Next steps to put people at the heart of care, which made available £15 million to support international recruitment in local areas. It also provided £250 million of additional investment in workforce recognition and career development, intended to ‘help the sector move towards a more sustainable domestic supply of care staff in the future’. However this was only half the £500 million that had been promised in People at the heart of care in December 2021.

In addition, the government made available £15 million for the 2023/24 financial year to help local areas establish support arrangements for international recruitment in adult social care and bolster workforce in adult social care. Monthly tracking data from Skills for Care, while less comprehensive, suggests that the vacancy rate in adult social care has fallen still further. In November 2023, it had fallen to 8.4%. The vacancy rate was worse for London (11.4%) and in home care (12.3%). The latest data is here.

In December 2023, the government announced a tightening of the rules affecting overseas care workers, who will now not be allowed to bring dependents with them to the UK.

Also in December 2023, the government’s Migration Advisory Committee report warned of ‘growing evidence of exploitation of migrant care workers’.

8. Pay

Inflation ate into care worker pay in 2022/23

The introduction of the National Living Wage meant that care-worker pay increased by more than inflation until a slight real-terms fall in 2022/23

Why is this an important indicator?

Care workers make up around 860,000 of the 1.64 million filled posts in the social care sector. Pay in the independent sector (ie, not including local authorities), which employs the great majority of staff, is a key factor in the sector’s ability to recruit enough staff to meet demand. It also makes up a large proportion of provider costs, particularly in home care. Levels of pay also correlates with Care Quality Commission quality ratings.

What was the annual change?

Median care worker pay in the independent sector in 2022/23 was £10.11 an hour. Due to high levels of inflation* in 2022/23, this represents a decrease of 0.2% in real terms since 2021/22. 

Mean care-worker pay in the independent sector was £10.34 an hour in 2022/23. This is slightly better than support and outreach workers: £10.31 an hour. Senior care workers earned £11.09 an hour and personal assistants, who are employed directly by people drawing on care services, averaged £10.92.

Care workers employed by local authorities had a mean hourly rate of £11.35 in 2022/23.

What is the long-term trend?

Since 2015/16, median care-worker pay has increased by 15% in real terms.

However, pay in other sectors has been increasing more quickly. In 2012/13, care workers were paid more than retail sales assistants but by 2019/20 this was no longer the case. Many care workers would be paid more in entry-level posts in supermarkets.

What explains that trend?

Care-worker pay has grown since 2015/16, driven by the introduction of the National Living Wage, which has risen faster than inflation. However, other sectors have proven more able to remunerate their lower-paid staff than social care.  

While care-worker pay has increased, there has been a negative effect on the pay progression of more experienced care workers. Those with several years’ experience earn just 6p more an hour on average (mean) than those with less than one year’s experience, down from 33p more an hour in 2016.

Uncompetitive levels of pay also have an impact on staff turnover (though are by no means the only factor). More than one-third of care workers (35.6%) leave their job during the course of the year, equivalent to more than 300,000 people. However, most stay within the social care sector.

What has happened in 2023/24?

In December 2023, the Migration Advisory Committee, which had identified low pay in the sector as critical to its recruitment problems, noted the ‘increasing reliance on the immigration system by the health and social care sector... in part but not exclusively due to the government’s reluctance to provide adequate funding to tackle the underlying workforce pressures’.

In April 2024, the National Minimum Wage – the level at which many care workers are paid – will rise to £11.44.  

9. Unpaid carers

Fewer carers now receive direct support

The proportion of carers in England receiving either no support, or information, advice and signposting has increased since 2014/15

Why is this indicator important?

Unpaid carers – usually, but not always, family members – contribute the equivalent of four million paid care workers to the social care system. Without them, the system would collapse.

What was the annual change?

The number of carers receiving direct support – including paid support such as direct payments, services, and information and advice – fell from 314,000 in 2021/22 to 295,000 in 2022/23. The number of people provided with respite care (which is provided to support unpaid carers) rose to 36,000 from 33,000 in 2021/22.

What is the longer-term trend?

The number of carers receiving direct support from local authorities was lower in 2022/23 than it was in 2015/16. There has also been a shift in the type of support they receive. Fewer carers (27% compared to 31% in 2015/16) now receive paid support and more receive advice, information and signposting (56% compared to 50% in 2015/16).

The number of people provided with respite care delivered to support their carers fell from 57,000 in 2015/16 to 36,000 in 2022/23.

What explains this?

The long-term fall in support for carers can be explained, at least in part, by pressure on local authority budgets, which has also impacted the number of people receiving long-term care (see indicator 2, receipt of social care).

A further possibility is that the number of family carers has fallen. The 2021 census estimated the proportion of people in England providing unpaid care fell from 11.3% in 2011 to 8.9% in 2021, and the number had fallen from 5.4 million to 4.7 million. However, this finding may have been affected by a change in the survey question and the impact of Covid-19 on caring behaviour. The proportion of people providing more than 50 hours of unpaid care a week increased, in fact, meaning that an estimated 1.4 million people in England provide this amount of care. Other data does not necessarily support the fall identified in the UK census: the total number of people claiming Carer’s Allowance has increased since 2016, from 1.2 million in in February 2016 to 1.4 million in February 2023.

What has happened in 2023/24?

In December 2021, the government’s social care White Paper had promised up to £25 million to ‘kickstart’ a change in the services provided to support unpaid carers. In November 2023, this support was incorporated into an Accelerating Reform Fund of £42.6 million over two years for local authorities and integrated care systems. Consortia of local authorities and their partners bidding for the fund were required to have at least one project supporting unpaid carers.