There’s no doubt that the social care sector needs a major overhaul. But until society stops seeing care work as a second-rate profession, we will never solve the biggest issue – the workforce crisis, says Victoria Sylvester, Director of Acacia Training.
Earlier this year, MPs called for a radical overhaul of the social care system in Britain. Recommendations included the mandatory registration of all care workers, overseen by a governing council, and the creation of a National Care Service.
The proposals, published in a new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Care were long-awaited after months of headlines about the ‘chaos of the care system’. Reports of half a million unqualified and untrained people working in the care sector shocked the nation, with many fearing for the safety of their elderly relatives and neighbours.
There’s no doubt that stories like these are extremely concerning – and that the sector needs reform – but they also contribute to the negative image of a sector which is already struggling due to chronic underfunding and a major workforce crisis.
In this country, social care is seen as a second-rate sector. When you think about it, this is incomprehensible considering that care work is a highly-skilled job which our society relies heavily on. With an ageing population, demand is continuing to increase and it is estimated that the sector will need at least another half a million jobs, and people to fulfil them by 2030.
Yet there are currently around 75,000 vacant posts in the social care sector according to the GMB union. Skills for Care estimates that the vacancy rate for care workers is 9.1% – more than three times the average for all jobs. We are already seeing the impact of Brexit, with fewer EU workers entering our care sector. Attracting people to the sector has never been more critical and what we need now is incentives, not barriers.
The cost of regulation
For the entire time that I’ve been in the sector there has been talk about registering care workers. From a quality and safeguarding point of view, it’s an excellent idea. Putting it into practice, however, is going to be a challenge.
Consider the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). They set the education standards that professionals must achieve to practise in the UK. If nursing professionals don’t uphold the standards and behaviours set out in their code they can be removed from the register. This gives people the confidence that they will receive quality, safe care.
But the NMC is primarily funded by an annual registration fee, which all nursing professionals have to pay. Forcing care workers to pay an annual fee on the current salary levels could become a deterrent to people joining the sector. Wages are notoriously low and don’t match the level of responsibility that social care roles demand. Why should they pay to be on a register when they can earn the same wage in a supermarket?
Training can ensure high standards and help to engage and motivate employees, but cost can be a barrier here too, both for employers and workers. Fully-funded training can act as a much-needed incentive to attract – and keep – people in the sector.
My family founded Acacia Training after struggling to recruit and retain quality staff at the two care homes we own in Staffordshire and Cheshire. Where we can, we proactively seek out funding opportunities in order to deliver training to carers across the UK. This benefits both employers and employees in order to continually improve standards in the sector.
Previously all care workers had to achieve a level 2 qualification within two years of joining the sector but now it’s more of a grey area in terms of expectation. We need to set clear, mandatory minimum standards for all care workers.
Retention is just as important as recruitment
Ongoing training is also important in retaining employees – another area where the care sector is struggling. There is a real lack of progression opportunities for staff. The opportunities are there but they are not visible or accessible to the majority of people.
The care sector is hard. Many people who decide to join it aren’t prepared for how physically and mentally draining it can be. Others get disillusioned by the low salaries and lack of progression. Yet every day hundreds of thousands of care workers get up, go to work and do an absolutely incredible job, caring for society’s most needy and vulnerable people and contributing enormously to their health, happiness and wellbeing.
So yes, the care sector does need a radical overhaul and the APPG report is an important step in the right direction. But it also needs an image overhaul too. Let’s stop undervaluing the workforce in this sector and instead look at what we can do to motivate and inspire people to love their job and be the best they can be. Let’s celebrate the hardworking and dedicated people who working tirelessly in this sector to make a positive difference.
Victoria Sylvester is a registered nurse, owner of two care homes and Director of Acacia Training, which provides apprenticeships, short courses and government-funded qualifications in the health, social care and early years sectors. For more information, visit: www.acaciatraining.co.uk.