Joanna Rawles, Head of Social Work at The Open University, discusses its new social work apprenticeship and how a wider range of applicants can be reached…
Social work is a sector facing numerous challenges. Despite over 1.45 million workers currently employed, experts have predicted that an additional 650,000 employees will be needed by 2035 for the sector to keep pace with the rising numbers of people aged 65 and over, who rely on their services.
Yet this surge in demand is being undercut by diminishing supply. The sector struggles with retention; with figures suggesting around 390,000 workers leave social work each year.
These figures paint a concerning picture, and make exploring alternative avenues for tackling this shortage essential for leaders in the sector, who are looking to build a sustainable talent pipeline. The new Social Worker Degree Apprenticeship comes at an opportune time then, as it allows the sector to open up opportunities for all workers looking for a fulfilling and engaging career.
With these issues of attraction and retention undoubtedly taking their toll on the social work sector, it is crucial that careers in the sector are open to all, regardless of their background – which is why this new route is crucial, for creating a sustainable talent pipeline.
In such a people-orientated field, it makes sense for social workers to reflect the diversity of the society they serve. And diversity can have a positive impact on culture and performance within all organisations.
Given that traditional routes into the sector have often proved problematic for certain demographics, The Open University’s Social Worker Degree Apprenticeship, with its mix of online and face-to-face learning, meets the needs of a diverse range of employees, allowing them to fit training around both home and work commitments.
This means that the sector is opened up to prospective apprentices who have not previously been able to undertake a conventional degree as a result of time, money or capacity. Taking disabled students as an example, relocating or commuting to university – a huge barrier that comes with in-classroom delivery methods – is removed.
This flexibility is exceptionally valuable to the many who otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue degree-level training, helping to widen the sector’s pool of talent. This also means that study is made available to those who have always found themselves simply too far from a typical education hub, or who have struggled to balance the demands of work, training and personal life.
The Open University apprenticeship could be particularly helpful in addressing shortages in more rural areas, where education facilities are harder to access. Most learning is delivered online, which allows apprentices to learn whenever and wherever suits them, but those enrolled will also receive face-to-face support from qualified social workers throughout.
By offering existing workers the opportunity to earn while they learn, local authorities and private providers can also increase retention and loyalty. Training makes employees feel valued, and also gives them a clear path of their own progression, giving them a reason to remain with their employer, and within the sector.
So, the new apprenticeship is confronting some of the issues the social work sector has been facing for far too long. As an important new route into social work, it can help to widen participation, improve diversity and enhance staff retention rates. In turn, this can help to create a more sustainable talent pipeline, addressing support and demand issues both now and in the future.