Reasons to be cheerful? Young people within the present and future adult social care workforce
Recent reports have highlighted the chronic, worsening situation regarding the adult social care workforce in England, and its impact on care quality. From stark figures on care worker poverty and rapidly rising vacancies to the ongoing impact that insufficient numbers of paid care workers has on unpaid care, the overall picture appears rather bleak. However, we came away from a solutions-focused session at the Care Show energised and imbued with hope.
One group that arguably receives insufficient attention in debates on care workforce sustainability is young people. In the session, three panellists discussed Step Into Social Care. This initiative encourages young people into care work and offers resources and tips for attracting, recruiting and retaining younger staff. Amanda Marques, the Director of Cohesion Recruitment (one of the organisations behind the initiative), led the discussion, and was accompanied by Alex Ball of Stow Healthcare Group and Milkwood Care’s Ben Miller. As two engaged audience members, we wanted to share our reflections and consider what adult social care more broadly could gain by supporting this initiative:
Rosie Mockett from the Care Workers’ Charity reflects on social care’s public image, and how a campaign like Step Into Social Care can help attract fresh talent into care work…
It is fair to say that attracting people to social care is a challenge. Not least because the fragmented nature of provision makes it difficult to fully understand the nature of the work – leaving people to fall back on outdated (and classed, gendered and racialised) assumptions about ‘natural caregivers’, stigma about the low-paid nature of the work, or unfavourable comparisons with healthcare. Listening to Ben and Alex at the Care Show gave me hope – social care can and should be seen as an exciting career choice, with diverse opportunities and rewards for people with innovative spirit. We also need to be clear that the work is demanding and involves developing the right skills in order to positively impact the lives of people who draw on social care.
At The Care Workers’ Charity, we know that the main reason care workers stay in the job is because they love what they do, despite improved pay and clear progression often being unavailable. Our financial grants, provided to care workers who need a helping hand when times get tough, are essential for maintaining a workforce that is not adequately remunerated for the skilled work it provides. Increased pay is fundamental to addressing workforce shortages, but this must go alongside efforts both in and outside the sector to raise care work’s status. Reputation is important, as well as robust training frameworks and nationally recognised structures for role progression. Young people are not a homogenous group, and there is no ‘silver bullet’ which will solve the workforce crisis, but the Step Into Social Care initiative, which feels optimistic and future-focused, could become an important intervention.
Social care looks and feels different depending on the type of care provided and the care setting, and we need to educate and prepare young people for the realities of what care work involves. People who draw on care come from all walks of life and have a wide variety of needs, and care workers meet them in various ways – it’s a fulfilling person-centred job in the right circumstances. We need to tell the story of social care to young people, and as the panellists argued, be open to learning from recruitment practices in other sectors and other countries.
Centre for Care researcher Duncan Fisher reflects on the supply- and demand-side framings underpinning the session and initiative…
The panellists held positive views towards young people and the contributions they do and could make to paid care work. Young people are under-represented in the care workforce, while the unemployment rate is significantly higher for young people than the whole working-age population: these points underline the scope for young people to play a greater role in care work. Young people are more likely to leave care jobs sooner than older adults, but with a high proportion of care workers paid close to legal minimums, young people are penalised by lower age-defined entitlements. Being ‘person-centred’ is key to contemporary approaches to care work, and the session hinted at ways employers can adopt this approach when working with (younger) staff. This should include being mindful of young people’s wider circumstances, which are increasingly challenging and include the higher risk of living in poverty than older adults.
In my research on young people’s experiences as paid care workers, I found negative views of young people’s suitability for care work were held by some older staff. Young people can be put off care work by perceptions that it requires particular aptitudes that they may not yet hold. The valorisation of ‘experience’ for those entering care work arguably has a disproportionately negative effect on young people (who are less likely to have had prior experience as unpaid carers, for example). A constant of the session was the positive view of young people, for example, being ‘mouldable’ and willing to learn. This point is exemplified by the initiative hashtag #noexperiencenecessary, which invokes young workers’ untapped potential, and challenges providers to be confident in their onboarding, shadowing, training, mentoring and ongoing supervision processes.
The session promoted ways of emphasising the demand-side benefits of social care work to potential young recruits. Rather than being dissuaded from taking on staff who may regard care work as a stepping stone, the panellists encouraged providers to embrace this and talk up their offer of training, support, and even an employment reference (all of which can be especially important for young workers). The panellists drew on their own care work trajectories, and on their approaches to employing young people in the more senior roles they now hold. Ben’s story from starting out as a care worker aged 19, to now being manager of an award-winning care home, was inspiring. His recruitment strategy includes actively targeting younger workers in the spaces where they spend their time, including in higher and further education settings, and on online platforms such as TikTok. Despite the national labour shortage, they have a waiting list for staff at Ben’s home as people are so keen to work there.
Step Into Social Care and openness to young people
Adult social care in England is crying out for a longer-term national workforce strategy to address its multiple problems and offer a vision of a more sustainable and positive present and future. For now, the onus falls on various actors to find ways to address these issues, and therefore these attempts will remain confined to particular care settings, localities or organisations. Unevenness and fragmentation will persist, staff will continue to be drawn towards employers with more resources and away from those who need help the most, and the national picture will remain perilous. That said, we drew much encouragement overall from the session and initiative, and the positive stance towards young people and what they can bring to social care work now and in the future.
About the authors
Following his PhD, Duncan worked as a Research Associate at The University of Sheffield’s Centre for International Research on Care, Labour and Equalities (CIRCLE) analysing alternative models of homecare provision in the UK. He then worked with Professor Mary Daly at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford on a project examining the work attitudes of care home workers. Prior to commencing his PhD, Duncan’s work experience included spells in teaching, educational support and advice, and social care work.
Rosie Mockett is currently Policy and Development Manager for The Care Workers’ Charity, supporting them to represent the care worker perspective on the national stage since joining in May 2022. She previously spent four years in the public sector engaging with diverse stakeholder groups to agree shared priorities for the distribution of National Lottery funds to communities. More recently she has been a management consultant for public and private sector organisations, specialising in clean facilitation and systems thinking. Over the years she has partnered with government departments, national charities and thought leaders to establish new ways of approaching society’s ‘wicked problems’ with a focus on improving the social, cultural and political capital of the people most impacted by them.