Reducing vacancy rates in the social care sector requires funded research now

Reducing vacancy rates in the social care sector requires funded research now

As an academic who thinks that research can have a positive impact I am always seeking the core challenges worthy of research, and the money to do that research properly. At a recent conference on the future of Social Care in Scotland I had cause to reflect on this.

The new minister for Social Care, Maree Todd MSP, opened the conference with a contribution which set out both the long term and immediate challenges facing social care and what was being done to address these. The themes would be familiar to all, wonderful job done by hard pressed staff; human rights; co-design; lived experience; commitments to a range of policies; paying the real living wage (for some anyway). And throughout the day there was a consensus, including from the perspectives of Local Authority, Care Employer  and HSCP, that we can all agree on what how important social care is and that much needs to be done…but not how it is to be done. That is code both for ‘whither the National Care Service?’ and ‘where is the money to come from to do what needs doing?’

I don’t wish to crash that consensus, as its heartening to see. But there is another theme, and one headline figure which provides a test we all have to address,  beyond differences on how the future structure and resourcing of social care is to be managed.

That is how do we get from vacancy rates of 43% in the social care sector to the Scottish average of 11%?

If structures, policies, initiatives and innovations don’t help us make that journey then they cannot contribute to the solutions we all want to find and strive to achieve. Yet what do we really know about the reasons behind the high vacancy rate, and what do we need to know about what would work to reduce that? What are the messages and methods which will make a difference? For young people, for women, for later in life career changers? I am aware there are fragments of knowledge and lived experience stories illustrating these scattered over many web pages and careers in social care resources. But what in a systematic, unified, coherent way do we actually know? Short answer; hardly anything in the context of social care.

I can add to the fragments from one recent April 2023 experience, with Renfrew HSCP. In this a ‘Partners for Integration’ led initiative engaged public, third sector and independent providers in a series or activities around developing messages, and methods for engaging people in a job fair ranging from TikTok influencers to using a local University’s  communication channels to reach out to International students. This was a definite success, ultimately generating up to 50 new appointments across a range of care organisations. This does not at one stroke solve the challenge, but it worked and created a palpable sense of optimism and hope that more can be done. We will reflect on this case, and share lessons.

But serious research to identify more systematically an evidence base on what is needed and what works to better recruit and retain in social care needs funding to be done properly. It needs a team of experts from a range of disciplines working with employers, potential applicants, those who do engage, and those who do end up working in care. That takes time and skill to do well. I can’t locate any stream of funding which might enable this. All the funding streams I am aware of seem to need some direct and explicit alignment with health inequality themes.

Of course there are indirect and implicit connections to health inequalities. Not least that if there is not enough professional care provision the responsibility falls to unpaid carers in the family, whose physical and mental wellbeing often suffers quite dramatically. As Carers Scotland calculate that 1000 new unpaid carers  come ‘on stream’ every day and around 1000 unpaid carers leave their unpaid care roles behind there is a huge turnover among unpaid carers. Those coming in not aware of the challenges, and those leaving perhaps mainly relieved to move on.

Employers innovations, collective sector management insight and reflection, and above all national leadership to focus on research that provides evidence for action is how we will get from vacancy rates of 43% in the social care sector to the Scottish average of 11%.

National leadership on funding of systemic and serious research into this one central challenge, reducing the vacancy rate to the Scottish sector average, ought to be seen as an urgent, significant and compelling focus. It is like an emergency situation which requires a research team to come together now and work on it. If anyone has any thoughts or ideas on being part of such a team and how that funding might be sourced, please get in touch !

April 2023

Professor Stephen Gibb FCIPD, SFHEA

Chair of Organisation and Human Resource Development

School of Business and Creative Industries

University of the West of Scotland

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