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How severe are the social care skills shortages in the UK?

For those in the know, it’s no secret that social care skills shortages have been impacting care home managers for some time now. However, recent news that Boris Johnson has announced a new 1.25% tax hike – designed to ‘tackle the health backlog caused by the Covid pandemic and to bolster social care’ – has underlined the severity of the crisis the sector is currently facing.

Despite this, though, care providers recently told Sky News that staffing is the “single biggest problem we face” and they don’t believe government reform will go far enough.

The state of the social care skills shortage

Care providers who are struggling to recruit say issues affecting staffing include low wages, the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit-related workforce changes, and holiday leave.

The talent challenges that care providers are facing are by no means new: there were already estimated to be more than 120,000 social care vacancies before the pandemic.

Since then, the sector has been hit hard by the pandemic and the government has calculated that – in a worst-case scenario – as many as 68,000 further care workers could be lost as a result of its decision to make vaccination a condition of employment in care homes.

Taking this figure into account, the National Care Association has warned that care homes across England could face a staffing shortfall of 170,000 by the end of this year. That is equivalent to more than 10% of posts, the worst on recent record. The National Care Forum, meanwhile, has confided that the staffing crisis is the worst it has been in 25 years.

Recent research by the not-for-profit found that 60% of homes have suffered a rise in the rate of staff turnover. In addition, it reports that eight out of ten operators said levels of service are under threat, with some capping resident numbers even before unvaccinated staff are laid off in November. More than 200 managers told a separate survey by the Institute of Health and Social Care Management that they declined care requests in the last month due to a lack of staff.

‘Inadequate’ pay and conditions

While incoming legislation surrounding mandatory Covid vaccines is expected to encourage some staff to leave the sector, the underlying reasons behind the social care skills shortage are likely to be much more complex.

As The Kings Fund recently emphasised, Covid “highlighted the inadequate workforce pay and conditions experienced by social care staff”, though, it says, it has “not as yet brought any improvement in them”.

The think tank notes that better pay is the critical factor in recruiting more staff. Although salaries have risen as a result of the National Living Wage, care workers are paid on average less than cleaners, shop assistants and health care assistants in the NHS.

The King’s Fund has also found that conditions of employment are also a factor, with more than half of home care workers employed on zero-hours contracts. Staff also often don’t get the training and support they need to carry out complex, difficult tasks for vulnerable adults and they lack a career structure. Care workers with five or more years’ experience are now paid on average only £0.15 an hour more than new entrants.

Elsewhere, as one care home manager recently told the Guardian, the ‘no jab, no job’ policy is doing more damage than simply deterring anti-vaxxers: it conveys the message that “it’s a sector that doesn’t value you and takes away your choice”.

The Department of Health and Social Care recently shared that the government has tried to boost recruitment into the sector with a national campaign and through pushing care posts in jobcentres. However, in order to attract talent into the sector, we must do more than simply pump out job ads. Care workers have put their lives on the line since the beginning of the pandemic. We must recognise that the majority have worked long hours in extremely difficult conditions for months on end and witnessed a level of suffering and grief that they never signed-up for. Many are exhausted, and they feel undervalued.

Overcoming the social care skills shortage

With this in mind, hirers fighting to source and secure skills for care in this tight market have no option but to offer better pay and conditions than their competitors: social care employers quite simply need to increase budgets to aid recruitment and retention.

Today, there are around 1.5 million people working in adult social care in England. This includes approximately 865,000 care workers, 87,000 senior care workers and 36,000 registered nurses. Most social care staff are employed by small and medium-sized private providers, of which there are around 18,200 in total. However, we still need more people.

The Department of Health and Social Care has said it is working to “ensure we have the right number of staff to meet increasing demands” and will “soon be outlining reforms to the adult social care system”.

However, at a time when, according to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass), almost 300,000 adults are on social care ‘waiting lists’ in England – representing a 26% rise in three months – social care leaders must take responsibility to ensure they are equipped to meet rising demand.

Through providing a great working environment, opportunities for progression, and a real living wage, care providers can overcome the social care skills shortage to build and maintain resilient teams – and offer residents and other service users the level of care they expect and deserve.