The culture, structure and organisation of social care service providers vary enormously. It’s well worth spending some time considering your options to make sure you find a good fit for your skills and career plans.
The statutory sector: local authorities at the sharp end of social work
Local authorities (local councils) hold statutory responsibilities for providing social care to the populations they serve, and qualified social workers in this setting work within a detailed policy and legislative framework. They often function as ‘gatekeepers’, assessing the needs of service users and managing the process of meeting those needs in the best way possible. They often see themselves as the ‘sharp end’ of social care as they work directly with very vulnerable people experiencing difficult situations.
A large portion of the job is to make the best use of often scarce resources and to liaise with other professionals and service providers. Organisations should have clearly defined support, training and supervision arrangements in place, particularly for new entrants. Local authorities are likely to provide opportunities to work with different service user groups, and to move up the career ladder quite quickly, given the size of the organisations and the scope of their operations.
The voluntary sector: advocating for and promoting particular client groups
There’s a significant difference between the culture and organisation of the statutory and voluntary sectors. A voluntary organisation usually has a clearly defined role to advocate on behalf of particular service user groups, and nearly all of their energies will be aimed at promoting the welfare and rights of that group.
The core tasks of social work remain the same but there are greater opportunities to be innovative about meeting the needs of service users and their families, and to build up close working relations with them.
The large national voluntary organisations may offer social workers salary scales, conditions of service, training programmes and supervision arrangements similar to local authorities. Given their size, career development opportunities in these organisations are also favourable.
Voluntary organisations come in all shapes and sizes. Service users are usually very heavily involved in the work and the organisation: they may even have formed it themselves to address a gap in provision or to campaign for recognition. If you have a real empathy for specific social issues, working for a small voluntary organisation can offer great opportunities to engage closely with service users, work innovatively and build upon the advocacy and counselling aspects of social work.
Private social care opportunities for graduates
Private social care is a rapidly expanding sector offering primarily residential provision, housing, and fostering and adoption services. Many private organisations specialise in crisis provision and working with hard-to-place children.
The tasks of social workers involved in this work will be similar to the statutory sector, and attract the same and sometimes slightly better pay and conditions of service. Residential provision covers all service user groups and opportunities abound for social workers to progress to home management roles.
The pay and conditions, training, support and opportunities for progression will vary enormously; you’ll need to research these carefully, along with the ethos of each organisation that interests you.
Agency social work – supply work for qualified social workers
There’s a shortage of qualified social workers and some organisations have vacancies that they can’t fill. These roles may be covered by qualified social workers from agencies, who will also fill in for social workers who are ill or on leave.
Social work agencies offering supply work have become more common over the last few years. They aim to match the skills and experience of the social worker with the vacancy – but, in practice, an agency worker can expect to cover just about anything, as required. The work and hours are flexible and there are opportunities for long-term employment. If you’re unsure about where you want your career to go, the opportunity to work with different service users in different settings might help you make up your mind.
Some people just like the challenge of the unknown and the variety of work that can be accessed through an agency. An advantage for you (and a disadvantage for your permanent colleagues) is that if the going gets tough, you can just leave. The level of help and support available in a temporary placement can vary enormously; some teams are so understaffed that they need an agency worker to ‘hit the ground running’ or at least be able to carry out core tasks with minimum supervision.
For newly qualified social workers, agency work is best recommended only if you have significant direct experience to draw upon or the employing organisation is committed to providing the support needed.
Independent social work – self-employed social workers registered with local councils
The numbers of independent social work and social work consultancies have grown quickly in the last decade. Many practitioners fed up with the bureaucracy of the public or voluntary sectors have left and become independent.
Most of them are self-employed, which can mean a great deal of additional responsibilities such as managing tax, national insurance, accounts and cash flow. They will also need to register with the care councils for the areas they operate in.
The requirements for registration are the same as for employed social work practitioners but the mechanism for endorsement and verification will be slightly different. The British Association of Social Workers has more information about becoming an independent social worker.