The culture, structure and organisation of social care service providers vary enormously. It is well worth spending some time considering your options carefully.
The statutory sector: local authorities at the sharp end of social work
Local authorities 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. Social workers employed by local authorities often function as ‘gatekeepers’; they assess the needs of service users and manage the process of meeting those needs in the best way possible. They often see themselves as the sharp end of social care, working, for example, as part of a reception team that is the entry point to children’s services or arranging support for elderly people on discharge from hospital.
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. There should be clearly defined support, training and supervision arrangements in place, particularly for new entrants. Opportunities to work with different service user groups, and to move up the career ladder quite quickly should also be good, given the size of the organisations and the scope of their operations.
The voluntary sector: advocating for and promoting particular groups
There is 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; 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 do, however, come in all shapes and sizes. Service users are usually very heavily involved in the work and the organisation, often having formed it themselves to address a gap in provision or to campaign for recognition. For those with a real empathy for specific social issues, working for a small voluntary organisation can offer great opportunities to engage very 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. The tasks of social workers involved in fostering and adoption will be the same as in 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. Many private organisations specialise in crisis provision and hard-to-place children. The pay and conditions, training and support offered to social workers in this sector vary enormously and particular care is needed to research the ethos and reputation of the company, as well as what opportunities there are for progression.
Agency social work – supply work for qualified social workers
Agencies offering supply work have become more common over the last few years. Although nationally the situation is improving gradually, there is still a significant shortage of qualified social workers and some organisations have vacancies that they just cannot fill. Some of the London boroughs and city unitary authorities rely heavily on agency staff. Agency workers stand in for social workers that are absent through illness, maternity leave, secondment, training etc, and work on time-limited projects.
Social work agencies 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 are 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, but disadvantage for your permanent social work 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
Independent social work and social work consultancy have grown very quickly in the last decade. Many practitioners fed up with the bureaucracy of the public or voluntary sectors have made the move and become independent. Most independent social workers are self-employed, which can mean a great deal of additional responsibilities such as managing tax, national insurance, accounts and cash flow. You will also need to register with the care councils for the areas you wish to 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 about becoming an independent social worker.