‘Employment prospects in times of austerity’: it feels like one of those terrible jokes where you just don’t get the punch line. That sounds pessimistic I will grant you but sadly there is much to be pessimistic about and it is a battle to remain positive and excited in the face of ‘austerity measures’.
Currently in my second year of a BA Honours Social Work and half way through my first placement, where the governmental cuts have triggered a raft of money saving ‘restructuring’ [read: redundancies], I am up to my neck in assignments, overdue library books and stress, but sadly not ten pound notes. Ordinarily, I suppose one might draw strength from the fact that I am halfway through a very demanding course, doing well so far and hoping to reap the benefits of all this hard work when it comes to job interviews and future employment. Now, here is where we hit upon the crux of the matter.
Where am I going to find a job when jobs are being cut? Will I really have to take temporary post after temporary post in the hope that I can accrue enough experience to out-do other more experienced workers? Or take a post as the ambiguously titled ‘support worker’, a job which a few years ago I could have got without any qualifications at all? That is not to say that a support worker is in any way inferior to a social worker, it is just not the same job. In fact, the team that surrounds me on placement is made up entirely of support workers, many of whom have trained alongside the job to gain NVQ’s and Foundation Degrees and they are the most amazing bunch of people in possession of invaluable experiential knowledge they are kindly willing to share. It is just that we would not expect doctors to train as doctors and then work as nurses, and there seems to be a parallel to draw.
My conscience argues that these amazing people who are teaching me to be a better person as well as a social worker are exactly the people I will be aiming to gazump when it comes to getting a job. This does not sit easy with me especially as I am watching this scenario play out at placement like a bad channel five soap opera. It all began with the appointment of a businessman brought in to restructure the agency, resulting in my practice educator, and the manager of services, having to reapply for her job. Except the job spec had changed and she didn’t quite fit it anymore, so this talented, inspirational woman who is the sort of manager we all hope to either have or be, was dispatched. Her tasks are then sent down the line to (already stretched) senior support workers who are wondering when a letter will land on their desk entitled ‘redundancy options’. The concern of the support workers is two-fold: firstly, fear for their own job security (we are all human and need to eat!). and secondly how all of this will affect the service users. It is very clear to those on the front line how cuts will affect older carers, how you can’t set a target number of visits per day or limit amount of support an older carer will need immediately after bereavement or share a desk with someone from a totally unrelated service. I have heard the support worker role described as what social work ‘used to be’, ‘proper’ social work where you get to know the service user over time and that the voluntary sector is now the only place with the time for it. Unfortunately it seems that my voluntary agency has run out of time as we head for a new structure of target driven, money focussed hot desking. So sadly there is little solace to be found in potential third sector employment either.
When these issues were discussed in supervision I can’t say I quite understood when my, now departed, practice educator told me that it was good for me to be seeing this now, because it will happen to me in the future, as she has seen it time and time again over her long career in all areas of social work. She explained that, whilst it was not ideal for my first placement, I am in fact fortunate in that I can experience the process and the disruption without having to worry about losing my livelihood as a result – as free labour we are perhaps the only safe members of ‘staff’.
On reflection, I think she has a point. The social work world is so vulnerable to the whims of ever changing governments that there does not seem to be security of funding for posts which will stretch further than the next general election. Is it any surprise then that one journal, with a long since forgotten title, found that the average social worker will ‘burn out’ in only eight years of practice? What is worse is that it seems to me that the only way to get a government to focus on spending on social worker posts at all is for there to be another Baby P or Victoria Climbié, the resulting media coverage leading to a public outcry and a governmental need to be seen to be ‘doing something’. Even if the ‘something’ is fire-fighting. And they caused the fire in the first place. No social worker would ever wish for such catastrophe, for any child to suffer and so the link between this and funding is a painful one to make.
For my personal career prospects, I believe in putting my eggs into as many baskets as possible. Whilst I would hope to gain a social work position following graduation right now, it feels as though this might be a bit of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow-style scenario. I am fortunate in that I enjoy academia and will explore post-grad options too. I am enjoying my new-found career despite the tough conditions and hope that there is a future where social workers are valued, respected and invested in. We know how valuable we are, and our service users know it: let’s just hope that those at the top come to see it too.
Victoria Dixon is a 2nd year student studying passionate about social work