Social care work – at the butt end of downward mobility

Vic Citarella postulates that investment in the social care workforce will improve social mobility

One factor that contributes to divisions or unity between people is the nature of the labour market. Work features large in how we see ourselves and how others see us and our families. It is integral to our identity. It is about the pay-off from hard work that politicians talk of when they use the language of social mobility. They usually mean better paid and more secure jobs lead to the \’good things\’ in life. It is those jobs that enable mobility and which, for politicians, can only go one way – upwards. When people identify themselves as downwardly mobile, it is then that they get angry and lash out at governments, officialdom, the establishment, outsiders and eventually each other. When a majority of people who perceive themselves as downwardly mobile are given any plebiscite the result is predictable. In the case of the referendum on membership of the EU an outcome exacerbated by the perceived comparative upward mobility of many immigrant workers. 
My understanding is that employment in the UK post the crash of 2008 is strong and has recovered. Today, after the recent turmoil, there remain a growing number of work opportunities and a shortage of applicants in many sectors. However my view of the labour market is of one that has polarised in many parts of the UK. Polarised between the low paid, low skilled often temporary and part-time workforce and the higher skilled and permanent, full-time workforce. The former characterised by the largely female social care workforce and the latter by ICT professionals. Jobs and opportunity in the middle range of skills and reward are evaporating – in manufacturing, construction and critically the more clerical professions. The consequence is that workers have to set their sights higher or accept supposed lower status work. 
Such divergence in the labour market is one root of the current discontent and in my view social care is at the butt end of it. Much of social care is seen as unpleasant work, poorly paid and not requiring skills. It is viewed as work for women and girls not worthy of more than minimum pay. Social care – along with flipping burgers, waiting tables, cold-calling and stacking shelves – is what the displaced workforce in the middle, who are unable to attain higher, see before them and they don\’t like it. They recognise themselves as being downwardly mobile and will vote accordingly in their droves.

The current social care workforce is upwards of 1.5 million and the demand will soon exceed well over 2.0 million people. This is a significant number and nearly doubles when the NHS equivalents are added in. This is not work that can easily be automated or undertaken off-shore like much clerical work. It is work that requires hands-on skills, heart in the right place attitudes and an astute awareness of context and circumstances. In short it is not low skilled work at all but, nonetheless, has the low skills status. It therefore seems to me that there is a win-win for the country in a concerted effort to up the status of social care work. A first win in that we have the workforce that befits all our aspirations for ourselves and our families that need social care. Our willing dependency on family care would be supplemented, enhanced and supported instead of stretched to breaking point. A second win in that the schism in the wider labour market is repaired as people increasingly seek social care employment as a route to upward mobility. Having social care jobs with status, reward and recognition will go a long way towards reconciling social discontent. There is a third win around the reliance of some social care employers on an immigrant workforce – their contribution would be valued at the same time as the dependency reduced. 

How does a country boost the standing of a workforce you may ask? 

  • Political leadership – lets have a Department of Health and Social Care with a minister to make real the paper policies of integration
  • Professionalisation – lets demand a social care workforce that is competent, qualified and aspirational
  • Personalisation – lets either commit fully to a consumer/user-led approach to the social care market or parallel the NHS with a National Care Service as suggested in 2009. The alternative is that market forces will entrench a two tier workforce. The privately funded care workforce having just low status over the very low of the publicly funded one.
  • Pay – lets be honest and openly evaluate the rewards allotted to a care worker in respect of what they do. Lets challenge traditional job evaluation criteria that determine pay rates.
  • Prices – let the market do its work and limit the local authority to inducing variety and policing local standards. We could move more rapidly towards a position where a local authority only makes the social care purchases when they have permission from the Court of Protection. Otherwise the actual purchase is undertaken directly by the customer or their agent albeit, in full or part, with public money.
  • Public relations – lets get more media savvy about working in social care.
One way or another this will cost the service user more money in fees. Government will need to do more than the current tinkering around the edges that has gone on since at least 1990 when the country moved decisively away from a municipal model of social care provision. It will need to pull levers and apply brakes. The cost to us all will either be more tax or different use of current taxes. The incentives though are substantial:
  • People being able to purchase a safe social care service at transparent levels of quality and affordable price
  • Protection for those lacking capacity
  • A motivated workforce recognised for its skills
  • Social care work as a badge of upward mobility and a unifying force in communities. 
The time is right for the social care workforce to move from butt end to front end of labour market thinking. If not we are destined to have a social care workforce that churns within itself, is riddled with self-deprecation and is scorned by the upwardly mobile. It will remain at the wrong end of an unequal society to all our detriment.