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Birmingham City Council has come up with innovative ways of dealing with the poor staffing figures in social servic...
Birmingham City Council has come up with innovative ways of dealing with the poor staffing figures in social services, Lucie Carrington looks at what it has done

Birmingham City Council's children and families section is blazing an ambitious trail to attract and retain more social workers.

Spurred on by a poor report from the Audit Commission and Social Services Inspectorate last year - and the fact it had a third of its jobs vacant - the council put£1.5m into a two-year project to turn the section around.

The crippling problems of recruiting and retaining social workers are not exclusive to Birmingham.

Care to stay, a recent research report from the Employers' Organisation, has aired the problem once again. It performed an in-depth analysis of 15 social services departments and found appalling levels of morale, stress and sickness. One council had advertised 30 social care jobs in three months and failed to fill any of them. Another was operating with a 53% shortfall in staff.

Birmingham began its rejuvenation of children and families by restructuring -radical, if not original.

'We increased the number of teams from 22 to 60 and pulled out a whole management tier,' says Roger Nielsen, principal personnel manager in the social services department.

Team managers now have no more than 10 people reporting to them, but there are no assistant team leaders. Instead, Mr Nielsen and his colleagues created a senior practitioner grade for talented staff who are not yet ready for management.

'They are expected to take on the complex case work and to help in the professional development of other social workers,' Mr Nielsen says.

Ultimately, reorganising the section is a numbers game.

'I won't improve anything if we continue to be 50% short of social workers,' Mr Nielsen says.

So in February this year, once the restructure was in place, personnel began a concerted recruitment drive. The department has since implemented numerous initiatives, helped by its recruitment agency TMP. These include developing a house style for advertisements and using it consistently, advertising every month instead of quarterly, and trying out new sources of advertising including web sites.

Like other councils, the department has turned to international recruitment. This has proved very successful and the council has employed 12 social workers from overseas.

Alongside the recruitment drive Mr Nielsen has developed retention tactics. The department's approach to retention is largely based on offering modest premiums to the right people. 'Golden hellos' of£1,600 are on offer, and there are enhanced bursaries available, but both are linked to time served.

Birmingham's strategy is starting to bear fruit. Since July there has been a net gain of 30 social workers. Attrition rates are down from five in 12 to 3.5 in 12. The aim is to have all jobs filled by next August at which point Mr Nielsen and his team will withdraw from the project, leaving

the social services team to continue the good work.

Although the initiatives the council has taken are broadly in line with the recommendations in Care to stay, researcher and personnel consultant Belinda Adams is at pains to point out that what works for one council might not work for another.

'This report is a beginning. We are giving them the opportunity to look at what others are doing,' says Ms Adams.

The problem is largely one of image, says Mick James, assistant director of people, skills and development at the EO.

'Lots of people look at local government and wonder what goes on there. This means it's quite difficult to sell a job or a career.

'Pay is not the primary issue in local authorities - it's not that bad. In addition, opportunities for moving and developing are still good,' he says.

What councils need to concentrate on is attracting people and treating them well once they are in post.

How To Attract And Keep Your Ideal Men And Women

-Reassess the quality of your recruitment and advertising literature

-Consider financial incentives such as 'golden hellos', relocation packages, help with childcare or rewarding expert staff

-Look at possible job enhancement measures such as secondments or mentoring

-Reduce the bureaucratic burden - ensure people only collect data because they have to, or because they know it will be useful

-Assess the standard of communication between managers and front-line staff

-Develop a learning culture within the department

-Forge closer links with providers of social work and social care qualifications

-Put together a workforce plan that considers today's, as well as tomorrow's, labour market

Source: Care to stay

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