Students have limited opportunities for placements but recruiters always prioritise experience. Newly-qualified social workers need to think creatively

Ellen Bascote* has applied for more than 90 positions since she qualified as a social worker last summer, but doesn’t yet have a job.

“Every day I check job websites and get alerts,” she says. “I’ve been to one or two interviews but my lack of experience has counted against me.” Bascote has applied for jobs in both adult and children’s services, but finds that local authorities often want candidates who have completed the assessed and supported year in employment. “I’m having trouble even getting that,” she says.

It’s not unusual for social workers to struggle to land their first job. Employment rates usually depend on the state of the social care economy in certain areas. Where there are clusters of training courses, in London and the north-west of England for example, more graduates mean more competition for a limited number of jobs.

It also depends on the service area. With a high turnover of staff – around 16% last year – there tend to be more jobs in children’s services. But for those like Bascote who want to work with adults, an area where there have been reductions in staffing, securing a job can be more difficult.

While many local authorities actively recruit newly-qualified social workers (NQSWs) – citing their fresh ideas, energy and enthusiasm as advantages – the current financial climate means some have been forced to hire more social work assistants or support staff, and fewer social workers. But that way, warns Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), “they risk blocking routes for NQSWs as they might only be trying to recruit more experienced people”.

As with most professions, experience is key to landing a job in social work, and candidates who have completed statutory placements are highly sought after. “One recruiter told me she would take somebody who did a placement with a local authority over anyone else. I did my children’s services placement in a primary school, and my adult services placement at a forensic mental health hospital,” says Bascote. “In retrospect, I should have put my foot down and said [to my college]: ‘Don’t get me a placement unless it’s at a local authority.’ But there’s always such competition.”

Amy Welton graduated from a social work MA in November and has applied for at least 20 jobs since the start of the year. She completed two placements – one statutory and one non-statutory – while studying, the maximum her course would allow, but “the feedback from applications has been that I don’t have enough experience”, she says.

“This was a complete career change for me, so apart from a few volunteer opportunities and placements, I have very little experience,” Welton says. “And because I was studying on a full-time course, there was little time for work outside it.” The handbook even actively discouraged students from working during the degree.

If prospective social workers can only do a limited number of placements while studying, yet employers prioritise candidates with experience, what can NQSWs do to stand out?

Make the most of social media and professional groups to build up networks, and look into mentoring opportunities such as those offered by BASW, suggests Allen.

“If an NQSW has not completed a statutory placement, then they need to consider what transferrable skills they have and seek work – paid or voluntary – in a statutory setting with professional supervision,” says Jessica Beach, principal social worker (adult social care) at Gloucestershire county council. “Ideally, this would be working directly with service users so they can show evidence of their skills in communication, assessment, advocacy and empowerment. They should also make sure they have a comprehensive understanding of the relevant legislation.”

While they continue their job searches, Bascote plans to contact local authorities to ask about shadowing professional social workers, while Welton hopes to volunteer at the local charity where she completed her children’s services placement.

NQSWs shouldn’t be wary of taking this kind of circuitous route to get the job the really want. “Social workers coming off courses need to be open-minded, creative and aware that they might need to find different routes to get their foot on the ladder,” says Allen. “If you want to work in a specific area and can’t get a job, volunteering or taking an associated job can be helpful. If NQSWs can show commitment, they should get to where they want to be.”

* Some names have been changed

This article first appeared on the Guardian on 3 April 2017. 

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