The social care sector – with its historically high vacancy rates – has yet to feel the full force of the recession. But as the economy moves towards recovery, many social care HR leaders find themselves in limbo, waiting to discover the full extent and implications of the anticipated post-election public spending cuts. Amy Taylor reports.
The nature of social care means reductions in front-line staff have a direct impact on those using the services, so they are protected wherever possible. This can be at the expense of back-office functions such as HR, but not always, as HR directors struggle to keep the staff they need to recruit and retain front-line workers.
Fittingly, for a sector struggling with its reputation in the wake of the Baby P scandal, social care offers no black and white answers for potential HR recruits.
What is clear, however, is the potential impact of recent economic turbulence. Funding cuts at local government level have already had a knock-on effect. Guy Pink, HR director at drug and alcohol treatment charity Addaction, explains their impact on his organisation.
He says: “Almost all (93%) of our funding comes from the statutory sector, and when their own budgets are cut, they pass that on to their providers. Some councils have told us ‘we need you to make efficiencies of 10-15% or 25% this financial year’.”
So far, Addaction has managed to avoid redundancies by restructuring contracts and making savings in other areas, such as reducing management and travel costs. Pink says that for his 11-strong HR team this has meant reviewing systems, getting databases functioning as effectively as possible, and reducing recruitment spend.
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Pink also feels HR within the social care sector has benefited from the recession, not least in the greater availability of good roles for senior people hoping to move away from the private sector.
He recommends the sector, and says: “It’s a really innovative sector – if you’ve got an idea, you can get on with it. I’ve worked in local and central government, where you have a lot less freedom. The speed of change is far greater in the voluntary sector.”
The recession has also led to significant job cuts at Westminster Council. The local authority has recently made 300 redundancies – 10-15% of its total workforce – in support and back-office roles, including social care and HR.
Graham White, the council’s HR director, says: “The future is quite clearly going to come with a further shrinking budget and I think we will be fooling ourselves if we don’t think that’s going to have an impact on council agencies’ ability to deliver services.”
The HR team at Westminster used to be 25-strong but has lost three members due to the cuts. White says dedicated social care HR teams are now rare, and the function is centralised at Westminster. He says a smaller, less specialised team requires different ways of working.
According to White, “you have got to develop the technology still further while developing a stronger partnership with your managers (of services such as social care) to get them to do more and more themselves.”
The recession has forced social care sector HR staff to make difficult decisions. Having to meet care needs on a fixed, sometimes shrinking, budget has forced them to cut front-line salaries.
Helen Giles, director of HR at London-based homelessness charity Broadway, says that for the past four years, increasing competition for contracts has lead to prices going through the floor, and has prompted reductions in front-line salaries.
Giles says: “It’s a very, very competitive playing field. In theory, local authority purchasers are meant to make decisions on juxtaposition of costs and quality, but really they have been made on costs alone. The net effect is that contracts have been driven down and down. We have seen an extreme drop in wages for front-line workers.”
She says the charity is yet to cut front-line staff but has reduced support staff, including half a training post in its HR team, increased standard working hours, cut salary rates for new front-line staff, and frozen the salaries of those already in front-line positions.
The cuts to support functions over the front line mean there are few openings for graduates wanting to enter social care HR positions. Bob Whiting, HR director for adults, health and community wellbeing at Essex Council, says: “For people looking for a public sector HR career, it’s going to be a tough time. After the election, I think things will become a lot clearer.”
Despite this, he says there are some opportunities – one of the placements on his council’s fast-track management scheme has been earmarked for a graduate going into HR for the first time. And, like Westminster’s White, he is pushing some of the responsibility back towards managers.
Social care sector HR salaries compare well with other sectors at entry level, but less so where more senior roles are concerned.
In the UK today, a section head or HR manager will earn an average of £48,502. While this rises to £50,072 in the public sector, it drops significantly to £40,008 in the charity sector.
At the other end of the scale, HR graduate entrants earn on average £23,094, falling to £22,522 in the public sector, with the charities sector paying slightly above average at £23,634.
Source: XpertHR Salary Surveys
Rob Semens, directorate personnel manager in the Children, Families and Education Directorate at Kent Council, agrees that entering social care HR will be difficult for graduates in the current climate, but not impossible.
“The public sector is keeping costs down rather than expanding. But within that there’s still going to be employment scope for children’s social care (in front-line roles and HR). The government will want to be confident that what they are leaving in place will be reasonable in terms of keeping children safe,” he says.
HR and other support functions can be Cinderella activities within social care services due to the emphasis put on service delivery. But Richard Cove, HR director at charity Action for Children, says this is changing, and presenting opportunities for those entering and already working in the sector.
He says: “There was a real opportunity to ensure HR was at the middle of the business. I came from the commercial world and it was great to see an organisation in this sector that was trying to professionalise its approach.”
So while not for the faint-hearted, social care HR offers real potential to the ambitious professional keen for a variety of experience and challenges rarely available elsewhere.