Cambridgeshire finds key to retaining social workers

A new approach to reward that looks beyond pay and benefits has halved the vacancy rate of child social workers at Cambridgeshire County Council.

Stephen Moir, the council’s director of people and policy, said vacancy rates among the profession have dropped from 30 per cent to 12 per cent since the introduction of a new total reward package two years ago. The vacancy rate has fallen to zero in some areas while a number of agency workers have also joined the permanent 500-strong department.

Moir said high vacancy levels and use of agency staff were a reflection of a national skills shortage and recruitment and retention problems in the sector. These have been compounded by the public furore surrounding the case of Baby P, now named as Peter, at Haringey Council. According to the Local Government Association one in 10 children’s social worker posts are vacant, with two in three councils experiencing recruitment difficulties.

Cambridgeshire County Council, which was given this year’s Public Sector People Managers Association award for total reward, in recognition of its work with social workers, adopted a new approach to the problems, Moir said.

“We were surrounded by a very competitive employment market. Other councils were offering golden hellos, higher pay and bonuses, but we have not simply thrown money at the problem. Within the context of total reward and value for money we have not adopted the same tactics,” he said.

He said the new package was based on feedback from social workers at the council who were asked what mattered most to them. While some said pay levels were not sufficient, the main issues were around learning and development opportunities, the quality of leadership, the value placed on their service within the organisation and their working environment.

“Pay is only part of the equation and can often disguise some of the fundamental issues of working in a profession. There are other reasons for people wanting to stay or leave an employer. A lot of it is about culture and leadership, not about what you see on your payslip every month,” he said.

As a result the council has increased its investment in training and changed the way people progress through pay bands to aid career development. Their working environment has been overhauled with new IT equipment and redecorated buildings and flexible working practices have been promoted. Staff have also been given additional administrative support to cope with high levels of bureaucracy and free them up for front-line duties.

Moir said the most important adjustment for social workers had been the change in culture to place a higher degree of value and recognition on their work.

“The profession has taken some tough knocks over the last few months. Good quality social workers and the necessary support to do their jobs make a huge difference to protecting some of the most vulnerable people in society,” said Moir, adding that they had adopted the slogan ‘every child social worker matters’.

Earlier in the week the government launched a £58 million fund to overhaul social services in wake of what happened to Baby Peter. Money will be earmarked for the professional development of the current workforce, for encouraging high-flying graduates to train as social workers and for helping former social workers up-skill and return to the profession.


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit


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