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Climbing the ladder: Assessing skills gaps in social care

Retention in the care workforce has never been so critical. What options do providers have to upskill the workforce and set out a clear career pathway? Dr Erica Borgstrom, a Senior Lecturer at The Open University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, outlines core skills for the workforce and the training on offer.

When I think about career pathways in care, I think of 19-year-old Cameron on the BBC Ed Balls documentary ‘Inside the Care Crisis’.

The patience, kindness and enthusiasm shown by Cameron at St Cecilia’s specialist dementia home provides a glimmer of hope in a sector that is hanging on by a thread. Cameron loves his job but dreams of working as a paramedic in the NHS. Why? Because there isn’t a clear career pathway at the care home and, unlike the NHS, social care doesn’t offer different salary bands to progress through. If there was, he might be tempted to stay.

Statistics suggest that, by 2040, the number of people with dementia in the UK will have doubled, and that most people will be dying in their own homes or in their own homes supported by social care. So, something drastic needs to change to ensure a well-trained, settled and rewarded workforce is in place to offer care.

Not only will societal needs for care change in the coming decades, the roles in care have significantly changed in the past 10 to 20 years and, quite simply, the demands put on workers are immense. The question is, are care providers utilising the training on offer to support the workforce to forge a career in care?

Core skills

The Open University (OU) has been progressive in its research into finding a path forward in social care. The OU’s report, ‘The Path Forward for Social Care’, surveyed 500 leaders from across adult social care and social work and culminated in five recommendations for skill development to embolden the sector’s future in England.

Discussing the report, David Brindle, former Public Services Editor for The Guardian and Chair of a non-profit care provider employing over 1,400 individuals, said, ‘It will come as no surprise to hear there is little confidence that the sector has all the workers and skills it thinks it needs in coming months and years.’

The OU’s report outlines five of these core skills:

  • Core transferable skills – These include competencies in literacy and numeracy, language and communication, record keeping, problem solving and team and partnership working.
  • Leadership and management – In England, there have been calls to adopt a transferable leadership development model in the adult social care sector, ensuring a collaborative culture.
  • Clinical and condition-specific skills – Besides supporting people with cognitive and sensory impairments, workers may need to manage medication regimes, assist with catheters and stomas and deliver end of life care.
  • Person-centred care – Rather than performing tasks based on an assessment of need, workers are expected to shape services around the people they support, enabling them to live more independently.
  • Digital and technology – The technological demands go well beyond being able to perform basic administrative IT tasks, although these remain crucial, and some reports have raised concerns around the consistency of workers’ capabilities.

Assessing skills gaps

There are strategies for providers assessing workforce skills gaps. One is to look at the organisation’s strategic goals and identify what roles and skills are needed to reach them compared with the current workforce’s capabilities. Another way is through assessment and performance benchmarks – either created within the organisation or by drawing on inspection reports.

It’s also important to target individual training for staff, drawing on information and sources to understand a person’s abilities and confidence. Providers may need to train managers on how to do this effectively. Asking staff to do tests as a way of assessing their needs (e.g. maths) might be effective in obtaining a score but can negatively impact on morale and trust. Opening up skill development as a path for self-discovery and learning can foster confidence; providers can have employees identify areas to develop (e.g. provide a list of short courses for them to choose from) and ask staff to report what they have learnt.

Targeting skills gaps

Investing in staff development can help employees feel valued, committed to their job and employer and help them envision a future career within the organisation. It can also help structure appraisals. This, in turn, can aid staff retention and reduce staff turnover.

Investment in training also helps promote and fill roles within the organisation – helping with the upward mobility of staff. This approach can prove beneficial in retaining both staff and institutional knowledge. With more training, staff can feel more empowered to be part of the decision-making process and organisational culture. Don’t underestimate the sense of purpose that brings and how it aids job satisfaction.

Students who have studied for OU qualifications report how studying has developed their confidence, knowledge and work relationships. Some have gone from being carers to taking on supervisory, managerial and training roles, even whilst studying part-time.

career pathway open university

Structuring development

Senior figures have rightly cautioned that the probable increase in applicant volume over the short to medium term is no guarantee that recruits will come fully equipped with the skills needed to succeed. The survey results in the OU report, ‘The Path Forward for Social Care in England’, amplify these concerns: 58% of leaders and managers feel worried about the lack of progression pathways putting people off, while 54% fear losing good staff over the next year. Meanwhile, 41% cited defined career development and training pathways, including universally recognised qualifications, as something that can benefit the sector.

The OU offers a wide variety of training options, from short courses to full degrees:

  • Free learning (OpenLearn) – Short courses, including an introduction to digital skills, useful items for developing leadership and a curated collection for Skills for Work. Time commitment for these courses is up to 24-hours. Some courses are endorsed by the CPD Standard Office. For example, The Caring Manager in Health and Social Care (seven hours) is a free course with attention paid to the relationship between stress and organisational change, and how management can lead with a caring face in the context of ongoing organisational change.
  • Micro-credentials (FutureLearn) – Short courses that carry university credit.
  • Access modules – Distance learning and OU study for staff who may not have studied for some time to build confidence and study skills before starting a qualification.
  • Credit-bearing modules – Studied on a standalone basis or counting towards a qualification. Providers should consider these courses for refreshing learning skills and building self-confidence. Specific relevant modules include ‘Introducing Health and Social Care (K102)’ or ‘Leading, Managing, Caring (K318)’.
  • Undergraduate qualifications – A significant proportion of current OU students are completing the Health and Social Care degree while working in care. People can build up credit over the year and this ranges from certificate and diploma to full undergraduate degree.
  • Postgraduate qualifications – Includes transition to social work, but also research degrees with focus on creating change within professions.
  • Developing skills and capacity through engagement with research – Workshops and conferences based on research, plus opportunities for businesses to partner with OU researchers for specific knowledge transfer and exchange of activities.

Logistics for providers

Within the OU School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care, students have direct contact with our Careers and Employability Service (CES) through a range of initiatives, such as information, events, online forums, guidance on ‘navigating your future’ and one-to-one bespoke sessions. Of the students who have engaged with CES, 98% were satisfied and 99% would recommend CES to others. The OU CES is accredited against the national matrix quality standard for the provision of information, advice and guidance services through our regional student services and student recruitment service. Current and recent (within three years of study) students can access the service.

Also, social care providers can link with CES to be part of employment fairs and advertise vacancies. This provides a great opportunity to recruit from OU students and recent alumni.

Key take-homes for providers:

educating your career journey

  • The OU learning style helps develop digital and employability skills through our expertly created, technology-enhanced learning experiences, from the free courses to degree level.
  • Modules (and qualifications) are mapped to our employability framework, ensuring graduates develop academic skills and skills relevant for employment (see full list on the OU website). This addresses multiple elements of the skills gaps in social care.
  • Each student studying towards a qualification has a tutor.
  • OU students have access to cutting-edge learning through module materials and additional research seminars.
  • Students who are sponsored by employers are more likely to stick with studying and achieve a pass mark or higher.

Endless possibilities

Social care providers who invest in training and development can distinguish themselves from other organisations, both within the sector and in sectors that attract a similar workforce. It can also boost an employer’s reputation – a reputation for poor staff retention can impact on recruitment and incoming business. Clearly, care providers aren’t short of options, but they are short of staff. Now is the time to ensure the social care workforce positions itself as the workforce of the future, to meet the challenge of increasingly integrated care agendas.


Dr Erica Borgstrom is a Senior Lecturer at The Open University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Email: Erica.borgstrom@open.ac.uk  Twitter: @ericaborgstrom

About Dr Erica Borgstrom

Dr Erica Borgstrom is a Senior Lecturer at The Open University specialising in Health and Social Care education and research. She has led on embedding employability skills across university-level training to ensure students and graduates have transferable skills alongside subject expertise, fostering personal development and career progression. Her research focuses on policy, organisation approaches, and personal experiences of end-of-life care, understanding practice implantation and interprofessional working.

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