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New ways to recruit in social care
Can we cut out the middle man?

If there is one area of social care where we can all agree innovation is desperately needed, it is in recruitment. Here, Neil Eastwood from Sticky People and Care Friends looks at the upcoming trend of using technology to cut out agencies when looking for temporary staff.

Finding enough new staff with the right values is now the top risk for care providers by some margin. Yet despite this, employers have had little in the way of high-impact, innovative tech focused specifically on our sector.

In fact, I would argue much of the recruitment technology that has seen widespread uptake in social care in the past 15 years has made things worse, not better. A prime example of this is internet job boards, which can overwhelm recruiters with volumes of unsuitable applications generating high rates of interview no-shows and uncommitted new starters, most of whom leave within a year.

Another more recent technology that promises much is applicant tracking system (ATS) software. There are now over 300 ATS systems on the market, but a number deliver a poor candidate experience by requiring login details to be created and asking for far too much information from the applicant too early in the process. This is a critical flaw in the world of social care recruitment, where quality applicants have so much choice. Employers tell me of poor after-sales support from certain vendors and the challenge for busy managers of updating the ATS software regularly. In many cases then, the expected benefits of applicant tracking systems are not yet being fully realised.

These are both examples of recruitment technology that wasn’t built for social care employers. The field narrows considerably when you look for purpose-built solutions for a sector which is, by its nature, risk-averse.

We definitely lag when it comes to adopting novel ways of doing things. The care market is also very fragmented, with thousands of mostly very small businesses spread right across the country, so if you are a hard-pressed recruiter or manager, advances can pass you by. Equally, many start-up recruitment tech companies are much more likely to target lucrative markets that have money to spend, such as the financial sector and corporates, rather than cash-strapped social care providers.

But perhaps things are finally changing. There is an emerging trend to build bespoke mobile-centric platforms, such as apps, specifically for social care recruitment. Putting the smartphone as the main interface for users of your new service is a clever move in a sector where most of the workforce does not sit at a desk and heavily relies on their mobile phone as their primary means of communication.

Temporary staffing is leading the way

It is perhaps no surprise that one of the first recruitment innovations to gain traction in our sector is addressing one of the biggest sources of cost and frustration to residential care providers – temporary agency staffing.

It is often said that a deep unhappiness with the status quo is the trigger for innovation. Some of the most successful recent tech-based products and services have been created to address markets where traditional suppliers had become too powerful and this is a perfect example.

It is likely that readers who regularly have to book or pay for temporary nursing or care staff from an agency have had a poor experience.

Temporary staffing suppliers have a bad reputation. A number, certainly not all, are guilty of opportunistic pricing as well as sharp practice. Of course, the availability of short-term staff is critical to nursing and residential homes, given recruitment and retention challenges as well as unexpected absence, but many managers feel taken advantage of and there has long been a desire to find a better way to source short-term labour.

In response to this desire, we have seen the emergence of temporary staffing platforms dedicated to the care sector which create a digital marketplace to bring self-employed workers, particularly nurses and care assistants, together with residential care settings seeking short-term staff. These include Florence, the longest-established and focused mostly on nurses, as well as other more recent entrants such as Roostr.

They have strong appeal to both the manager (money-saving, convenience, speed, direct contact) and the worker (higher rates of pay, more choice, more control, a direct relationship). They also bring transparency to both the buyer and the seller and remove overhead cost and, in many cases, excessive profit-taking.

Scaling challenges

Despite the strong concept, building an online marketplace is fiendishly hard – you need to quickly establish both buyer and seller communities to a scale that ensures one side or the other doesn’t get frustrated and leave the platform.

This is a particular challenge in care where over 70% of frontline staff live six miles or less from work.
The way to overcome this is to initially limit the geography you serve and focus on building volume in a concentrated area before moving on to establish the next market, and certainly both Florence and Roostr are smart enough to have done just that.

Another challenge is to ensure an excellent user experience for both the manager booking staff and the self-employed nurse or care assistant. If finding shifts takes too long or it’s difficult to check the suitability of prospective workers, users will quickly desert. For many residential homes, processing payroll and adapting to another set of terms aside from the traditional staffing agency can be a barrier. For goodwill to be maintained, self-employed staff will expect to be paid promptly. Employers may find this a big difference from longer payment terms that may have been negotiated with agency suppliers. If workers are made to wait too long they will be reluctant to come back. Marketplace platforms that directly connect buyers and suppliers also risk what is called dis-intermediation – the temporary worker and manager deciding to drop the platform once a relationship is formed. To be successful, these online platforms have to find solutions to these risks.

Uptake of this type of technology is largely driven by word of mouth – prospective self-employed nurses or care staff will seek out feedback from other temps they know or meet as well as checking online reviews from colleagues. Equally, many employers will want some reassurance before signing up. Here, the companies may face their biggest challenge: resistance to change.

Although providers can expect savings of up to 30% on typical agency costs, there is a familiarity to dealing with an established supplier.

Despite the downsides, a middleman also takes some of the perceived risk away. In our highly regulated sector, could a fear of nobody to fall back on if things go wrong hold back adoption?

Considerations for providers

If I were a registered manager contemplating this method to source temporary staff, I would first find the platform or platforms that offer good coverage in my area, then seek feedback from colleagues who have tried them out. The organisations supplying the solution should always be able to provide several contacts of clients who would be happy to give their feedback, but asking at registered managers’ forums and online via the growing number of Facebook groups for managers would be my advice. Also check with your finance team that they are able to process payments in the method and timeframe expected.

It is not necessary to make a wholesale change from current suppliers to an online-based marketplace platform. Shifts can be booked on an individual basis, so once a relationship and trust is established between each self-employed worker and the manager, and the process of booking and paying is bedded in, this can be built on by transferring additional shifts away from the agency supplier over time.

The start of a revolution?

Overall, I am a big fan of this type of innovation, especially since it brings competition into a one-sided market where suppliers have far too much power. But this use-case is only really relevant for residential settings, not so much homecare providers, who traditionally don’t use temporary staffing agencies and have little requirement for nurses.

It also addresses only temporary staffing needs and not permanent recruitment. It is unlikely that many of the workers who have chosen to be self-employed and use this method to seek work will be enticed to a permanent position with a particular care or nursing home, so the direct contribution to reducing vacancy rates is likely to be negligible.

While helping employers to reduce burgeoning agency costs is a very welcome development, I anticipate this is just the tip of the spear in the application of mobile phone-centric technology to support providers find the new staff they desperately need to support the vulnerable in our communities.

Neil Eastwood is Founder of Sticky People and Care Friends and Author of Saving Social Care. Email: neil@stickypeople.co.uk Twitter: @StickyNeil

Have you tried a new recruitment platform? What are your thoughts on this latest innovation? Join the debate and share your feedback on Neil’s article in our comments section below.

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Rebecca Hannam

This is what social care needs – thinking outside the box in any way to get shifts filled without having to rely on agencies. Like Neil says, the challenge is to get Care Homes to embrace change and use the digial age to thier advantage. Great article.