Training the workforce is central to attracting and retaining staff in quality social care.
Earlier this month, I was invited to speak at a high-level meeting organised by the Swedish presidency of the Council of the EU on active and autonomous ageing—specifically, I was asked to address attracting and retaining professionals with the right skills into long-term care. Indeed this is paramount, as social needs and the shortfall in recruitment grow across Europe.
With populations ageing and family models changing, formal long-term care for adults with enduring needs will continue to grow. Public authorities in Europe—in particular local and regional authorities—have in most cases the statutory duty of planning and delivering long-term care, amid a greying EU, increasing needs and diminishing budgets.
Absence of regulation, poor working conditions, inadequate staff-user ratios and lack of career development and progression make it very difficult to attract reliable, competent staff into long-term care. Under-investment has meant needs have not been appropriately met—this was evident before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has only exacerbated it.
The recruitment gap does not only affect posts requiring low qualifications but, according to our recent report, shortage of skilled labour and specialist staff is a central challenge. This becomes even more acute when it comes to long-term care attuned to specific populations, such as people with disabilities.
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Care work under good conditions can and should be an appealing career choice for many. The EU and national governments should work together to support recruitment and retention in social care. Despite the general perception—particularly of long-term care work with people with long-term needs—many already in the profession enjoy working with people using services and value the challenges and the variety of tasks, as well as the potential long-term job security.
The European Care Strategy launched by the European Commission last September acknowledges that the quality of social services and social care depends greatly on the workforce, who play a vital role in supporting those in need. Addressing the problems of the sector and implementing the care strategy thus require translating the latter, at national and European levels, into a workforce strategy.
Training is an essential component of this. Work placements or internships are fundamental, but service users or those with experience of care are rarely involved in the creation, delivery and evaluation of training programmes. As we promote person-centred care, this needs to be reflected in the training of care professionals.
Care services themselves increasingly involve beneficiaries in the recruitment process, whether by having a user on the interviewing panel or arranging face-to-face meetings between applicants and users. This recognises the expertise service users acquire and acknowledges the importance of communications and relationship skills in social care.
Technology needs to be integrated into the curriculum, so that trainees become familiar with digital tools in their work from the outset. Digital transformation should empower those who work for and use social care, through tools that fit their needs. Exchanges are thus needed among the industry, professionals and trainers, including to foster mutual understanding about respecting data protection and confidentiality in care digitalisation. This is one of many themes we shall discuss at the 31st European Social Services Conference, which will address how digitalisation and technology can promote autonomy and inclusion.
Social care is built on the interpersonal relationship between the professional and the person receiving care. Given the emotional and physical intimacy the work brings with it, members of the European Social Network report stress-related illnesses among their employees, who often find themselves overwhelmed. This can lead to burn-out, mental-health issues and even exit from the sector. Coping strategies, improving organisational and personal resilience and the handling of relationships are hence crucial elements of education and training.
And that must not stop once staff have been recruited. Social-care practitioners should benefit from career planning, with opportunities to progress and to ensure as professionals that they keep up to date. In several countries, workforce regulatory bodies are responsible for training development, such as the Health Information and Quality Authority in Ireland, social-care councils in the United Kingdom or health and social-welfare Boards in the Nordic countries. Many of these now use platforms for learning and exchanges on care practice, reaching out to more workers than on-site training can achieve.
Training is essential in any workforce strategy that intends to attract staff into care and retain them. The European Care Strategy is an opportunity for the EU to work with national governments to support the professionalisation of the sector. This entails putting in place programmes embracing registration and accreditation, so that individuals can be recognised as exercising a profession while enjoying access to training over time.
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Alfonso Lara Montero is chief executive officer of the European Social Network, the leading social-services network in Europe with 170 member organisations in 35 countries. He leads the policy programme, the European Social Services Conference and the European Social Services Awards.