The number of registered nurses working in the adult social care sector in England appears to have grown slightly for the first time in a decade, new data has suggested.
A new report from Skills for Care has provided an update on the size and structure of England’s adult social care workforce.
Published this week, it showed that the number of filled roles across the overall social care workforce has increased by around 20,000 (1%), between April 2022 and March 2023.
After decreasing in size for the first time on record in 2021/22, data analysed by Skills for Care appears to suggest that the social care workforce has started to grow again, although it has not yet returned to pre-2021 levels.
Meanwhile, Skills for Care has told Nursing in Practice that the number of filled registered nurse roles in the adult social care sector has also increased slightly between 2021/22 and 2022/23 – with 600 more nurses in the workforce, equivalent to an increase of 2%.
According to the report, the number of filled registered nurse roles has fallen every single year since the earliest recorded data in 2012/13 when 51,000 roles were filled.
This suggests 2022/23 was the first year the registered nurse workforce has grown in a decade, having recorded a decrease at every other time point.
Vacancies across the entire sector also decreased both in terms of total number and as a proportion of the workforce.
In 2022/23, Skills for Care estimated that there were 152,000 vacant roles on any given day, equivalent to around 9.9% of the total workforce. This is down from 164,000 or 10.6% of the workforce in the previous year.
The report also suggested that the total number of posts available in the social care sector increased to 1.79 million in 2022/23, with 1.635 million being filled.
Skills for Care chief executive Oonagh Smyth said it was ‘encouraging’ that the number of filled posts had gone up, but warned that data from care providers ‘still show significant pressure on them to find and keep people with the right values needed to work in care’.
The report also pointed towards ‘long-term challenges’ for the social care sector, as the demand for services grows faster than the increase in the workforce.
If demand grows proportionally to the number of people aged 65 and over in the population, Skills for Care estimates that the number of posts in the sector will need to increase by approximately 445,000 by 2035, growing the workforce to 2.23 million.
Ms Smyth said that this supported the case for a ‘social care workforce plan’ similar to the recently published NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.
‘This will help to make sure that we have enough people with the right skills in the right places to support people who draw on care and support now, and for future generations,’ Ms Smyth said.
The report also showed that turnover rate in the social care sector remains high, despite having fallen slightly since the previous year.
The turnover rate for 2022/23 in the independent social care sector decreased to 30% from 32% the previous year.
However, Skills for Care said early evidence suggests that international recruitment may have ‘played a part’ in this reduction, with the turnover rate for international recruits being around half that of staff recruited from within the UK.
Skills for Care’s data also shows that the number of social care staff recruited from abroad increased significantly following the inclusion of care workers on the Shortage Occupation list in February 2022.
This decision meant that workers from anywhere in the world could come to the UK to take up care worker roles provided they met the salary threshold of £20,480 and had a licenced sponsor.
In the 12 months from March 2022 an estimated 70,000 people started direct care roles from overseas, up from only 20,000 joining the workforce between 2021 and 2022.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea highlighted the risk of exploitation that increased international recruitment poses.
Earlier this week, Unison wrote a letter to the Prime Minister warning that migrant social care workers were facing increasing rates of abuse and exploitation.
Responding to the latest figures, Ms McAnea said: ‘Many overseas care workers have paid extortionate fees to come to the UK. When they get here, many can’t believe what they’ve signed up for,’ Ms McAnea said.
‘Sold an expensive dream, the sad reality for many is a nightmare of terrible treatment, scant training, excessive hours and low pay. The government must hold care providers to account and put a stop to this ill-treatment.’
Meanwhile, NHS Providers director of policy and strategy Miriam Deakin also responded to the report. She said that the expansion of the workforce was ‘encouraging’ but warned that ‘demand for care continues to outstrip capacity’.
‘Social care is inextricably linked to the NHS. Its staff support people to stay independent in the community and help prevent the need for hospital care,’ she said.
‘While the contribution of overseas workers is invaluable, the sector cannot rely on this in the long term. We desperately need better investment to recruit and retain UK staff to put the sector on a sustainable footing.’
Ms Deakin also called on the government to create a social care workforce plan, adding this could ‘ensure we have enough staff in place – with better pay and terms and conditions – to meet growing demand’.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said ‘things are heading in the right direction, but there’s still more to be done’.
The spokesperson also referred to funding for social care including £250m for workforce development included in the ‘Next Steps to Put People at the Heart of Care’ plan.
They added: ‘We are also making available £15m for 2023/24 to help local areas establish support arrangements for ethical international recruitment in adult social care.’