The social care sector in the UK often gets a bad reputation, but the services it provides are vital to society. It's in constant need of qualified, skilled graduates so discover how to pursue a rewarding career in the sector

Social care in the UK is a bigger industry than you might think. There are more than 1.5 million people working in the sector in 38,000 different settings. The adult social care sector alone contributes an estimated £43billion to the economy. Thousands of organisations deliver care and support services to people all over the country.

What areas of social care can I work in?

Employment opportunities in the social care sector can be grouped into:

  • advice and guidance
  • childcare and early years
  • child protection
  • community work and day care
  • counselling
  • fostering and adoption
  • housing
  • occupational therapy
  • probation
  • psychology
  • residential care
  • supporting independent living
  • therapies (e.g. art, music, drama)
  • youth and community work.

You could choose to provide care for a specific group of people such as adults, children, the elderly, families, or those with mental ill health, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or alcohol or drug dependency.

There is increasing crossover between social care and healthcare roles so you could, for example, work as a nurse in a social care setting such as a care home for the elderly.

For examples of roles in this sector, see graduate jobs in social care.

Who are the main graduate employers?

Social care jobs can be found with a range of employers. These include:

  • local authorities - e.g. social services
  • the NHS - e.g. hospitals, mental health trusts, community based settings
  • charity and voluntary organisations - such as Age Concern, Barnardo's, British Red Cross, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Mencap, Save the Children, Sue Ryder, YMCA
  • residential and non-residential care organisations
  • HM Prison and Probation Service
  • private or independent organisations
  • schools, colleges and universities.

What's it like working in the sector?

Graduates entering the social care sector can expect:

  • a rewarding career, focused on helping individuals and society as a whole
  • to work in diverse settings including care homes, clients' homes, community centres, hostels, probation offices, prisons, homeless shelters, schools, hospitals and Jobcentres
  • jobs to include unsociable hours, such as evenings and weekends, particularly in residential care and community work. You may also be on call or work shifts in some roles
  • to work in a multidisciplinary team alongside health workers
  • temporary or fixed-term contracts depending on your role - many jobs are subject to the renewal of funding
  • to build relationships with patients and service users and to have to deal with stressful situations, helping clients who are upset or angry. This can make the work emotionally challenging.

To find out more about what it's like to work in a social care role, see job profiles.

How do I get a job in the sector?

Jobs often carry a high level of responsibility - you may be taking care of people with physical or mental health issues, safeguarding children, mentoring victims of substance misuse or working to rehabilitate offenders. As such, some experience working with diverse groups is essential.

Internships and work shadowing opportunities in the sector can be difficult to find, often due to the sensitive nature of the work. Do some research to identify the organisations you'd like to work for and if you can't find a formal work experience programme consider contacting companies speculatively for opportunities. Find out how to ask employers for work experience. Alternatively, university job shops or your local JobCentre Plus may be able to help you find work experience vacancies.

Volunteering is a great way to gain experience in a social care role. You'll give your time to a worthy cause and gain great hands-on experience to use in university or job applications. You can volunteer in schools, youth clubs and community settings, befriend and support the elderly or disabled, work with charities to combat poverty and man helplines to help someone undergoing a mental health crisis.

A degree isn't a necessity for a lot of jobs in the social care sector and you can enter a number of careers via an apprenticeship. However, some jobs, such as those in social work, child psychotherapy, community education and educational psychology demand that you're educated to at least degree level, and it's impossible to enter the field without a degree. Find out more about social work courses.

Depending on what you'd like to do there are a number of graduate schemes on offer. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic many schemes are currently on hold. Check with employers of interest for the latest information on their schemes.

What are the key issues in social care?

Unsurprisingly, the social care sector has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Society's most vulnerable people, such as the elderly, have an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and this has put huge pressure on the sector, as these vulnerable groups rely most heavily on social care services.

By June 2020 there had been more than 30,500 excess deaths among care home residents, with social care staff more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as other adults. The pandemic has highlighted inequalities in society (people from ethnic minority groups are more likely to die of coronavirus than white people), the social care industry's fragile finances and the low pay and poor conditions experienced by many workers.

The COVID-19 crisis has also caused issues surrounding:

  • Quality of care - Reduced staff availability (due to sickness), a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and people being discharged from hospital (in the rush to free up space) to services that don't fully meet their needs have all impacted the quality of care that services within the sector provide.
  • Unmet need - As a result of the virus and the measures put in place to help stop its spread some services were reduced, suspended or cancelled to ensure that the most critical care could be provided. For example, day centres were suspended to comply with social distancing and the Age UK Home Help service closed as the safety of staff and service users couldn’t be guaranteed. Many charities have also had to scale back their services.
  • Disjointed care - A longstanding challenge of the social care system is the ability to transfer people from hospital to alternative care settings successfully. Because of the need to free up hospital beds quickly at the height of the pandemic, there's concern about whether people were always discharged to the right place.

The Social Care Sector COVID-19 Support Taskforce was commissioned in June 2020. The taskforce was set up to oversee the delivery of two packages of support that the government had put in place for the care sector, the Social Care Action Plan and the Care Home Support Plan. To read the COVID-19 Support Taskforce report, head over to GOV.UK.

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