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Europe’s  ageing population is putting long-term care under pressure as increasing demand meets a dwindling workforce for a sector that has already been under strain due to recruitment gaps and over-average staff dropout rates. The Swedish EU Council Presidency discussed this issue during a recent inter-ministerial meeting in Stockholm, Sweden. Alfonso Lara Montero, CEO of the European Social Network (ESN) was invited to discuss with experts and ministers how to attract and retain qualified workers in long-term care.

Improving skills development and the sector’s reputation

The discussion focused on skills development as key element of sustaining carers’ wellbeing and improving the sector’s reputation. “With adequate training carers can avoid harming themselves when lifting people.” explained Maria Jepsen, Vice-President of Eurofund. Danish minister for older people Mette Kierkegaard saw  better training as a way to improve the profession’s reputation and remuneration: “In Denmark, we have 9,000 care workers without any qualification. By increasing remuneration of qualified carers, we will incentivise the professionalisation and wages in the sector.” Stefan Olsson, Deputy-Director General for Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission, stated that 70% of EU citizens want more investment in long-term care and EU initiatives like the European Year of Skills would provide investment opportunities in the long-term care workforce.

More space for ownership and creativity

According to ESN findings high levels of bureaucracy is a major challenge for 77% of people working in the social care sector and one of the reasons for leaving the profession, after increased complexity of service beneficiary groups (84%) and lack of funding (80%). Mette Kierkegaard mentioned that in Denmark they have decided to decentralise quality assurance policies to give care workers more freedom and creativity in the way they deliver care and ensure quality. Part of this process is a change of culture from control towards a system based on trust and permanent learning. This was echoed by Dr Jo Etienne Abela, Minister of Ageing, Malta: “While quality assurance is key, we should not be like hawks over care workers.”

Technology supporting the workforce

Panellists agreed that Covid-19 brought forward the use of information technology (ICT), but in a different way from other sectors. While many people worked from home during the pandemic, 94% of care workers continued their services face-to-face, due to the very nature of care work. Alfonso Lara Montero explained that the use of ICT has expanded in care services and it helps to alleviate the strain on the workforce, for example with tools such as digitalised documentation, alarm buttons, distance monitoring or co-bots to support lifting people with reduced mobility. These and other examples of progress in IT and digitalisation to support older people to remain in their homes and communities will be featured at our 31st European Social Services Conference,taking place in Malmö in June.

Recognising carers’ contribution to our societies

Panellists agreed that to attract and maintain workers in care and support we need to alleviate the administrative burden, further deploy tech-based support, professionalise and upskill the sector, provide career development opportunities and foremost recognise care work as key contribution to our economies and societies. ESN will continue its engagement on workforce development, with a European Parliament round table later this year.