Social services directors who are members of the European Social Network (ESN) recently meeting in Brussels highlighted staff shortages in social services and social care across Europe, a trend which has become further exacerbated during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. They request specific policies and programmes to promote the attractiveness of the sector, support recruitment across all populations, and ensure retention.

Over the past couple of days, ESN members met to discuss how European policies and funds impact the way public authorities manage social services in local communities across Europe. Earlier in the year, the European Commission produced country reports outlining developments related to the use of the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the social situation in the countries. Their analysis conforms the basis of the newly launched ESN report ‘Putting People First’ which makes proposals for future European Commission’s recommendations on social services improvement to national governments. Participants also analysed the recently launched European Care Strategy and suggested how it can be implemented to support front line services.

ESN has previously documented the ongoing shortage of qualified staff in social services. Over the last months, we have learnt that care facilities have been forced to restrict admissions due to the lack of staff. Staff demand is currently exceeding supply, hence high demand combined with high unemployment rates in some countries presents an excellent opportunity for investment in the development of the social services workforce. Unfortunately, as we documented last year just four national reform plans presented by national governments after the pandemic included relevant objectives in this area.

As the European population becomes increasingly older, the phenomenon and the imbalances it creates are likely to increase in the years to come. In the upcoming proposal for a European Recommendation on care, it is important that the Commission and national governments consider the need to improve the attractiveness of the sector and propose a workforce plan to address this current imbalance.

At our recent meeting at the European Parliament on the use of EU funding for social services and social care, Pedro Marques MEP highlighted “the critical role of social services in providing labour market opportunities but also as employers as care demands grow.” Frances Fitzgerald MEP underlined the EU Care Strategy as a “hallmark of a societal contract through generations and the opportunity for future planning to ensure that professionals in the formal and informal care sectors feel supported.” Ms Fitzgerald also underlined “the importance of the strategy for women, as they provide most care support across Europe”.

A European Parliament report earlier this year revealed that 80% of all care in the EU is provided by informal carers, of whom 75% are women. The meeting found many parallels with nursing and social work. Mirek Grewinski, Rector of Janusz Korczack University in Poland, said: “There are difficulties in recruiting social work students as the profession is seen as low-rank and students with high qualifications may be directed elsewhere.”

Indeed, gender inequalities are also found in social work, where women outnumber men. For instance, approximately 90% of social workers in Spain and 78% of social workers in the UK are women. In Slovenia this figure is 82% in social work and roughly the same in social care. With staff shortages set to put the care sector in crisis, now is the time to eradicate stereotypes, boost gender diversity and engage more male applicants.

In the context of the European Parliament's Gender Equality Week, it is important that policy makers put forward ideas to break down barriers in gender diversity. Employing more men could help fill shortages. Many men might be put off by stereotypes of social work and social care jobs being traditionally female-led jobs. Therefore, we should raise awareness of the wide variety of roles in the profession, and make sure the message reaches out to men. It is important to start soon and to convey to everyone, including young men and career advisors, the opportunities that are available and offer new ones through apprenticeships, vital care, military and mental-health, or research.

In the context of the future European Recommendation on care, we propose that the Commission works with national governments to put in place specific social services workforce strategies that amongst others improve the attractiveness of the sector, its development and resources. This involves the need to think of different ways of getting people and particularly men into the profession through fostering care ambassadors, male champions, pushing recruitment drives aimed at people with experience of care and school leavers, students work experiences, and mentorship programmes.