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Growing demand for social services in Europe, fuelled by inequalities, the Covid-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, IT developments, and an ageing population highlight the pressing need to address challenges in recruiting and retaining the social services workforce. How are countries designing solutions to address social services labour shortages, digitalisation, and recognition of qualifications? How is the European Union supporting national governments to address these challenges with policy initiatives and funding to strengthen the social services workforce?

During a roundtable discussion at the European Parliament organised by the European Social Network earlier this month, hosted by MEP Max Orville, member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, representatives from the European Parliament, the European Commission, national governments, and public social services from across Europe discussed the evidence already available on the labour force challenges facing public social services. Developing, retaining, and attracting the right people are key success factors for the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights and its related initiatives like the European Care Strategy or the European Child Guarantee.

Solutions for recruitment and retention of social services professionals

Massimiliano Mascherini, Head of the Social Policies Unit at EU agency Eurofound, proposed solutions focused on enhancing working conditions, addressing salary disparities, and implementing targeted recruitment strategies, such as engaging retired caregivers. In Germany, Kathleen Wabrowetz, Head of the International Affairs Department at ESN member, the German Association for Public and Private Welfare, explained how workforce challenges are being addressed through pilot projects funded by the German government and the European Social Fund ESF+. She presented two projects: DiAS and ‘Rethink Leadership’ focusing on digitalisation, staff development, and organisational change, stressing the need for long-term sustainable funding to bring about lasting changes.

In Ireland, Ger Brophy, Chief Social Worker at the Child and Family Agency Tusla, presented their Evidence Informed Practitioner Programme (EPPI) to enhance staff knowledge and confidence. “The EPPI toolkit provides social workers handy tools to improve their practice and enhance resilience” he noted, underscoring the programme's commitment to empower professionals with the resources they need for effective and resilient service delivery. Maria Euwema, Deputy Director of Digitalisation in the Belgian City of Ghent, brought attention to the urgent need to improve workers’ digital skills in response to the increased use of new technology introduced during the pandemic. Not being digitally literate can lead to social exclusion,” Ms Euwema said, highlighting the need for a European digital inclusion vision.

Strategies for strengthening the social services workforce

In response to these common challenges, Dana Bachmann, Head of the Social Protection Unit at the European Commission outlined European policy initiatives, including the European Care Strategy and the Social Economy Action Plan, emphasising the importance of skills development and social dialogue. The EU's commitment is further manifested through funding support from the ESF+ and Next Generation EU. Ms Bachman highlighted the Helpdesk project to support social services access to funds, in which ESN is a partner.  “The EU approach, combining policy initiatives, funding support, and skills development, reflects a commitment to nurturing a resilient social services workforce capable of meeting evolving demands,” she said.

Graham Owen of the Swedish Association of Directors of Social Welfare Services (FSS) described the Strategic Roadmap, which has been developed by the association of local and regional authorities in Sweden to emphasise skills utilisation, extended working life, work environment management, and leadership strengthening. Barbara Rosina, President of the Italian National Council of Social Workers (CNOAS) in Italy, emphasised the need for urgent updates to the Register of Social Workers and active political engagement to reinforce local social services.

Advancing the European social services workforce

To conclude the discussion, ESN’s CEO Alfonso Lara Montero emphasised ESN’s previous calls for a Social Services Workforce Strategy which stresses the pivotal role of regulation, registration, and accreditation, specialist education, ongoing training, and mutual recognition of qualifications within the EU. “Embracing technology and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration would further contribute to creating a dynamic and attractive environment for social service professionals, he added. As European social services navigate the challenges they face, these insights and initiatives offer a roadmap for building a resilient and effective workforce in the years to come.