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Against a backdrop of ageing populations, growing diversity and complexity of needs as well as fiscal challenges and social services privatisation, there has been a move towards more integration, personalisation, and services co-production. However, it is unlikely that this cultural shift can be achieved without investing and promoting reform in the workforce. The elements and the extent of such reform proved a topic of keen debate at the seminar that the European Social Network (ESN) organised in Bratislava on 15-16 November 2016.

Planning and managing the future workforce

Social services account for 5 to 10% of the European economy and according to a 2014 European Commission study, the number of workers in the sector has increased despite the economic crisis. However, the social services workforce is characterised as being labour intensive, predominantly female, and with low wages, high turnover, burnout and high stress levels.
In order to address these challenges, various planning and management strategies were underlined during the discussions. Social scientists at the knowledge centre IRISS implemented a project to forecast several future case scenarios. In the best-case scenario, service delivery would focus increasingly on outcomes and services would move more towards integrated models of joint delivery. These would possibly be funded by joint budgets while evaluation would involve appraisal and feedback from service users and their families in a gradual shift towards a form of co-production.

Training and registration are key to improving quality

When it comes to education and training, the social services workforce includes generally two tiers of professionals. First of these is a more skilled group which consists of social workers, occupational therapists or social educators. As a result of the Bologna process, completion of an undergraduate university degree is now the minimum social work qualification in most countries. However, there is a gap between theory and social work practice. Possible ways to fill this gap might include improving internships during University studies, involving service users at University, and introducing technology in the curriculum.

Second, there is a significant group of workers with fewer skills. This includes care workers who may care directly for users or who may provide support for social work professionals. Figures vary across countries but it is estimated that more than 50% of social care workers do not have a relevant qualification. Registration and improving regulation of the care workforce could contribute to ease access to initial and continuous training and development.

Harmonising qualifications could impact mobility

Though free movement of labour is enshrined in the EU treaties, only 3.7% of the total EU workforce lives and works in another EU country. However, there is a lack of data in regards to the number of professionals working in the social services sector. This may be due to the fact that, unlike in the health sector where minimum training requirements have been harmonised and certified practitioners are automatically entitled to practice anywhere in the EU, national governments and the European Commission have not addressed the harmonisation of qualifications in the social services sector. Harmonisation would contribute to supporting mobility, which in turn could help fill the workforce recruitment gap.

Looking ahead

It became clear from the discussions that the starting point for workforce planning should be to acknowledge the large degree of diversity in the social services workforce. Enhancing regulation could help ensure that all professionals in the sector are registered so that they can access training and development. As the workforce itself is ageing, it is becoming increasingly urgent to attract more people into the profession. With this in mind, several ideas came up in the discussions, such as specific recruitment programmes for men, young people and migrants. The use of technology for forecasting the future workforce, training, and working with the users can play a key role in these developments.