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Training and education in social work and social care are extremely important. Both must become more flexible in order to prepare professionals for the diverse support services and tools available to meet the diverse needs, circumstances and preferences of service users. This was the main finding of the ESN’s seminar ‘Investing in the social service workforce’ with regards to education and training.

Professionalising the social care workforce

Social care is provided by a myriad of different people in Europe. These include unpaid informal carers, unregistered live-in migrant care workers, professionals educated in vocational training courses ranging from a few days to several years, and specialised care professionals with a university education. Several countries in Europe do not have a formal qualification in long-term care for older people, which impacts on the low status and remuneration of the profession. This also contributes to the high turnover rates in the sector, which suggests that professionalising the workforce has to be a key element of effective retention strategies in the sector. Care services for children could provide some valuable examples, as the workforce is more professionalised and regulated by comparison.

Colum Conway, CEO of the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC), pointed out that 50% of social care workers in Northern Ireland do not have a qualification. Northern Ireland is now aiming to register every single care worker by March 2017 to improve regulation and give care workers easier access to initial and continuous training and development. Mr Conway also highlighted the importance of cross-sector learning and joint training methods, a crucial element of implementing integrated care models.

Involving service users in social work training

The Bologna Reform of higher education harmonised social work education in the EU. Completion of an undergraduate university degree is now the minimum qualification in most countries to work in this field. While this has established the field of social work as a respected academic discipline, it has also raised concerns about the gap between theory and practice, Marion Laging, Professor of Social Work at the Applied University of Esslingen (Germany) explained at the seminar. Work placements or internships are a central part of Social Work degrees but few universities involve service users in the creation, delivery and evaluation of Social Work teaching. Laging presented the benefits of service user involvement in social work education in terms of both improved learning for students and empowerment of service users.

Accessing the potential of technological solutions

Technological innovation can support the social service workforce by making planning easier, saving resources and improving the working environment, Dennis C. Søndergård from the Nordic Welfare Centre said at the seminar in Bratislava. Social work and social care professionals need to be properly trained to use these technological solutions to improve the quality of the services provided. Moreover, as Ellen Belluomini from the Dominican University in the United States emphasised, the use of technological tools needs to be integrated into the social work curriculum so that students become familiar in using digital tools in their work from the beginning and learn about respecting data protection and confidentiality requirements in this context.

Hard and soft skills

Both social work and social care require a set of skills and competencies that are necessary to provide high-quality support to clients. At least as important are the interpersonal relationships between the professionals and the service users, given the emotional and physical intimacy the work brings with it. Many participants at ESN’s seminar talked about stress-related illnesses of their employees who often find themselves overwhelmed, which can lead to burn-out, mental health issues or professionals leaving the sector altogether. Therefore, addressing coping strategies and the handling of relationships has to be a crucial element of education and training in social care and social work.