This article is also available in EnglishEspañolDeutschFrançais, and Italiano.

Throughout 2016, ESN conducted research on the current challenges, developments and opportunities faced by the social services workforce in Europe. We did this through a comprehensive survey, a literature and policy review, and a seminar that was organised in cooperation with the Slovak Presidency of the EU Council. The findings from this research, which ESN conducted together with Dr Shereen Hussein from King’s College London’s Social Care Workforce Research Unit, are published in our new report ‘Investing in the social services workforce’.

Qualifications and skills

The report provides an overview of the qualifications and regulatory frameworks for social work and social care professions in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Social work education and training has undergone significant changes in many European countries in recent years, not least to adjust university degrees to the requirements of the Bologna Process, which has harmonised social work education to a great extent. By contrast, professions in the social care sector differ greatly between, but often also within countries. Many professions are not regulated and lack formal qualification, therefore professionalising the social care workforce is key to making it a more attractive career choice.

Recruitment and retention

Social services in almost all European countries have difficulties with filling vacancies and reducing the turnover rate of current staff. ESN’s questionnaire showed that a lack of career progression opportunities, the level of remuneration, an ageing workforce, and the lack of men in the workforce are the greatest challenges for ESN’s members in recruiting and retaining staff. The report outlines how technological innovations, empowering workers and keeping workloads at sustainable levels can contribute to successful retention strategies.

Labour mobility across EU countries

As ESN’s new report shows, the recognition of foreign qualifications in social work and certain social care professions remains cumbersome given that, unlike health professions, neither social work nor social care professions are regulated at European level. The role of migrant care workers, who often work under worse conditions and for lower pay than their native colleagues, is a complicated one. On the one hand, they can help to reduce vacancies and be an opportunity for migrants from poorer countries to find work and better their lives. On the other hand, migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitation and isolation, therefore enforcing their rights is crucial.

Workforce planning and management

In these challenging times, systematic workforce planning is key to coping with reduced funding, high numbers of vacancies and new user demands. ESN advocates that staff are involved in the planning and management processes of local services. Moreover, coordination between training, commissioning and service provision is becoming increasingly important, and the report provides examples from different European countries where this has been embraced successfully. It also illustrates how risk management systems can be made more transparent and promote learning from successes and mistakes alike to improve quality of care.

Key recommendations for policy-makers, researchers, managers and practitioners

The report offers a number of important recommendations, including:

  • Policy-makers: Establish the mutual recognition of social work qualifications across the EU to enable social workers to work in other member states.
  • Managers and practitioners: Acknowledge and communicate clearly how changes in an organisation’s way of working may affect professionals’ roles and what the potential benefits to the service users are expected to be.
  • Academics and researchers: Involve service users systematically in the educational structures and processes of social work degrees.