Social care in the UK is a huge sector, employing more than 1.5 million people. Often operating under immense pressure, the services it provides are vital to society's most vulnerable. Discover how to pursue a career in social care

What is social care?

Social care is the term used to describe the personal care given by public or private organisations to help people in society who need specialised assistance to live a comfortable, healthy, fulfilling life.

Services aim to provide care for and protect society's most vulnerable and this could include children, young people, adults or the elderly.

What areas of social care can I work in?

Employment opportunities in the social care sector can be grouped into:

  • advice and guidance
  • childcare and early years
  • child protection
  • community work and day care
  • counselling
  • fostering and adoption
  • housing
  • occupational therapy
  • probation
  • psychology
  • residential care
  • supporting independent living
  • therapies (e.g. art, music, drama)
  • youth and community work.

You could choose to provide care for a specific group of people such as adults, children, the elderly, families, or those with mental ill health, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or alcohol or drug dependency.

There is increasing crossover between social care and healthcare roles so you could, for example, work as a nurse in a social care setting such as a care home for the elderly.

For examples of roles in this sector, see graduate jobs in social care.

What social care settings can I work in?

A career in the sector could see you working in a variety of locations. While you'll likely be office based, a number of roles require travel within the locality to visit clients. You could therefore also work in:

  • care homes
  • community centres
  • a client's own home
  • health centres
  • homeless shelters
  • hospitals
  • hostels
  • prisons
  • probation offices
  • residential homes
  • schools
  • supported housing.

Who are the main graduate employers?

Social care jobs can be found with a range of employers. These include:

  • local authorities - e.g. social services
  • the NHS - e.g. hospitals, mental health trusts, community based settings
  • charity and voluntary organisations - such as Age Concern, Barnardo's, British Red Cross, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Mencap, Save the Children, Sue Ryder, YMCA
  • residential and non-residential care organisations
  • HM Prison and Probation Service
  • private or independent organisations
  • schools, colleges and universities.

What's it like working in the sector?

Graduates entering the social care sector can expect:

  • a rewarding career, focused on helping individuals and society as a whole
  • jobs to include unsociable hours, such as evenings and weekends, particularly in residential care and community work. You may also be on call or work shifts in some roles
  • to work in a multidisciplinary team alongside health workers
  • temporary or fixed-term contracts depending on your role - many jobs are subject to the renewal of funding
  • to build relationships with patients and service users and to have to deal with stressful situations, helping clients who are upset or angry. This can make the work emotionally challenging.

To find out more about what it's like to work in a social care role, see job profiles.

What skills do I need to work in social care?

As well as a genuine caring nature and a passion to help others you will need:

  • interpersonal skills to build rapport with clients or service users
  • excellent communication skills
  • the capacity to work under pressure, which means you'll also need effective time management and organisational skills
  • strong numerical ability
  • IT literacy
  • good observation and analytical skills
  • the ability to work successfully in a team
  • resilience
  • the ability to problem solve and think on your feet
  • a flexible and adaptable nature
  • a non-judgemental attitude
  • a commitment to treating those in your care with dignity and respect.

How do I get a job in the sector?

Jobs often carry a high level of responsibility - you may be taking care of people with physical or mental health issues, safeguarding children, mentoring victims of substance misuse or working to rehabilitate offenders. As such, some experience working with diverse groups is essential.

Internships and work shadowing opportunities in the sector can be difficult to find, often due to the sensitive nature of the work. Do some research to identify the organisations you'd like to work for and if you can't find a formal work experience programme consider contacting companies speculatively for opportunities. Find out how to ask employers for work experience. Alternatively, university job shops or your local JobCentre Plus may be able to help you find work experience vacancies.

Volunteering is a great way to gain experience in a social care role. You'll give your time to a worthy cause and gain great hands-on experience to use in university or job applications. You can volunteer in schools, youth clubs and community settings, befriend and support the elderly or disabled, work with charities to combat poverty and man helplines to help someone undergoing a mental health crisis.

A degree isn't a necessity for a lot of jobs in the social care sector and you can enter a number of careers via an apprenticeship. However, some jobs, such as those in social work, child psychotherapy, community education and educational psychology demand that you're educated to at least degree level, and it's impossible to enter the field without a degree. Find out more about social work courses.

Depending on what you'd like to do there are a number of graduate schemes on offer. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic many schemes are currently on hold. Check with employers of interest for the latest information on their schemes.

What are the key issues in social care?

Unsurprisingly, the social care sector was hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Society's most vulnerable, such as the elderly, have an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and this has put huge pressure on the sector, as these vulnerable groups rely most heavily on social care services.

COVID-19 also highlighted inequalities surrounding the care industry's fragile finances and the low pay and poor conditions experienced by many workers.

The effects of the pandemic continue to be felt and more recently an October 2021 report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) warned that staff shortages within the sector will cause a 'tsunami of need' over the winter months leaving a huge number of people without care.

The report found that the staffing crisis is being caused by organisations failing to attract and retain workers - often losing existing staff to better-paid industries such as hospitality and retail, particularly post-pandemic. As a result, the number of unfulfilled posts are rising leaving care providers with no other option that to limit their services, which has a huge impact on those in need.

The report discovered that care staff are 'exhausted and depleted' so the extra £162.5million pledged by the government to boost the social care workforce, on top of the £5.4billion already set aside for social care over the next three years will be welcomed. For those looking to work within the social care sector, new recruits have never been in more demand.

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