Transcript: Careers in social services: opportunities and employability

A conversation with Kerry Cannon at SSSC and Susie Ferguson at the Department of Work and Pensions

Podcast Episode: Careers in social services: opportunities and employability


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

INT: The social services sector is growing and this means there are opportunities for people looking for a new career. Whether that’s changing jobs, or people who are just starting out. So what are these opportunities and what role can employment support workers have in helping this important workforce to grow sustainably?

We speak to Kerry Cannon, learning and development adviser at the Scottish Social Services Council and Susie Ferguson, partnership manager at the Department of Work and Pensions, about current recruitment opportunities and the important role employability organisations can have in supporting these.

Michelle: Today I am speaking with Kerry Cannon, learning and development adviser at the Scottish Social Services Council and Susie Ferguson, partnership manager at the Department of Work and Pensions and the subject of today’s episode is careers in social services, opportunities and employability.

So a warm welcome to you both.

Kerry: Hi there

Susie: Hi there, thanks for having us

Michelle: So, Kerry, can I just turn to yourself first. Could you tell me, how do you define social services? And if somebody was going to take up a career in this field what might that look like?

Kerry: Ok, so social services – well obviously at the Scottish Social Services Council that’s a term we’re quite familiar with – but it is a term for quite a wide set of professions. And you might not always use this language yourself, there’s not always a necessity to. You might instead refer to the type of support so that’s maybe early learning and childcare, residential childcare, social work services, adult social care or you might even say health and social care (which is more common now) but there are more. This diversity is a strength and an attractive quality for career seekers I think but it can mean that it can be harder to tell a clear story nationally about what the career opportunities are. So along with many partners in the sector, including DWP, we do social media activity using the hashtag Life Changing Work which I really like because it recognises that diversity and focuses on what all roles have in common, however you might name them. So it’s a wide range of different types of support, no day is going to be the same.

Michelle: Ok and the life changing work hashtag you use that sort of encompasses all of the social services careers that you’ve just spoken about there?

Kerry: It does and what we try and do, and we use that tag on our careers website as well which is and we try and use that tag to always have an up-to-date live stream of different stories about the sector. Not just coming from SSSC but from different organisations who might be promoting their vacancies. The DWP also do social media campaigns promoting the sector so it’s a really nice tag I think to tie it together. And it talks about the change you might make in someone else’s life, and the quality about these careers that they can change your life as well.

The status of social services as a regulated and qualified profession should bring opportunities including the opportunity to gain qualifications in work and raise the profile. And when we think about social services as a whole profession it can be really flexible. So some examples include, if you go into a childcare setting and you learn how to support young people and you gain a qualification like an SVQ you can take this with you when you move into a different service type. And we know that some people will do this, and we know that some people might have a couple of different roles so they might be on our register in a couple of different categories. So there is inherent flexibility in this type of career and the qualification pathways contain common units to enable that progression for example from a nursery setting to an adult care home setting. So there’s that recognition of prior learning. So that’s one of the ways I think it can be useful to think of social services as a whole, because of the different pathways that might be available to you.

Another example is social work. So with a social work qualification if you did decide to go to university now, or in fact go into the workforce first and get that experience and then maybe study social work part time. With a social work qualification you can practise across different register parts so you might work with a local authority in a dedicated social work service but you can also bring that skills and knowledge to a care service. So that’s another example of that flexibility. And again, people don’t necessarily know this. It can be quite technical if you don’t know much about pathways and qualifications. But our careers website which is explains that and there are actually interactive qualification pathways so you can explore that, and you can explore that with people you’re working with to maybe challenge some of the preconceptions they might have about whether this is a career with positive destinations or opportunities to progress.

Michelle: Can you tell me a bit about the size of the workforce and the number of employers?

Kerry: Yes I can do. So it’s a really large workforce and I think sometimes it’s useful to actually say ‘social services’ because it means you can talk about the workforce size as a whole and use some high level messages. So as a whole it’s 1 in 13 people who are employed in Scotland and that’s a nice way of putting it when I’m talking to young people for example who might know social service workers but not really term them as such. It is growing year on year, and it’s currently sitting at around 206,000 people. Actually that workforce has been growing – for the nine years that I’ve worked at SSSC it’s grown every year.

The vast majority of those people will be eligible for SSSC registration and those eligible groups were set out in legislation very early on and indeed we’ve not registered all those eligible groups. In terms of employers there’s a large number, so again talking about the sector as a whole rather than any particular type of setting I believe it’s around 2,500 employers so it’s really really diverse and in that way it’s quite different to a connected type of support which is the NHS and the health service. So there’s a range of different people that you might work with and quite a lot of flexibility.

Michelle: So why promote careers in social services right now?

Well it’s really important to promote careers because it is obviously really important work, I think that’s undeniable. I’d also mentioned that it’s a large workforce and it’s also growing, so currently at 206,000 but also growing every year. We often hear about vacancies in the sector and that can sometimes be paired with language of crisis and can mean as a result that careers are framed in a negative light. I think it’s useful to add some balance to that because vacancies also indicate growth, so it’s a growing sector. Services are growing and this means there are opportunities for people not just looking for work, but for a meaningful career which will last.

We’re recording this in 2021 which means we’re very concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on some industries and we’re concerned about the impact on individuals, including groups who are more likely to be affected by the economic downturn. That includes young people and that includes women who are more likely to be affected. So here’s an industry which is growing and which is offering people meaningful work with meaningful development opportunities.

Michelle: Ok so we’ve talked a little bit about vacancies. Tell me Kerry, what kind of opportunities exist in social services currently?

Kerry: So the vacancies, I’d mentioned this can mean sometimes things are framed negatively. And while it can be a positive thing (because the workforce is growing) it is true that some employers have vacancies which they find hard to fill. The SSSC and Care Inspectorate have annual vacancy reports which can give you some insight into this. So commonly in adult care services it’s not really about the lack of qualified applicants, and I think that’s often a preconception that you need qualifications (but you don’t). Most people do gain qualifications in work and that’s an important part of the story.

More often when we talk about vacancies which employers are finding harder to fill – and it might be in a particular local authority or a particular area – it can be a lack of applicants altogether, or not enough applicants with the right values so you know being reliable, and dependable, having a compassionate approach. It can also be that the applicants don’t have enough prior knowledge about what the role will involve. And that can be really hugely disruptive within recruitment for employers. So I see this as an area where work coaches and employability key workers can add value in helping to address this, maybe reduce the burden experienced by employers who are doing such important work in communities. Particularly as we’ve all seen more visibly during COVID-19 but in fact obviously that’s been going on for so much longer. And employers could really benefit from support to grow their workforces sustainably. So there’s a key role for employment support services there.

I’d recommend if you’re in an organisation like the DWP or Fair Start Scotland or different employability providers across Scotland maybe have a look at our vacancy reports online and try reaching out to employers to understand their circumstances and why they are finding it difficult, and see what you can do in terms of some partnership work. And it might not always be a full training programme but that’s one approach. It might be other types of support that employers are looking for.

Michelle: Susie, just turning to yourself, as someone working in employability why are you passionate about promoting careers in social services?

Susie: I think, like what Kerry has said, it is a meaningful job and a career. Working within the job centre and employability services it is under-promoted and we don’t encourage people enough to have that conversation. Certainly now with covid and the different types of jobs that have disappeared, like in hospitality, if people have transferable skills or who maybe have never thought about it. I think where my passion comes from is the real life stories and speaking to customers or clients who have moved from one sector – whether that be hospitality or retail – and have moved into care and just the feedback from them about as in I wish I had done it years ago or it’s the most rewarding job. And just a little bit of background about why they find it rewarding – I spoke to one girl just the other day and she said she gets to be a part of that person’s life, and it’s not just the person that she’s caring for it’s the family who are being impacted as well. Just some of the stories that she hears and the wisdom she is picking up from people’s life stories. So I think that for a career in the care sector as far as our work coaches are concerned, it’s about whether they would have that conversation. Perhaps not. Would they say, ‘have you thought about a career in care? No? Well, why not?’ rather than just moving on to the next thing. I think for me in my role it’s about promoting it out there, all the resources that are available online to have a look at. Do ‘A Question of Care’ to see if it’s a career for me, offering work experience placements or work academies to obtain some qualifications, and as you said as well you don’t have to have qualifications to move into the care sector however you can progress and make it into a career.

The girl I was speaking to, she’s used it as a stepping stone from what she did at college which was nothing to do with care work, she’s moved onto home care and into a care home and now she’s in her second year at nursing. So she’s used that as a complete flip from the career that she thought she might want to do, to what she’s doing now. So I think it’s a shame that the people who have the right values and the right attitude are perhaps not considering moving into care. So I think for me, that’s why I’m passionate about promoting it and getting the right people into the right type of work.

Michelle: And why do you think it hasn’t been promoted so much up to maybe recently?

Susie: Well, I said to her ‘is it something that you’d thought about when you were at school?’ And she said, ‘You know what it was kind of like a stigma if you were at school and you were going to be a carer and you were going to be looking after people’s personal care’. So it was something which had crossed her mind but she didn’t go with it because of the stigma.

And I think it’s the perception of the sector as well, as in the first question was: what is social services? I mean it’s a massive, massive area of employment. But the first thing [people think of] is: Am I the right person to look after someone’s personal requirements? And having listened to some feedback and conversations, this is the tiniest part of the job and it’s not considered or thought of. The job is much more rewarding than that. So I think yeah, the perception and the stigma that goes with it.

But now with the care sector being out there. Everyone is talking about the carers and the care homes. And when you get to see or hear the good news stories or the real life testimonials that’s when you start to realise that it is such a big sector. And it’s ongoing all the time. Recently we did an adult social care recruitment campaign. But it’s ongoing, that campaign was a week, but you can’t just stop there you’ve got to keep promoting it because the vacancies need to be filled and sometimes the employers are struggling to fill them. Especially if it’s homecare in rural areas and different things like that. As a department we’re really keen to help and support and promote, as well as offer training and work experience placements. And that’s quite a good thing – the try before you buy thing. The employer gets to try out the individual and the individual gets to see what it’s like in the real setting.

We do try to promote that: that it’s not going to affect people’s benefits if they wanted to try it out. I think that’s a good thing that they can give it a go and see if it’s for them.

Kerry: So it might be useful for employment support professionals to know about the contract types and wages. This can sometimes be something we hear a lot about in the media when they are talking about the sector. It’s important to get as much balance as you can and information from up-to-date sources. There’s good information online on the SSSC’s data website which is and that’s where you’ll find a range of things including about the workforce and vacancies.

We know the majority of the workforce are on permanent contracts, so over 80%. We know that there are types of social services work which is sessional by design and we also know that there are other types of contract, so there are agencies for example. There is a mixed picture but it is important I think to say that the majority of people are working on permanent, secure contracts and the median hours of work a week is 32 hours if you look across the sector as a whole. And there’s obviously going to be a lot of variation and we know that some people particularly choose this type of work because they can work part time and they can work flexibly.

So my advice is that while we might want to challenge unfair employment practices as a whole – and I do really believe that – we should also question our presumptions maybe about the sector itself as a place to have a stable, secure career. And I would always recommend looking at the posts being advertised online and you can do that as an activity with someone you’re working with to see the different contracts available, the different hours. And you’ll see that in many cases there is security and stability to be had, and that’s a really positive thing about this sector particularly, as we’ve said, as we recover from the pandemic.

The Scottish Living Wage has also been a feature of all adult social care careers for some years now and this is also happening more consistently in early learning and childcare. And that’s a minimum so again it’s a good idea if you’re working with someone to go through the different job sites, take a look at the different types of organisations and what they are offering: the roles and responsibilities, rates of pay, and also the progression opportunities. Many job adverts will state what support employees will get and I think that’s a really good thing to be looking at, to make sure this is a role which is going to be a good fit for you and a good experience. And I definitely think we should be encouraging employers to put that information in their job adverts.

There are some good job websites to look at: My Job Scotland, Good Moves, Find a Job (which is the DWP service) and there’s also a collective of organisations who have created a website called Because Scotland Cares to promote their careers and their approach to recruitment as well. So there’s lots of really good places where you can look if you’re interested in the types of role, the types of contract and the wages.

Michelle: And Susie, what sort of questions are work coaches or employability key workers likely to have about this career?

Susie: I think first of all about the qualifications. And I know it’s quite widely known that you would be working towards your SVQ, but I think maybe how long does it take to do that and what’s the expectation about having that done in a certain amount of time? Is it mandatory, do they have to do that? The question about the PVG and the eligibility is probably one of the most common questions with work coaches and I do believe there is an assumption that if someone does have a criminal background then they may not be eligible so I think it’s a good idea to signpost them to Disclosure Scotland rather than writing that person off on the assumption they won’t get it, it’s good to explore that. So that’s some of the questions work coaches would be asking, another would be around the SSSC and qualifications and whether this is mandatory if they are working towards the SVQ or can they remain in the sector without doing it? There are a few things that work coaches aren’t totally versed on that would be good to have clarified.

I think it’s good we are going awareness raising with work coaches so they can have a better understanding of the sector and that they can pass that on to their customers. One of the things that’s maybe not spoken about so much is about what we can provide as a department, whether it’s the costings for PVG or SSSC and it’s something at the moment that personally the DWP isn’t funding PVG but there are external organisations who will so there should be no cost for the customer to move into employment.

Also our department are quite happy to cover travel costs for instance if they won’t get their first pay for a month and they’ve got to travel to and from their work we can help them with travel costs and if they are going to be doing a work experience placement we can help with travel costs there too or if they have to have shoes, clothes whatever. So what we try to do is remove the barriers, so if the barrier is childcare costs or transport or clothing costs we would like to cover that to give that person a better opportunity to get into the sector rather than being out of pocket.

Where do they go to find out all the right information, and the correct information about the care sector? I think we are quite good at signposting. We have our own adult social care intranet pages within our department which our work coaches can go on. They can find a wealth of information there and a lot is signposting to the external websites, SSSC and different places that they can go to listen to the testimonials and get I suppose a virtual feel of what it’s like to be in the sector rather than a real life feel.

Michelle: Great and that kind of leads me on to the next question around the SSSC and I know social services is a regulated profession and that means most professionals working in the sector from support workers to managers will require to register with the Scottish Social Services Council. Kerry, can you explain a little bit more about this?

Kerry: Yes the SSSC, we’re a regulator for the social services workforce as you say. So we maintain a Register. And to stay on the Register you have to show that you are ‘Fit to Practise’ – that’s a common term that’s used by different regulators across the UK. And it’s about your conduct and your character and showing you are able to carry out the role safely and to a high standard.

The Register helps us show the public that services are provided by a trusted, skilled and confident workforce. It’s a really important change for the sector I suppose in recent decades that professional regulation has come through. It helps us raise the profile of the profession which is obviously so deserved.

So part of registration is, and Susie had mentioned that this is something that work coaches are curious about in terms of whether it’s mandatory. So if you are on the Register (which means you are one of the eligible groups so that could be a care home service, most regulated care services which are regulated by the Care Inspectorate but also social work services) you’ll need to gain a qualification which is suitable for your role. So in the case of social workers that’s a university based career path so either undergraduate or postgraduate degree level, and it’s a protected title. For other roles in social services there are different pathways, so a really good thing about this career. We most commonly see people completing SVQs in work, so Scottish Vocational Qualifications. And people get five years to gain a suitable qualification and that’s equal to their first period of registration so that’s quite a useful thing for work coaches and employability key workers to know. Other routes include college courses, principally HNCs in either social services or childhood practice although there are a number of different access routes, access courses. And I always say make sure you speak to the college about it, don’t assume that there’s not something available and also there’s some shorter courses as well which might suit people in this situation. Not to forget Modern Apprenticeships, they are really valued in the workforce and used a great deal. And they contain the full SVQ as the core qualification and I don’t think that’s very widely known outside certain circles but that’s really important so it’s the full SVQ, it’s a funded route and there is also an opportunity to gain core skills. And also really important is that there is funding available for people of any age so again there’s some misconceptions that we really need to try and iron out and make sure that there’s awareness out there.

And I think Modern Apprenticeships in particular are a really good route for people who are looking for a more supportive employment route. Because straight away after recruitment you are on a formal skills development pathway. And you can be guided by a mentor and an assessor who will work alongside your employer, so it’s got that additional element of support. And again if you’re in an employability programme and you’re working with a work coach or a key worker you’ve got their support as well to maybe iron out the difficulties that are preventing you from securing or sustaining employment longer term. So really you see employment as a partnership between a number of people but with obviously the person at the centre of that.

Michelle: Where can employability professionals look to get more information about careers in social services?

Kerry: Always recommend to use our careers website which is and it’s a one-stop-shop. It’s got lots of information and really accessible information, so not too detailed but just the right amount we hope. And it’s has videos and testimonials and stories from real workers which we know is so important. I always encourage people follow us on social media, and just follow a range of social service organisations actually - including Iriss – to get a really good sense of what it’s like to work in the sector and the colleagues you’ll meet and the partnerships you’ll develop. The #LifeChangingWork hashtag is really useful just to get links to helpful resources or job opportunities so I like looking at that.

I’d also highlight the Careers Ambassadors programme which is led by SSSC and it’s a great network of workers who volunteer to share their career story. And you’ll know if you work in an employment support environment that the voice of experience is just the critical factor in whether someone wants to consider a career and take that step which can be quite daunting. We get really good feedback from people who have heard our ambassadors speak who’ve given their words of wisdom and advice about how they started and what they are doing now. And you can find out more about that on the SSSC’s main website which is and we have a particular careers and education section which you’ll see from the home page.

Michelle: Ok great, and from your point of view Susie is there any other further information available?

Susie: I think I touched on the intranet pages that our [DWP] colleagues have access to. Because there is so much information out there for us, to help us give the right information to our customers we’d direct them to our internal pages which then give links out to SSSC and Careers in Care so that the customers are getting signposted in the right direction rather than going away and doing a ‘Google’ and coming up with something else. So for us we’ve got it all on our intranet so we know where to go and then we can signpost the customers in the right direction as well. So there is so much information out there but we’ve got a few good sites we can send to like SSSC and Careers in Care etc then we know the customers have the right information and then like Kerry touched on the testimonials and the real life stories which is from the horse’s mouth so-to-speak and it’s good to hear someone’s experience, and a positive one as well.

Michelle: We’ll wrap it up there, thank you both very much for speaking to me on this subject.

Susie: Thank you very much for having us.

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