How can we grow and future-proof the senior living sector?

Tom Clarke, senior care lead at CACI
Tom Clarke, senior care lead at CACI

Tom Clarke, senior care lead at CACI, looks at how we manage the extra staff required to support senior living growth.

We’re presented with a bleak picture when we look at the state of some of our senior living, and its workforces throughout the UK. There are currently 165,000 vacant posts for care workers in England, a 52% rise on the year before, and the public perception of the industry appears to be only going one way. In spite of this, cost pressures, and public sector strikes, mean there is no time to waste when it comes to protecting and future-proofing vital post-retirement functions.

We’re facing some key issues within the political landscape at the moment: the cost-of-living crisis, Brexit, the state of the NHS and public sector strikes across the board. In an effort to tackle one of these, the government has announced investment into extra beds outside of hospital settings, to reduce the need to keep people in longer than necessary. While this does provide a route out of hospital for those that no longer need that level of care, it only serves to raise new questions: what will be the knock-on impact for care facilities and can we confidently say the focus as a result is in the right place? The senior living sector, looking at both social care via the NHS and private facilities, is one industry among many in desperate need of attention.

NHS trusts will vie for funding, from a £250 million pot, to buy thousands of extra beds in care homes and other settings, in order to speed up hospital discharge. In theory this is a step in the right direction, however, in practice it creates another issue. If the government is looking to provide those extra beds to free up hospitals, what does this mean for staff? A short-term fix has only highlighted a long-term problem. That inviting £250 million pot will be completely wasted if the people aren’t in place to make it work, and they won’t be if there are currently thousands of vacant beds waiting to be bought around the country.

It, therefore, goes without saying that to grow and future-proof the sector, recruitment is key; what kinds of people are likely to fulfil all these care worker jobs, and where can we find them? There has been a decline in available care staff over the last few years due to the continuing cost-of-living crisis and misconceptions of the industry, and without trying to be political, Brexit appears to have played its part too. Most care sector jobs are minimum or relatively low wage, with more examples every day of staff leaving for higher paid jobs, and we cannot ignore just how challenging and specialist the work can be. I shared some thoughts last year on the negative perceptions within senior living and the false narrative sometimes exacerbated by the media, resulting in a lack of awareness and appeal. Ultimately, if people are apprehensive about sending their loved ones to a care home, and do not see working in care as financially supportive enough (whether we have inflationary pressures or not), how likely are they to pursue a career in it?

As a starting point, our research points to job centre recruitment as being redundant for this market. The likelihood of unemployed individuals choosing to work within the care sector is slim. However, it may be that vacant roles appeal to individuals from specific socioeconomic backgrounds, and geography also plays a huge role. If we look at private facilities in isolation for a moment, we’ve identified two key groups they should be targeting: the first being 18–25-year-olds who have recently undertaken a college course focusing on health or social care; and the second being those who have previously worked in professions with a strong ‘care’ component, such as teachers, social workers and administrative roles. The point here is that a bespoke and targeted recruitment drive is required and within reason this will be reflected across all social care functions.

Taking it a step further, the effort cannot stop with employment. It’s all well and good recruiting a high volume of individuals, but if they are unlikely to stay for a sustained period, it’s back to square one. I’ve already pointed to economic pressures that are driving staff out of care; we cannot rely on job satisfaction alone, because even the most selfless among us has a tipping point. Retention needs a rethink. What benefits can we provide? How can we support our staff who are juggling other priorities? What can we do to make our staff feel valued? These are all questions which should be part and parcel of any company but are often lost by complacency in care and need proper answers even with all the challenges employers are facing right now.

One in ten care workers are on some form of benefit. If we assume this benefit stipulates maximum working hours, it only creates gaps in the workforce, requiring high staffing on part-time hours, which is hardly a desirable way to manage a home. What reasonably achievable perks can be put in place to either lift staff off benefits, or at least guarantee longer service? Bizarrely, the answer might be in offices.

The availability, attractiveness and accessibility of flexible workspace has dominated the business working environment and is set to take up 30% of total office space by 2030. Shifting company culture now places huge emphasis on the offer within a workplace, almost as an equal to interest in the job itself, and in a post-Covid world where new waves of staff are demanding working from home at least some of the time, it’s critical that they have a good reason to commute even short distances. While this is probably out of reach of publicly funded facilities, we can take this model and apply it to private care homes.

Private companies should be thinking about the wider picture and establish what end users will truly value. It’s obvious enough for the people paying to use the service, but too often overlooked for staff, without whom the facility simply won’t exist. What these incentives could be – taking into account things like geographical location, previous employment, and establishing key trends for potential staff – are easy enough to find, if you follow a data and insight led approach. There are clearly opportunities for added benefits such as childcare support and discounts on public transport that can help appeal to those core groups, if you’re looking for two examples that will be relevant everywhere.

We will always welcome considered government investment, which can make a real difference if it isn’t short-sighted. The pressure on the NHS is becoming clearer for all to see but moving this strain along the chain will only make things more intolerable for other parts of our health care system. We’d encourage private care home companies to do their research now to play their role in the solution. Targeting and understanding the right staff, and, from this, deciphering what longevity incentives could look like, will shape the ability and knowledge to make this a more digestible and tangible task.

There are several ways that we can grow and future proof the senior living sector. We’re currently at the ‘what we need’ stage of understanding, and need to move swiftly into the ‘who we need’ phase, to find the long-term solutions.

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