NORTHUMBERLAND’s children’s services boss has admitted social worker recruitment “keeps me awake at night”, despite efforts to find and hold on to staff.

Maintaining the workforce for dealing with the county’s most vulnerable children and families is a “perennial challenge”.

And the added pressures of the coronavirus pandemic has reportedly hit morale hard and further increased turnover rates among frontline workers.

“This is obviously an area that is a constant issue for most local authorities,” said Cath McEvoy-Carr, executive director of adult and children’s services at Northumberland County Council (NCC).

“And it would be fair to say it’s probably the thing that keeps me awake at night the most, in terms of trying to ensure or being assured that we have staff to cover the work that needs to be covered.

“Although in actual fact our vacancy rate is quite low, because we recruit to the Social Work Academy, so we have a constant through flow of staff.”

According to figures for Northumberland, 35 social workers have quit the local authority over the last 12 months.

Of these, about two fifths moved to work for either a different council or a charity, while 20 per cent opted to switch to an agency, which can offer social workers “significant pay increases” at the expense of sick pay and holiday entitlements.

NCC has employed 20 agency social workers on temporary contracts over the past year.

The county council is now on its seventh intake of new recruits through its “social work academy scheme”, which has ensured a steady stream of newly qualified staff, but admits that attracting and retaining more experienced social workers remains “challenging”.

“One of the challenges has been that agency social workers can command a lot more money than permanently recruited social workers,” Graham Reiter, service director for children’s social care, told the county council’s Family and Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

“[Regionally] we’ve got a memorandum of understanding, where we have agreed rates that should be paid to agency social workers across the region, which will be slightly more than local authorities, but what they don’t get as agency workers is things like sickness absence and holidays.

“Occasionally authorities do break it, or have an agreement to break the agreed rate for various reasons.”