Recruiting Social Workers Equals Retaining Social Workers

Recruiting social workers? It isn’t like recruiting for other positions. There are some unique challenges involved in social work that impact sourcing, interviewing, training, and retention, and there isn’t an easy answer to how to address these challenges. Recruiteze is the best online ATS for small business recruiting and hiring social workers. Want a free trial? Click here!

The world has a growing demand for social work, but the number of people pursuing the profession has not increased. And budgets are strapped.

This combination of factors makes it hard for employers to find the talent they need and to keep good talent. Stretched budgets and a dearth of help create a draining workplace, a particularly draining one considering the emotional and schedule demands of social work.

Why this is so Bad

Retention is important for any employer because high turnover always impedes efficiency. With social work, high turnover doesn’t mean lower profits or customer satisfaction, it means the suffering of programs that impact, often save, the most vulnerable people’s livelihoods and lives.

The success of cases that social workers handle depends on one social worker being able to build a relationship with the people they’re serving and seeing the case through to conclusion. Unfortunately, this too infrequently happens and the results are disastrous.

A Milwaukee County child welfare turnover study found that a child with one caseworker had a 74.5% chance of successfully completing their program in a year. Having two caseworkers reduced their chances to 17.5%, and if they ended up being given six or seven caseworkers, their chances dropped to 0.1%.

Jumping to six or seven caseworkers sounds a bit extreme until you realize that it had to happen for them to have figures for it. The study looked at 679 children and had a separate figure for children with 6 caseworkers and one for 7 caseworkers.

That means some children have as many as seven caseworkers in a year. This kind of turnover greatly reduces the families’ trust in the program as it adds more stress to their lives and demonstrates an alarming lack of effectiveness. The inefficiency of starting over so many times makes it so that plans don’t get seen through.

Scott McCown, the director of the Children’s Rights Center at the University of Texas Law School said, “If you’re a caseworker, you develop a relationship with the parent and child. That’s what helps you help them. But every time there’s turnover, you start from scratch.”

High turnover increases costs as well.

The same article as quoted above,, stated, “Constant workforce churn costs not just clients hope but governments money. Training a new social services worker costs $54,000, according to the Texas Senate Committee on Finance.”

This cost further drains the budget and leads to even higher turnover, creating a never-ending cycle of inefficiency. described the situation, “experienced caseworkers don’t have time to mentor new ones, caseloads increase, backlogs develop, tempers flare, pressures rise and burnout shows no signs of fading.”

Recruiting Social Workers Equals Retaining Social Workers

Fixing the challenges of recruiting social workers requires a multi-fold approach aimed at improving retention.

Choosing the Right Social Workers

Retaining social workers largely requires hiring the right ones in the first place. This involves more than examining their educational credentials.

Social workers need to have:

  • proven to themselves that social work is really what they want to do
  • the right values to match the program and needs of the program’s recipients
  • a higher than average emotional intelligence
  • a willingness to give an unusual amount of time and emotion to the job and to recipients
  • dedication and courage to hold quality standards high even if pressured to do less

Employers and recruiters of social workers can begin to improve their hiring efforts with how they word job advertisements. Listing the skills and personality needed for the job informs candidates of the job requirements before wasting their time and the recruiter’s time applying. This is called self-screening and is quite helpful for selecting the right candidates and spending less time doing it. Wording the job advertisement in such a way to prepare candidates for the trials and rewards they can realistically expect also provide valuable clues to candidates that can save everyone time.

Community Care in the UK discussed ambassadors whose job is largely to turn candidates off. Katie Coombes, the head of human services at Hollybank Trust, described some of what the ambassadors would say, “It is a really hard job. The pay is not the greatest, the hours can be long and shifts don’t always fit in with your personal life, but it gives a lot. You can change people’s lives and help them to live more independently.” She went on to say, “I would rather they were put off at the beginning of the process than go through to getting the job before deciding it’s not for them.”

More training is also needed and several employers and agencies are working on methods to address this problem. Some mentor new hires for on-the-job training in addition to their education and prior training experience. Some ease new social workers into the workflow with smaller caseloads in the beginning.

Retaining Social Workers

The strapped budgets and ridiculous caseloads that most social workers face are too demanding for even the best hires. It simply is not possible for any human being to do that much work effectively. The best hires can hold out longer and be prepared to excel if situations approve, but employers can’t hire their way out of the retention problem.

Supervisors can try to improve the work environment in several ways:

  • try to keep social workers from being bogged down with administrative tasks
  • offer social workers opportunities to better themselves with access to new training and licenses and chances to connect with local influencers
  • reward social workers for work well done
  • provide positive and negative feedback
  • where possible, give social workers freedom to make personal choices and be creative with solutions
  • build your own emotional intelligence and help social workers build theirs to help manage the stresses of such demanding caseloads

Employers often see remuneration as the go-to employee benefit, but it is not the most important one to employees in any line of work, and it is a particularly unsuccessful one with social work.

Most employers of social workers don’t have the ability to increase wages. Their budget is so tight that it’s contributing to the negative work environment as it is.

And throwing money at social workers won’t fix ridiculous caseloads or an inability to help the people they are there to serve. If there’s any money to spare, use it to better the program.

Do pay social workers a wage that amply rewards them for their services, but don’t think wage alone with make up for the other negative aspects of the job. Do keep your pay as competitive as possible in the area.

Additional read: 7 Innovative Tips for Effective Mobile Recruiting

Many Factors Affect Retention of Social Workers

The Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research completed a report on retention of child welfare staff.

They found that several factors must be in place retain social workers:

  • competitive salary
  • reasonable workload
  • coworker support
  • supervisory support
  • opportunities for career growth
  • organization commitment and valuing employees
  • personal skills, experience, and values
  • more in-depth education programs

Work on building as many of these factors as possible to improve retention.

Measuring Success

As with any goal, retention attempts must be measured to be successful.

Measure current turnover rates, vacancies, caseloads, etc. You’ve got to know how bad it is to know what to fix. And being able to monitor progress helps you stay motivated and keep improving.

Conduct surveys and exit interviews to learn how the social workers in your employ feel, and what they need. This is a crucial part of tackling recession.

Michelle Cornes, research fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College in London, suggests designating names for things that need to change or be monitored to make managing them more quantifiable. Community Care summed up her idea, “staff are asked to categorise colleagues in terms of their effect on the office mood; for instance, employees who detract from a good atmosphere are classified as “mood hoovers” – she says it provides managers with a vocabulary to discuss the path to more effective supervision.”

Additional read: 5 tips for recruitment graduation



Challenges are wreaking havoc with recruiting social workers. Hiring more selectively, doing more training, and improving the work environment come together to improve retention, helping social workers and the people they serve.

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