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I can’t quite remember my first day in my first job as a qualified social worker. I’m trying to think back. I remember a few things though and as university courses come to their ends and thoughts turn to employment, I considered thinking back to that time when I was pushed forward from my training into the world of ‘real’ social work.
Finding employment hadn’t been an issue. At that time, we had kind of mini-careers fairs and events in the university where employers mainly neighbouring local authorities and agencies would try to tempt us to join them. Some offered golden handshakes in cash terms and others endless support.
Later, in a different job at a different time, one of our managers remarked how at that point, all you had to do was sit on a street corner with your DipSW (or MA or BA) in Social Work and you would have people come up to you and offer you a job. Perhaps it wasn’t as much of an overstatement as we thought.
I went with a social work agency. My closest friends from the course – in fact, the only ones I’m still in touch with now – both took local authority jobs in neighbouring (different) boroughs – one in a Child Protection team and the other in a Leaving Care team. I knew I wanted to work in adults’ services. I’d known from before the course started. I wasn’t so anchored as to which part of adult services I worked in. I was open to anything.
I met with the agency consultant and we spoke about what I wanted in a job and how far I’d be willing to travel. About a week later, he came back with two posts available and both were in older adults services. As that had been where my ‘statutory’ placement was, I was more than happy as I felt I had a little understanding and experience in that area. I interviewed at both places and chose the borough which was nearer to me with the added bonus that I knew a few people in the team already as they had been seconded onto the same social work course as me as ‘workplace based students’. Even one or two familiar faces in a large office was enough of a draw.
It was a large office and I had no experience apart from my placement, in a social services department. In some ways, I felt more than a little out of my depth but the team was kind and friendly. It also seemed to be staffed by about 50% of agency workers. I had heard rumours of prejudices against agency staff due to the differentials in the salaries but honestly, I never really experienced that. I didn’t pretend to be anything I wasn’t.
If anything, I noticed more of a tension between ‘qualified’ and ‘unqualified’ staff than ‘agency’ and ‘permanent’ because a lot of the care management work we did was generic and especially when I was starting out, I was taking cases with less complexity than the more experienced ‘unqualified’ staff who would be getting stuck in.
In general though the unity of experience was greater than the division of types and salaries. The team as a whole could not have been friendlier or more welcoming. I was able to attend all the training courses provided, despite being ‘agency’. There was no differentiation in the type of supervision I received nor the inclusiveness I felt. Looking back, I realise that perhaps I was lucky but I worked with and among many people that I had and have the utmost respect for.
I would be afraid, at times, to ask the stupid questions. Where do I find this form? How do I find this file? How do I contact about this? What do I do when subjected to a hearty rant? Can I help this person get this service?
It seems like a different world now. Before FACS. Before any kind of charging policies. When we still met needs that would later be classified as ‘low’.
We didn’t type much. I shared a PC with the person next to me and we had to take it in turns to write reports or arrange visits with each other so we weren’t in at the same time – both wanting to use a computer. Along with our carefully designed care schedules, we had to provide costings for every service provided ourselves on spreadsheets either completed by hand or for the more techno-friendly, on PC. Later it all got fed into central databases and spreadsheets so the figures would automatically be adjusted but there wasn’t a desk at that time, without a big desk calculator on it.
I think my memories have been shaded with a little rose tinge at times. I remember a lot of anxieties about covering duty and wondering what would turn up. This was before the single access points and call centre type offices existed to ‘screen’ calls or distribute them appropriately so we had calls from everything about loose dogs on the streets to people who hadn’t seen their elderly neighbours for a few days and were worried. Some entirely appropriate and some.. more creative.
I don’t miss those days though. It was a different way of working and a good base. There were some very good people I worked with. It was an ‘older’ team. I was immediately the youngest qualified worker in the team when I joined. I think that made it easier for me to ask questions. I learnt that the most important thing is to ask and not assume and that old chestnut about there being no such thing as a stupid question never felt more true.
Did the university prepare me for the work I was doing? A little but it was the start and not the end. I have never stopped learning since then and I have a long, long way to go.
I realised that the lecturers at the time were teaching us about a social work system that had existed when they had been practitioners, about 10 years previously. I realised that the time pressures between being a student on placement and a qualified member of staff employed and paid were exponentially different.
There were problems and difficulties. I still remember some of the distress I felt when the first service user that I had worked with extensively, died. I remember the fear of my first manager and some of the bullying tactics she employed on the staff under her.
I had dreams at that point (I still do now, but very different ones). I wanted to travel the world. I felt I had a lot still to do. I vowed to myself I didn’t want to turn into the older staff that I’d seen there, plugging away after 10, 20, 30 years in the same post and becoming insular and self-absorbed.
Those thoughts pushed me to save up and leave after a year. I did go off and see the world and do many different things. I realised I missed the work, mostly I missed working in social care and I missed, well, I missed home.
I came back to the UK, a couple of years later, I was lucky enough to still be able to walk into a social work job and I knew it was exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.
Things have changed a whole lot and some things are a lot better.
I’ll continue with my story at another point when I got back to the UK to find new legislation, systems, agencies and.. everyone not only had their own PC but they were expected to use it!
To be continued..