News analysis: Can the sector keep up with itself?

Charities are employing under-skilled staff to cope with the sector's rapid growth. Andy Ricketts reports.

Social care accaounts for more than half of sector staff
Social care accaounts for more than half of sector staff

The voluntary sector is growing faster than any other part of the economy. Research published by the Workforce Hub today says the number of people working for charities and voluntary organisations has jumped by more than a quarter over a 10-year period.

According to the UK Voluntary Sector Workforce Almanac, the figures for people employed in the sector rose by 128,000 to 611,000 in the nine years to 2005, far outstripping the rates of growth in the public and private sectors. Voluntary sector employees now account for 2 per cent of the total UK workforce.

Women are much better represented in management positions than in other sectors, and the proportion of disabled people in the sector is far higher than in the private or public spheres. Almost one in five people in the sector has a disability.

Rapid expansion

So why is the sector growing so rapidly and what are the implications of this fast growth? Jenny Clark, author of the report and research officer at the Workforce Hub, which helps charities develop their human resources, says the growth is due in part to a greater demand for social care work.

"Generally, the UK labour market has been moving more to service industries," she says. "There has also been a movement of roles from the public sector to the voluntary sector. The growth in service delivery contracts has been key to that movement."

The raw data appears to paint an attractive picture of a booming and diverse sector, but there have been some growing pains associated with this rapid expansion. The volume of staff in the sector has increased, but skills gaps and recruitment problems are rife. About a third of charities employ people in roles they are not sufficiently skilled to carry out.

To compound the problem, more than half of charities say these problems arise because they lack the funding or do not have the time to tackle the problem by means of training.

The Workforce Hub's research also found that a quarter of voluntary sector organisations have a hard time filling vacancies. The most common reasons for this include problems in finding appropriately qualified individuals and a simple lack of interest in jobs when they are advertised.

Research by Agenda Consulting for People Count 2007, published earlier this month, revealed more holes in the sector's workforce armour (Third Sector, 17 October). It showed that voluntary organisations perform badly in terms of how much they spend on training compared with the national average - £311 per head against £387. It also revealed that they fare poorly in staff turnover and career development work.

At 21.3 per cent, staff turnover is more than 3 percentage points higher than the cross-sector average. Only 16 per cent of charities carry out career planning with employees, compared with a national figure of 48 per cent across all UK industry.

Seb Elsworth, head of policy at chief executives body Acevo, says smaller charities in particular have difficulties with career planning and progression.

"The challenge to offer a career path is something that small organisations are always going to struggle with," he says. "It is something that the private sector has been doing for a lot longer."

Elsworth says increasing the amount of money for staff training is potentially difficult for charities. "We have to ask to what extent the public will accept that the money it donates is going on training courses, so bringing that into public debate is important," he says.

However, Elsworth also predicts the sector's rapid growth will continue. "I do certainly see a continued growth as the sector increases its role in service delivery," he says.

The social care factor

The Workforce Hub found that provision of social care services makes up the work of more than half of employees in the sector.

Neil Cleeveley, director of information and policy at umbrella group Navca, says he expects there to be growth in other areas if charities take advantage of new opportunities, such as local area agreements. But he is worried that smaller community groups will get pushed out by the larger ones.

"My concern is that the growth is at the top end and it's crowding out the smaller organisations," says Cleeveley.

Clark, however, sees the expansion of the sector as good news. "Much of the growth has been a good thing for the voluntary sector," she says. "It has provided more work opportunities and has also led to greater professionalisation."


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