Years ago during a summer vacation from university I went down to the Job Centre to sign on. These were the days when loans were unheard of and layabout students were entitled to relax at the taxpayer’s expense during July and August. But I fancied actually earning some money through paid employment, and asked to have a look at what was available. ‘Well, we do have this but the chances are you won’t be interested,’ sighed the Catford DHSS operative behind the screen, handing me a job description.
The following day I clocked on as a care assistant in a local authority old people’s home. It turned out to be one of the most interesting and rewarding things I’ve ever done. It even included moments of drama, first when we had a fire alarm and I carried a 96 year old on my back down eight flights of stairs. And then there was the morning I clocked on at 7am to get my charges up only to discover when drawing back the bed sheets that the whole place had gone down with food poisoning. (The kitchen was running with cockroaches.) ‘Go and get some rubber gloves and a bucket of hot water,’ commanded my associate Mr Carby.
Of course knowing it was only going to last a couple of months meant the novelty did not have the time to wear off. Working in such an environment year-in, year-out is tough.
In MT we have a regular column entitled Tomorrow’s Jobs - which has included such futureproof gigs as data scientist and nano-medic. So far we haven’t covered adult social care assistant, though. It neither sounds nor is terribly sexy.
But the truth is that many of the jobs of the future are also those of the present day. Just we’ll need many more of them. Sarah O’Connor of the FT makes the excellent point in a recent article that ‘the jobs we humans are uniquely good at are often the jobs that we do not value at all.’ She points out the ghastliness of the Japanese companion robot which is designed to keep old people company by emitting inane small talk and remind them to take their pills at the correct time.
It’s surely fine to replace lower level toilers in law firms with AI and robots but not those who would actually sit and listen and be a companionable, breathing being to an elderly person. Most of the individuals I looked after were simply lonely and wanted someone to talk to and listen to stories about times long gone. We had one married pair in their 90s who never left their twin beds - a bit like Charlie’s Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine Bucket - and rarely said anything to each other except when someone turned up to plump their pillows and say hello.
The problem is that many do not have the time to do the job properly as they are trying to cram so much in. At least a robot is consistent, not charged out by the half hour and never in a bad mood.
Most care assistant jobs hover around the minimum wage and are classified as low skilled. O’Connor points out that in the UK 43 per cent of care workers earn less than £7.50 an hour. Low skilled positions are usually made the culprit for our depressingly low level of productivity in the UK. But how do you measure the productivity of a care assistant? How fast they can get a bedpan into the sluice or lay out a body after a ‘client’ has popped off? (That was in my job description but luckily I was never called on to get a body prepped for the undertaker.)
Getting people to be care assistants isn’t easy. Today it was announced that the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.6 %, the lowest rate since 1975. There are not that many unemployed around to choose from. And those who take up the roles were frequently not born here in the UK.
In the same way that home born Brits don’t want to cut broccoli in Lincolnshire fields they don’t want to spend time looking after the elderly. All those ‘special snowflake’ millennials do not regard it as an aspirational career move.
Almost one in five of all care workers are migrants – some 266,000 people - but the Government’s migration policy has become increasingly restrictive to non-EU migrants, who make up the largest proportion of migrants working in the adult social care sector. Now comes the prospect of making it tough for EU citizens to come to work in the sector. (Incidentally, around 36% of NHS doctors were born abroad.)
The adult social care sector ‘faces a perfect storm,’ stated a report from a couple of years back by Independent Age and the International Longevity Centre-UK. Budget cuts and a rapidly ageing population have seen to that.
The report recommended that Britain should open its borders to low skilled migrants from around the world to address a shortfall of more than one million care workers by 2037. But you won’t find many politicians advocating that as a solution in their manifestos, as we prepare to pull up the Brexit drawbridge. So maybe those dismal robo-carers will have a future after all.