The Contribution Of EU Workers In The Social Care Workforce In Scotland 2022

Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos to carry out a repeat of a 2017 study into the impact of Brexit on the UK workforce.

Executive Summary

Background to the research

The impact of Brexit on the UK workforce has been a prominent theme in political and economic discourse. In 2017 the Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct research to provide estimates of the number of EU27 workers in specified adult social care and childcare sub-sectors. The research[1]estimated that EU nationals accounted for 5.6% (including 0.2% from the Republic of Ireland) of people working within the social care and childcare sectors, equating to 9,830 workers.

Concerns about the potential impact of Brexit on the delivery of health and social care have been widely aired since the EU referendum, with particular issues regarding the lack of clarity around how many staff in health and social care services might be affected by any change in status or visa requirements. These issues have been raised by professional and employer representative bodies and are of importance to the commissioners and providers of services in their service and workforce planning

It is within this context that the Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos to carry out a repeat of the 2017 study. The specific objectives of the research were two-fold:

1. provide robust estimates of the number of EU workers in specified care sub-sectors (adult day care, care at home, day care of children, childminding, housing support, and nurse agencies).

2. provide insights into the specific roles and contributions of those workers from the perspective of employers.

The research comprised two strands: a mixed-mode survey of employers from across the social care sector; and follow up qualitative interviews with 10 employers who took part in the survey.

The survey ran from 7 February to 18 March 2022 with the qualitative fieldwork running between 24 March and 10 April 2022.

Key findings

The size of the non-UK EU workforce

The estimate of the percentage of people employed within adult social care and childcare that are EU nationals is 5.0% (including 0.3% who are from the Republic of Ireland). Overall, there are around 185,000 people working within adult social care and childcare. The prevalence estimate of 5.0% equates to 9,320 workers.

The estimate varied by sub-sector, ranging from 0.5% in childminding to 12.4% in nursing agencies. with other sub-sectors lying between 4.1% and 6.2%. Adult focused sub-sectors had a slightly higher prevalence of EU workers at 5.4% with just 3.8% of child-centred sub-sector staff coming from the EU.

In terms of absolute numbers of staff, the sectors with the most UK EU staff were Care Home for Adults (3,290), Housing support/Care at Home (3,090), and Day Care of Children (1,590). The sectors with the fewest were Childminding (20) and Adult Day Care (290).

In percentage terms, EU workers were more prevalent in private sector services (5.4% +/- 1.4%; 4,550 staff), and voluntary sector services (5.3% +/- 1.9%; 1,790) than in public sector services (3.1% +/- 2.4%; 1,530).

EU staff were more prevalent among auxiliary staff, NMC-registered nurses, and care staff than managers and other staff. Around 6.7% of auxiliary staff (+/-1.2%), 5.7% of NMC registered nurses (+/- 1.1%), and 5.0% of care staff (+/-1.0%) and were from EU countries. The corresponding percentage for managers was lower at 3.5% (+/-0.9%).

In terms of NUTS2 regions, EU staff account for the highest proportion of care staff in the North East (6.6% +/-3.8%) and the East (6.6% +/- 1.8%), compared to in the Highlands and Islands (4.5% +/-2.7%) and South West (3.4% +/-1.5%). Urban rural threefold classification was calculated using postcode data. The proportion of EU staff in the categories of social services sampled is 9.7% (+/- 5.7%) in remote rural Scotland, 4.6% (+/- 3.0%) in accessible rural Scotland, and 4.8% (+/- 1.1%) in the rest of Scotland.

Perspectives on recruitment and retention

The survey found evidence of increased difficulty in recruiting new care staff or practitioners. Over three-quarters (77%) of those who had tried said the process had become more difficult in the last year. This compared to 44% in 2018. Just under two-thirds (64%) of those who had tried to recruit NMC registered nurses said the process had become more difficult in the last year (compared to 52% in 2018). There has also been large increases in the proportion of participants reporting that it had got harder to recruit auxiliary staff and managers.

The survey suggests that staff retention had also become more challenging since 2018. Almost three in five participants (58%) reported that there had been increased difficulties in retaining care staff and practitioners. The corresponding figure in 2018 was 26%. In terms of retention of EU staff specifically, while most participants said that there had been no change in the last twelve months for all job types - ranging from 70% for care staff and practitioners to 84% for managers – the survey suggested increased difficulties compared to 2018 of retaining EU staff in all types of role.

In terms of reasons EU staff had left the sector, these were many and varied. Brexit was mentioned along with more 'everyday' reasons such as promotion, career change and relocation. The impact of COVID-19 was also mentioned with a number of participants noting that staff had left Scotland to be nearer family during the pandemic.

Qualitative findings

The qualitative research highlighted that the recruitment and retention of staff remain significant challenges for the social care sector and echoed the findings from the survey that the extent of these issues had increased over recent years.

Some of the recruitment and retention challenges facing the sector were broadly similar to those described in the 2018 study, namely a shortage of suitable applicants, particularly for nursing roles, and low pay and wage competition from other employers.

However, a number of new factors were also raised, which were exacerbating these ongoing challenges. The emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020 has had a clear impact on the sector, and added to existing staffing and workload pressures due to higher levels of staff absence and restrictive working conditions. Furthermore, negative publicity surrounding the virus and the care sector was thought to have made the sector less attractive to job seekers. In addition, managers felt that the current, competitive job market and a high number of job vacancies meant that people were more likely to apply for better paid and less demanding jobs elsewhere.

The UK's decision to leave to EU has also had a noticeable impact on recruitment and retention, particularly among services that comprised a high proportion of EU staff prior to Brexit. In the lead up to and since Brexit, managers noted a significant reduction in the number and quality of applications, as a result of the decline in applicants from the EU. They also noted that a number of EU staff had left their service, and the UK, either because they could not obtain a visa to work in the UK or due to concerns and uncertainty about their future residency status in the UK.

Despite a decrease in the number of applicants from EU countries, managers noted there had been an increase in non-EU applicants over recent years. However, they also said that since they were still receiving a small pool of applicants for any job vacancies, they more likely than they had been in the past to recruit people with no experience of working in the sector.

A number of strategies had been taken to address recruitment and retention challenges, with varying levels of success. These included the more widespread advertisement of job vacancies; improved pay, conditions and training offers; and providing a supportive and communicative working environment.

A number of other suggestions were made on how to meet current and future recruitment and retention challenges. These included:

  • Improving pay and working conditions across the sector
  • Improved messaging and media coverage to raise the profile of the social care, focusing on the rewarding nature of the work and career opportunities within the sector.


The estimate of the percentage of EU nationals employed within social care and childcare in Scotland was 5.0%. The corresponding figure from the 2018 study was 5.6%. The 0.6% decrease is not statistically significant.

There was some variation by sub-sector. In the childcare sector the percentage of EU nationals was 3.8%, compared to 5.9% in 2018. In the adult social care sector overall, 5.4% of staff were EU nationals, compared to 5.5% in 2018. This difference is not significant.

However, compared to the 2018 study more managers reported difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff in the social care sector. Over three quarters of respondents who had tried to recruit staff said the process had become more difficult over recent years, a marked increase on the proportion who said likewise in 2018. Compounding these difficulties, respondents reported a drop in applications from EU nationals in the last 12 months across all staff types, and in particular among NMC registered nurses and auxiliary staff.

The retention of staff had also become more challenging since 2018. Almost three in five (58%) said it had become more difficult to retain staff, compared to 26% in 2018. In terms of EU staff specifically, the results suggest increased difficult retaining these staff in comparison to 2018 across all staff types. Furthermore, over a quarter said EU staff had left their service in the last 12 months, compared to 14% in 2018. Among the most common reasons EU staff gave for leaving their service included to take up a better job elsewhere, relocation to an EU country and Brexit or COVID-related concerns.

Qualitative findings mirror those from the survey with managers aware of ever increasing pressures on recruitment and retainment of staff. COVID-19 had exacerbated problems for staff with greater workload due to staff absence, social distancing and increased protections for vulnerable people putting a strain on resources. Brexit had also had a negative impact on the number of applications from EU nationals, leading not only to a dearth of applications overall, but a drop in quality. Managers said they were more likely to hire new recruits with no previous experience, than previously. Low pay and a lack of suitable applicants were still commonly cited by managers as the reason for problems with recruitment, as was in 2018.

It is difficult to disentangle the impact of Brexit specifically from COVID-19 and a emergence of a more competitive job maket. However, it is clear that Brexit, and a corresponding decline in the number of available EU nationals applying for jobs and working in the sector, means that the sector now has less flexibility to respond to ongoing labour supply challenges.



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