Give unpaid carers professional qualifications to avert crisis

Britain must recruit an additional care workforce the size of the Chinese army to cope with the ageing population, new forecast predicts.

Millions of People looking after sick or elderly loved-ones could be recruited to help avert a disastrous shortage of care workers as the population ages, the head of one of the UK’s only care training groups has suggested.

Justine Cawley, director of the Elizabeth Care project, insisted that the only realistic chance of alleviating a “gaping” shortfall expected in the care workforce in the next few years would be to employ many of the 6.5 million people currently acting as unpaid carers.

She is calling for those already looking after frail, elderly or disabled relatives to be offered training and professional qualifications to encourage them to move into a career in the care sector when their current responsibilities for loved-ones come to an end.

Crucially, she said, the unpaid care they are currently providing could count towards credits on courses to help create a properly trained and qualified care workforce for the first time.

The group estimates that the workforce in care homes and home care agencies in England alone would need to almost double in the next 20 years just to keep pace with the numbers of people requiring help.

The extra 1.5 million is about the size of the Chinese Army, the biggest in the world, or the combined populations of cities of Manchester and Birmingham.

There are currently just over 1.6 million care workers in England, a workforce already larger than the 1.3 million-strong NHS and which has grown by 15 per cent in three years.

But Mrs Cawley, warned that the country is facing a critical shortage unless there is a major drive to find new carers.

“People just haven’t grasped the enormous challenge we face in training a workforce to care for the elderly,” she said.

“Part of the problem is the disparate nature of the employers, who you can’t compare to the NHS.

“A large proportion of the workforce are employed by very small organisations, some of which provide domiciliary care, or ‘home help’ and others of whom operate residential care homes.

“I think it has just got into that ‘too hard to do’ pile but it has to be tackled or the care system just won’t be able to function properly.”

A series of scandals over abuse and neglect of older people has placed the spotlight onto concerns about rushed and sloppy care, commissioned on the basis of crude 15-minute slots.

Norman Lamb, the care minister, has voiced concern about carers being paid less than the legal minimum wage when travel time between appointments and essential expenses are taken into account.

The Telegraph’s Justice for the Elderly campaign is pressing for mandatory training and licensing for care workers.

Even under the Coalition’s care reforms, due to come into force next year, there will be no legal requirement for care workers to have qualifications.

Mrs Cawley said: “To deal with our ageing population – and one with increasingly complex conditions, we not only have to train the existing workforce, but we also need to prepare for that workforce to expand dramatically, so we have got to invest in training people who have never been trained before.

“That should include training unpaid carers. If they have given up years of their lives caring for someone, they should at least have a qualification.

“It would help the whole system and, of course, there could be an economic gain.

“By linking caring with training and job opportunities it would enable people to get back into the workforce when their time as a full-time carer has come to an end.”

She added: “If we are going to avoid having a gaping hole in the care system we are going to have to go for non-traditional carers.

“We can’t just rely on recruiting school leavers, there are just not enough of them, we need to look at people who may already be doing care or who might consider it as a possible new career.

“It would provide some recognition for what they do and they would gain qualifications and opportunities to work somewhere else in due course.”

The Elizabeth Care project provides the only academically accredited on-the-job training course for care workers if its kind in the UK.

Currently based at Surrey University, the project is seeking funding to expand to a network of universities across the country.