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Steve Humphreys, a British Airways cabin crew director, was among 9 million people whose work ground to a halt in the UK this spring. With a screech of tyres his last flight from Barcelona touched down in mid-March, flights were cancelled and a 47-year career in which he served golfer Seve Ballesteros on Concorde and the boxer Nicola Adams on the Bradford-to-Heathrow shuttle was over.
He has since joined a wave of UK workers furloughed or made redundant by the Covid pandemic switching into care work, which has emerged as one of the few growing areas of a ravaged jobs market. The sector has the fastest-growing number of vacancies, according to figures for December from the jobs website Indeed, and in November there were more vacancies in health and social care work (about 125,000) than in any other sector, according to official statistics.
Shop assistants, nightclub bouncers, actors and cruise ship workers are among those joining the care workforce, which at 1.5 million is larger than that of the NHS. It means stepping on to the frontline of the pandemic where more than 21,000 care home residents have died from the virus. It also means accepting low wages. More than half of care workers earn below the “real” living wage level of £9.50 an hour (£10.85 in London), according to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, which is calling for the government to accelerate the switch by insisting social care employers pay at least the real living wage.
“People have to look at themselves and how they can adapt,” said Humphreys. “Most of my colleagues have gone into the Covid world: test and trace, or the supermarkets. [Care work] is pretty much the same [as cabin crew work]. The job is about the way you treat people. On the aircraft I was always able to detect the people who did and didn’t want to talk and it’s the same in this role.”
By next March, 2.6 million people will be unemployed, according to forecasts last month by the Office for Budget Responsibility that did not account for the latest lockdown. A growing number of workers will have to change careers to keep earning. Courier firms and warehouse packing are among the biggest recruiters at the moment.
One 25-year old cruise ship entertainment director, who was due to depart on a round-the-world cruise from Sydney but is now working in a care home and delivering parcels for Yodel and Hermes, said he was earning £3,000 a month less than before.
“It’s a big, big loss,” he said. “I am keen to get back to the ship.”
“Switching careers is not easy at the best of times, let alone the worst of times,” said Nye Cominetti, a senior economist at the Resolution Foundation. “But with Britain’s population ageing, many more people are likely to be moving into social care over the coming years. The government should make that switch more attractive by improving pay and conditions.”
The security guard
Tara Snelling, 44, worked at nightclubs and shops before the pandemic. She was on shift at a Lidl in south London in March when she was struck over the head amid panic buying.
“People were going crazy with shoplifting, they were refusing to queue,” she said. “They were aware there wasn’t much on the shelves.”
Deciding she could not go on, she switched to a job as a care assistant on £8.75 an hour.
The pay is a “nonsense for what you do”, she said, but added: “This is the first job where I have looked forward to it.” After a shift when she has made the residents comfortable, she feels the same satisfaction she felt when she tucked up her children in bed.
Molly Richards was halfway through a six-month tour of Italy when the pandemic struck. The 22-year old was touring schools with shows to teach children English in Lombardy, the centre of the first wave in northern Italy. It was the first big job of her career after graduating from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
“I was thinking about how to use my skills,” she said. “I saw care was understaffed and needed people.”
She found a job at a specialist home for people with complex neurological conditions. It had been infected with Covid early in the pandemic and she has been thrown into washing incontinent residents and providing tracheostomy care.
“You have to be strong, but you have to think about what the situation would be if the tables were turned,” she said. “If someone wasn’t willing to do it, you would be helpless and left to sit in your own excretions. The main thing as a carer is putting someone else before yourself.”
She hopes to go back to the theatre industry “whenever that day will be”.
The hotel worker
Elaine Mercer was cleaning rooms and serving breakfasts at a Lincolnshire B&B when she was furloughed. Bored at home, she was moved by the unfolding care home crisis on TV.
“I thought of my own grandparents and I just wanted to do something,” said the 56-year-old.
By July she was on shift at a dementia care home, washing, dressing and delivering breakfasts. The job is sometimes hard, particularly when residents get upset at their incontinence.
“You see pictures in their rooms of their wedding and with their children and think, they were young like us once,” she said. “You just hope there’s someone there to care for us.”
She added: “When you come home you feel like you have made a difference. It’s not like working behind a bar and you come home and that’s that. I love it. You get connected to the residents. You need to have a caring soul.”
Georgia Davies was in her third year of singing at Spanish resorts and was about to start a season in an Egyptian hotel when the pandemic hit.
“It was devastating, when you work really hard for something,” the 24-year-old said. “The next step up would have been cruises and then you try and break into theatre.”
Instead of singing in Sharm el-Sheikh, she was signing on in Manchester. She took a supermarket job but quit in tears after four days, feeling “ripped from a job I loved doing”.
She had done pantomime in care homes and liked talking to people, so when a job came up recruiting care workers, she went for it.
“At least half of the people I speak to are getting into care because they have been made redundant: there’s a lot of chefs, kitchen assistants, some shop workers. There have been a few in entertainment, including a standup comedian.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘You feel you have made a difference’: laid-off workers join UK care sector