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In this guide, we'll cover the kinds of education and qualifications you may need, how to find support jobs, how to apply for them, interviewing well and a bit about where you can move on from your entry-level positions!
13th September 2013
So you're thinking about getting a support worker job? Congratulations! Support worker jobs are great opportunities for caring, patient and friendly people who love to see others achieve their best. With a real range of areas in which you can work, there's something out there for anyone considering it and plenty of scope for progression as the years roll by!
What support worker qualifications do I need?
One of the most convenient things about support worker jobs is that your employability relies much more on your personality than your ability at school. We've even found job listings for support worker jobs that don't mention qualifications at all – they just want the right kind of person.
However, many job listings will mention NVQs in Care. If you're looking at an entry-level job, they may talk about an NVQ2 in care. If you're looking for anything more senior, they'll mention an NVQ3. But, don't panic! Generally, they don't mind whether you have one or not but you must be willing to work towards one.
Getting an NVQ on the job is very simple and you usually get around a year to complete them. You don't need to be academic for these as all they require is evidence of your skills. So, for example, you may provide a service user with a choice in their activities one day. This could be used in a module about enabling and supporting people to be independent. You write a short sentence to say you did it and then another worker or supervisor that saw you do this can sign to say it's true. And that's that! Repeat as needed and before you know it, you've got a qualification to prove you can be a good support worker!
If you're in a position or at the age where you can attend college, you can do your NVQs there! This will be good as it gives you plenty of time to really understand what's needed of you. The downside is that you get less practical experience than if you learn on the job but it does give you more time to become really good at what you want to do.
I only just finished school/college – I don't have any NVQs or professional development yet!
Don't panic – if you want to go straight from school to work, you can still apply for support worker jobs by emphasising other parts of your life experience. Ideally, you will get some work experience (and we cover how to do that below) but for those of you that can't, you may be able to talk about something else.
Any school, work or professional experience where you interacted with customers will be a good thing to talk about. The service users at a support organisation will be your 'customers' so, in the same way as in a shop or pub, you need to be friendly, professional and helpful.
Alternatively, you might have personal experience as a carer for a family member, romantic partner or close friend. This is good as it is very real and very meaningful experience. It proves you really understand the kind of work that goes into supporting people closely and you'll probably have experience with personal care, wound care and assisting in day-to-day activities.
I've been doing support work for years and years – how do I choose the right information?
If you're an old hand in the world of support worker jobs, filling in application forms or writing a CV becomes difficult – what do you include and what do you miss out? The important things to think about are which of your jobs relate to the role you're applying for and which training sessions show that you are ready to take on your new role. We talk about how to do this later on, so keep reading (or move further down) to learn how to include the right things in the right way.
Finding work experience before application
If you can get some proper work experience in the care and support industry, please, please do it. The support industry is sadly rife with people who don't seem to understand just how important their job is. Service users' lives are in your hands and if you find the job boring or annoying at all, please don't do it. Not ever.
There are too many stories of care home abuse and it's incredibly sad. The industry only needs committed people who really want to help – not those who go into it just to make a living. If you're thinking about support work because you just need any job, please apply for different work.
If you are sure that support work jobs are something you could enjoy and really contribute to then find some work experience! Lots and lots of people start support worker jobs and leave when they realise what hard work it is! You see, it's not just the fact that you're racing around all day helping, it's the personal and emotional load too – you'll be talking to people all day long and need to keep smiling no matter what they (or your colleagues!) say or do.
So, to make sure you don't crack under the pressure or waste your time starting a job you just leave again, work experience is essential! Either voluntary work or paid work are good forms of experience and, if you can find something in the area you want to work in (like adults with learning difficulties or those struggling with homelessness or drug abuse), that will be great!
To get voluntary experience, try calling some local care homes and see if you would be able to shadow a current worker or help out in any way. You could also do the same at local hospitals, GP surgeries, community clinics and day centres as this will also let you learn what it's like to work with vulnerable people who need all kinds of help.
CVs and filling in support worker application forms
Once you've found the job (or jobs!) you're most interested in, it's time to start crafting your CV or thinking about what to write in the application form. All the sections below can be used as advice for writing a CV or an application form.
Application forms came about in the last couple of decades as a way of stopping discrimination. It can be a real pain to fill them in but at least it makes the interview process more honest and fair! Generally, they'll have all the sections you'd expect in a CV but perhaps in a different order.
They may also come with a separate HR form that asks you personal details like race, sexuality and gender. This form isn't about snooping, it's to make sure that they are employing people fairly and in a manner that's representative of the community. It's nothing to do with your personal employment process; only helpful information!
Getting back to basics
When it comes to writing a CV, resume or application form, it's good to start with the basics. Sometimes, it's easy to miss the basics because you think, ' Huh, well, that's just common sense! It's obvious!”. Unfortunately, mistakes happens to the best of us – especially when we're doing something stressful like looking for a job. I've been writing about this for months but just two days ago, I opened up my CV to apply for a job and bingo – I hadn't included my email address! A truly rookie mistake!
So, first things first – are your contact details correct, professional and present? If you've changed your phone recently, has your mobile number changed? Or have you just had a land-line installed instead? Make sure the right phone number is on there.
Email addresses can catch you out too – you must make sure you have a professional-sounding address for job applications. No email@example.com or f&Kyour$h&tUp@biatch.com. Go to one of the standard email providers online and make a new account that only uses your first and last names (and spell them correctly too, no 'fun' spellings). If you have a common name and can't use it by itself, you could add your middle name or birth year to make it unique.
Similarly, make sure your voice mail account is set up and that the message is professional. It might seem totally amusing and retro to have a 'WHASSSUPPP” voice mail greeting but employers really, really won't find it funny. Try ringing it from your friend's phone and make sure it sounds good – would you trust you enough to hire you?
Polishing your presentation and making sure it looks good
There are a few simple steps you can take to make sure that any CV or application form looks really good when you send it in.
For application forms, black pen often looks best. Read the top to see if they want you to use capitals and make sure you write in a way you are most confident in. A really good tip is to pick up two application forms. This way, you can practice filling one in, make your mistakes and change the way things are written if you want and then use the other to be the copy you hand in!
What do I need to include in a CV?
There are lots of different ways of writing CVs but for a simple CV, make sure you have your job history, professional skills, schools and education and, finally, references. If you need to write an application form for your job, read through this section now and the section after to see how you use this information in a form.
Also, remember to look for the particular words they use – there will definitely be a 'person specification' that tells you the kind of worker they are looking for. Using the same words as those included in the specification (like 'self-motivated', 'flexible', 'sensitive' and 'caring') will help them to understand you're a good choice for the job!
Previous job experience
For job experience, we work backwards. So start with your current or most recent job and then go onto the ones before. Make sure you include employer name, start and end dates of when you worked there and a short explanation of what you had to do. Don't go into lots of detail here; keep it short and sweet so it's easy for them to read.
When describing your abilities in a CV (or application form), the opportunity to list all the things you can do is one worth taking as it's really helpful for employers to understand what they get if they employ you. Don't add too many 'soft' skills here; instead, try to get in as many 'hard' skills as possible. 'Soft' skills are things like 'good at team-working' or 'well-organised'. 'Hard' skills are things like 'good at using computers', 'experience in wound care and MRSA infections' or 'trained to use hoist equipment'. It's not that soft skills are bad thing – in fact, they are absolutely essential for support worker jobs – but hard skills will help you stand out from the crowd.
Indeed, it's said that “having hard skills gets you hired, lacking soft skills gets you fired” so include as many hard skills as you can on your application form or CV and demonstrate your lovely personality (that is, your soft skills) at interview.
Qualifications and schooling
In this section, you need to enter details about your time spent at college, school and any relevant training sessions you've attended. Again, work backwards and list your most recent qualifications first.
For instance, you could write about the mental health training you received at your last support worker job and then list your GCSEs or other certificates from school or write about your NVQ2 from college.
Finish your CV should invite the employer to ask you for references – you don't need to write out details, just type 'References available upon request'. If you're filling out an application form, they may want the full details.
These should be your last employer, college lecturer, school teacher or a reliable member of the community that knows you, like your doctor or vicar. Make sure you ask these people first about using them as a reference – after all, it's only polite and saves any embarrassment. It wouldn't look good if, for whatever reason, they didn't respond to a request for a reference!
Writing a cover letter
Once your CV or application form is compete, you need to write a cover letter to go with it. The cover letter isn't just a summary of what you have already written. Instead, it's another chance to persuade them that you are worth interviewing. For a great cover letter, follow this paragraph structure.
Tell them why you want this job
A good way to start a cover letter (after the “I am writing to apply for......” part) is to explain why you want this job rather than any other. It may be because of the type of service user they work with or because it involves a move up in responsibility which you feel you are ready for. Write a couple sentences explaining this and tell them how enthusiastic you are!
What you've done to get better at support work
Here, you need to write about how your experiences make you a good choice. It may be that you're a carer for a family friend so you have lots of practical experience and can use sign language, that you took an NVQ at college so you have lots of understanding about how to do the job or that you volunteered at a day centre and knew you wanted to follow a career in support work. Whatever it is that shows you know about this area, tell them about it.
What you want to do in the future
There'll be a reason you want this job and there'll be something that you can get from it. For this paragraph, explain how you think you'll benefit as a worker in their organisation and how this excites you. Maybe you look forward to doing your NVQ on the job or undertaking the post's training that will make you better in a specific area. Be careful not to sound demanding or selfish here – it's not that you are meant to talk about all the things you want but to instead give them an idea of your professional ambitions. Also, be careful not to say anything that will make you sound unreliable like “this job will help me save up so I can go travelling in 6 months” or “I want this job so I can learn how to start my own business next year”.
Why you're a lovely person!
Finally, the last couple of sentences are a chance to talk about why you're a nice person to work with. Don't go over the top here but do allow yourself to shine through. Think of some words that describe your character (like 'friendly', 'persuasive', or 'hard-working') so they will become interested in you personally.
Invite them to contact you
End the letter by inviting them to contact you if they have any questions and remind them of your phone number and email address again. This makes it super easy for them to get in touch with you if they need to.
I got a support worker interview! What now?
Congratulations! The next steps involve getting ready and making sure you're 100% clear on everything you want to say in the interview. Let's start with the basic preparation that everyone needs to do for interviews.
Can you get there on time?
It's really important to double-check your route before you go to the interview. Even if you've made the trip a million times, don't risk it. Double-check the transport times or, if you're driving, make sure the day before that your fuel tank is full. You never know when a rogue set of traffic works or a bus cancellation will occur and it would be awful to find out on the day. Check your council's website or Twitter feed, check timetables once again and make sure your car is running happily the day before!
This one's fairly easy to do. Check the day before that your outfit is clean, ironed and ready to wear. Again, like transport, it's easy to ignore this one because you think, “Well, I do this everyday, how hard can it be?”. All it takes is one little coffee stain to suddenly make your morning really complicated.
And, if you want to get your hair cut, nails done or something else, do it a few days beforehand—not on the day or the day before! Again, just one little mistake and suddenly, you're turning up to interview coloured bright orange or with a nail infection or a terrible, terrible dye job that you can't fix in time. Interviews are nerve-wracking enough without that on top!
Research the company
You don't have to spend hours on this but do have a look at their website or a leaflet about them before interview. This way, you don't get surprised with any tricky questions like “What did you think of our last fund-raising event?” or “Do you like how we present ourselves?” or something equally embarrassing.
If you want to dig deeper, check their last CQC inspection report. Was it positive? Did the company release a statement about what they were going to do about the less-positive parts of the report? This will be a great way of saving yourself the hassle of starting somewhere, only to find it's a terrible place to work.
Have a think about some questions for them
Not questions like 'How much holiday can I have?' or 'How much money do I get?' but questions that show how much the role interests you. Asking about opportunities for promotion and training will always sounds good, as will questions on team approach towards service users.
I know, I know: it's embarrassing. But it's a really good way to catch yourself out on all the silly little things that can add up to make you an unappealing worker. There are four things you should look out for during your dry run – fidgeting, being negative, sounding uncertain and saying 'Umm' a lot and not giving eye contact. Personally, my worst habits are biting my nails and playing with my hair. Find out if you do anything in these categories and then find a way to stop yourself!
Write out and practice your answers
This relates to role-playing too. Whether you prepare answers before you role-play or after, when you've found out all the mistakes you made, making sure you know your answers in advance of an interview will really help. You need to be able to tell people about yourself with a few simple, helpful sentences, to be able to sum up your different jobs and courses in the same way and have a good idea about what you want to do in the future. They'll also want to know about previous difficult situations and how you coped with them.
For the difficult situations, a good way to organise your thoughts is the STAR method; Situation, Task, Action, Results. So, the situation may be, 'a customer was really rude to me about something that wasn't my fault'. The task would then be 'I needed to calm them down and make them happy'. The action could have been something like 'I wasn't able to to help them so I got my manager' and the results could then be 'The manager gave them a refund and they left happy'.
By writing it out this way, it will really help you make sure you cover all the bases and sound professional when answering. We can promise that you will be asked at least one of these kinds of questions so do yourself a favour and prepare them so you don't sound confused or hesitant on the day! Just don't memorise each piece of information or you won't be able to cope when they ask questions you haven't prepared for! Use the information flexibly.
Preparing specifically for a support worker interviewer
Everything above are things that we all need to do for an interview. For a support worker interview, there are a few others.
Interviewers will also ask about how you deal with different situations. The whole reason that service users need support is because there will be some way in which they do things that are socially frowned upon and you will be there to support them to manage these incidents.
So, you might be asked to explain what you'd do if someone was shouting in the street, hadn't washed for a while, wouldn't take their medication or refused to eat.
You will also be asked what certain terms mean to you – for example, during an educational support worker job, I was asked 'what does equality and diversity mean to you?'. You may also be asked about words like 'appropriate', 'confidential', person centred support', 'safeguarding', 'choice' or 'communication'. If you aren't sure what any of these mean, find out the definition from a dictionary and think about what it could mean in relation to supporting people to live independently.
Be aware of important reports
If you really want to stand out, have a look at recent government legislation. Within the last few years, there's been a couple of really important reports - “Putting People First” and “Safeguarding Adults”. Don't worry about reading the whole report if you don't want to – generally they will have an 'executive summary' which tells you the reason for doing it and a bit about the findings.
How to make sure the interview goes brilliantly
Once you've done your research, gotten ready and the big day has come, it's time to shine at interview! This isn't hard to do – just make sure you do a few simple things.
First, turn your phone off. No, really. The interview won't take long and even a muted vibrating noise sounds bad. It makes you look like you're so addicted to your phone that you can't even concentrate for 20 minutes. And if you can't even ignore your phone for 20 minutes, how will you concentrate on your service user? If you have a genuine problem at home that means you really, really need to keep your phone on, tell them about it and apologise.
Secondly, make sure you're 10 minutes early. It will show that you are organised, prepared and reliable. And, if you're anything like me, you need that 10 minutes to go to the toilet to re-comb your unruly hair and relax because you're sweating buckets from being so nervous!
Thirdly, when you get called in, make sure you smile, shake hands, introduce yourself and then don't sit down until you are offered a chair. This sounds really simple but these basic social skills and good manners are hard to find, especially in younger workers. Do these 4 simple things and you'll stand out from the crowd!
Finally, show passion. Don't be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve a little bit so they can see how much you love this kind of work. Don't gush or go over the top but let them see the human side of you.
Professional development in your support worker career
Once you've gotten your job, you can start to think about what to do next! As mentioned before, virtually every support worker job will expect you to work towards an NVQ 2 or 3 in Care. This will be the start of your professional development as a support worker.
It is also very likely that your organisation will train you in relevant areas such as managing mental health, giving medication, using hoist equipment or communicating professionally.
If you want to learn things for yourself outside of work, try the Skills for Care website. They have tons of resources for support workers so get stuck in and read around.
Job routes for support workers
Support work can end up taking you in all sorts of directions. Partly because people go into it for lots of different reasons and partly because it's such a varied job that you can't predict what you'll be exposed to and end up interested in!
Generally, the next step for support workers is to become a team leader or senior support worker. If you've got a good head on your shoulders and have shown yourself to be professional, reliable and good at getting on with your colleagues, this promotion will be your next option. After this, the next step will be assistant manager positions and then manager-level positions.
Many people find that support work leads to training in another area. Contact with social workers, therapists, nurses and other types of support worker can all end up inspiring you to train in another area!
Once you've gotten several years of experience under your belt, you might want to consider opening your own service. Whether this is a supported-living service, day care centre, adult education, trip provision or something else, your time in a support worker job will really help you to understand all the things that service users need to flourish in these areas.
Get started and good luck!
So, whether you came as an uncertain student thinking about your next move, a seasoned worker applying for a different job or just someone curious about what it takes to be a support worker, we hope you found this guide helpful. Best of luck with your job hunt and tell us how it went on our Facebook page!
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