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Career progression tips

You may be ready to take the next step in your career and wondering where to begin. As a Nursing Support Worker, there are a range of roles and opportunities available for your career progression and the RCN Careers Team have some tips for you.

Take ownership of your career

If you find yourself stuck in a rut, craving change or feeling under challenged, it's important to take responsibility and ownership of your career. Avoid the temptation to hope things might just change by themselves and equally, don’t wait for opportunities to fall into your lap; instead, create your own.

Start adopting a more proactive approach, focusing on all the benefits it will bring. Be prepared to:

  • Come out of your comfort zone
  • Approach people you don’t know
  • Ask for what you want
  • Always be on the lookout for opportunities
  • Do your research
  • Get turned down or told no - but never let this put you off!

Schedule time in your diary frequently to sit down and think about your job, career, options and aspirations. Even if you're happy where you are at the moment, it doesn't hurt to see what's out there, explore what courses you could take, or perhaps just think about what you'd like to be doing in two years' time.

Each time you do this, keep a diary where you can jot down ideas and set yourself at least one goal with a deadline. For example:

  • Spend half hour researching courses
  • Contact your local university to ask about CPD opportunities
  • Research volunteering opportunities and make enquiries
  • Organise a meeting with your line manager to discuss opportunities for taking on more responsibility at work or being involved with training new staff 
  • Attend open recruitment days at your local hospital Trust to see what's available and network.

Take time to research the sorts of roles, clinical settings, patient groups, or industries you’re interested in. 

There's lots of information about different pathways and roles within the RCN's Nursing Support Workforce careers resource. This includes how to change/progress to Nursing Associate, Assistant Practitioner, Cancer navigator, Community Associate Practitioner, Research Practitioner, and Training Lead, as well as information about changing care setting, apprenticeship routes, and pathways to become a registered nurse.

Other sources to help you carry out research include:

  • Joining professional RCN forums and networks of relevance/interest
  • Speaking to your employer or local RCN learning rep if you have one in your workplace
  • Using your network and speaking to peers
  • Joining the RCN's Nursing Support Workers Facebook group
  • Exploring career frameworks or skills frameworks (E.g. see the Core Skills Training Frameworks on the Skills for Health website here)
  • Finding out about initiatives, schemes or pilots
  • Searching the internet and/or job search websites
  • Reading relevant journals or publications

The RCN Careers Service offers advice on writing CVs, covering letters, and supporting statements, including tips, samples, and templates.

RCN members can also request tailored feedback and advice via email if they want their CV or application checked by a member of the Careers Service team. See the CV writing page or job application page for more details.

We also offer free one on one interview coaching over the telephone with a Careers Coach as part of your membership.

Make sure you research the job market in your chosen field. Study vacancies on job websites and sign up to receive alerts from websites, agencies and specific employers.

Try to identify:

  • What jobs are out there at the level you want?
  • Which roles are in demand?
  • Are they in demand in your desired geographical area(s)?
  • What sort of experience, skills or qualifications are required?

Speaking to employers, recruitment agencies and nursing agencies can also be a good idea; they might be able to offer you information about the current job market specific to your area.

Networking is a crucial part of career progression, so have a think about how you can do this. You could:

  • Attend events, job fairs, conferences, RCN congress, local groups and recruitment open days.
  • Create a LinkedIn account and reach out to other healthcare professionals or employers
  • Get involved with RCN campaigns, RCN forums, RCN Facebook pages, or RCN twitter pages
  • Attend your next local RCN branch meeting, or employer's board meeting

When you do network with others, make sure you make a record of their contact details and ask them if you can get in touch for advice in the future.

Take the initiative and seek out shadowing opportunities. If you’re employed, it will help your case if you can explain to your manager why you think the shadowing would improve or enhance your practice or knowledge in your current post.

Think about the skills and experience you could bring back with you. It doesn't necessarily have to be within your workplace; you could consider contacting external organisations such as hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, GP surgeries, charities, or your local council for example. It's a great way to learn, gain experience, get a taste of a different role and make contacts; all of which could then potentially open up new doors for you.

Ideally you can arrange shadowing within working time if you're employed. If this isn’t possible, you may want to consider doing it unpaid and/or in your own time. It could really pay off in the long term and act as your ticket into another role or sector.

It may not have occurred to you that you could arrange an informal visit with a prospective employer, but this practice is actually very common within the healthcare industry with the majority of employers keen to accommodate. It's a fantastic way to gain insight into a new workplace environment and assess whether you think that environment would be right for you. It's also another opportunity to make new contacts, ask questions, and make a good impression.

Remember that even though it's an, "informal," visit, the employer will be watching carefully to see how you conduct yourself. Simple things like thanking someone for showing you around, holding the door open for others or smiling at patients can make a big difference.

Further tips:

  • Be specific about which particular area or setting you'd want to visit and/or any people you'd want to spend time with
  • Research the employer and setting well before you go
  • Prepare in advance some questions to ask or points to talk about during your visit
  • If applying for jobs afterwards, reference your visit in your covering letter or job application. Explain why you liked it there or what impressed you

Pressures in the workplace such as service demands, lack of time, lack of funding or staffing issues could mean opportunities for development or progression are scarce.

By volunteering you could either enhance existing skills or learn completely new ones, and bridge knowledge/experience gaps that you might have otherwise found tricky to fill. In nearly all cases, free training will be provided and you may only need to spare as little as an hour a fortnight.

For example, perhaps you’ve always wanted to work in end of life care, but have no palliative care experience. Volunteering for a local hospice or charity could help you bridge that gap. Alternatively, maybe you want to apply for hospital based jobs, but have no prior experience of working on a ward. Most NHS trusts offer volunteering opportunities such “befriender volunteer," "ward volunteer," or "mealtime volunteer."

It's a great way to find out whether you feel suited to a particular environment. At the same time, you'll be helping people who need it most.

You can read more about volunteering to learn new skills here.

A sabbatical or secondment is where you negotiate a temporary period of time away from your current job to do something else. This is good for employers because it allows you to gain skills, knowledge or qualifications that could then be put to good use within their service and workforce.

This time out could be used to perform another role, do project work or research, or to study towards a qualification to name a few. It could be done with your company or with a third party (i.e. a charity, different employer or external organisation/company) and could last as little as a few weeks to a few years.

The more relevant the secondment or sabbatical is to your role and where it fits within your organisation, the more likely you are to be paid whilst doing it. In some cases your employer would pay, in others the third party would pay, or in others the costs might be shared.

A lot of employers have a secondment or sabbatical policy, so be sure to check this out. If they don’t, ask for a meeting with your manager(s) and prepare to make a business case for yourself. If you are successful, get any agreement in writing and contact your local rep to check over the terms and conditions before you sign anything.

Put some time aside well in advance of your next 121 or appraisal to think about which development opportunities you can discuss with your manager.

This is a perfect time for you to agree on some goals. If you have specified that you want to do something in your 121 or appraisal, you are more likely to be considered for any subsequent opportunities should they arise. Ideas include asking to:

  • Take on more responsibility
  • Be involved in training staff / be involved with inductions
  • Discussing study days
  • Shadowing other colleagues / units / departments / workplaces
  • Agree time off for study / training / volunteering
  • Be involved in project work

You should feel comfortable to discuss your career with your employer. A good employer will want their managers to encourage staff, help identify opportunities and be supportive of any career objectives.

If you see a job you like the look of, contact the employer and ask if you can arrange an informal visit or informal chat to discuss the role. This is an excellent way to introduce yourself, stand out from the other candidates, find out more about the role, and assess whether or not it would suit you.

If you're worried you might not “fit the bill,” contact the employer for further advice. Upon speaking to someone, you may come to the conclusion that you're more than qualified to apply. Otherwise, you could use this opportunity to gather information about what actions or steps you could take next.

Bear in mind some employers will be more helpful than others or have more time than others so don't be deterred if they can't speak to you, and keep trying elsewhere.

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Nursing Support Workers

Career resources for Healthcare Assistants, Assistant Practitioners, Nursing Associates and Support Workers.

Healthcare Support Worker

Find out more about the Healthcare Support Worker role, including entry requirements, pay and educational standards.

Senior Healthcare Support Worker

Find out more about the Senior Healthcare Support Worker role, including entry requirements, pay and educational standards.

Assistant Practitioner (AP)

Find out more about the Assistant Practitioner role, including entry requirements, pay and educational standards.