Does the semantics of what constitutes ‘youth work’ matter? And in the brave new world of partnerships, social investment, impact assessment, social enterprise and project-based work, what is ‘youth work’ anyway, do such jobs even really exist anymore?
As I see it the front line workers in the youth sector fall into two categories:
The first is the ‘youth worker’. Committed, trained and skilled professionals who work on a part-time or full-time basis. They understand the importance of being needs-led in their work, how to develop appropriate interventions, signpost and make thorough referrals as required. They seek to work over the long-term with young people and their communities, engaging in informal education, developing genuine opportunities for young people’s personal and professional development, creating a sustainable and deep impact upon those that they support and their wider communities.
The second are those that ‘work with young people’. The extraordinarily well-meaning volunteers and sessional workers, committing their valuable time to ‘hang out’ and build relationships with young people. They provide positive role-models, mentor (in the loosest possible sense), and ensure the safety of the young people they are supervising. They do not however hold any long-term responsibility or accountability for the young people’s development and well-being, or for the communities in which they are located.
There are precious few ‘youth work’ jobs advertised anymore, I hear many newly qualified youth workers complaining that they can’t find a job. And they’re right, traditional youth and community work jobs are simply not called that anymore.
There are project development workers, IAG officers, support workers, youth leaders, youth liaison managers, careers officers, partnership development workers, learning and development coordinators, youth progression officers, group work facilitators, and the list goes on. Of the 151 youth focused jobs advertised on The Guardian online today, only 2 of them refer to the term ‘youth worker’.
In and of itself this is not too much of a problem, as long as those that identify themselves as youth workers don’t limit their job searches too much. However there is a very real danger that if we drop the term ‘youth worker’ all together it risks under-valuing and de-professionalising those that have committed themselves to training and obtaining the skills and professionalism that the role requires, making them hard to differentiate from those that simply work with young people.
If youth work is to be valued as a much needed service in the consciousness of policy makers and the general public, we need to ensure that the people that are entrusted with the care and development of youth are perceived as trusted professionals, and this becomes almost impossible if we don’t even know what to call them.
Imagine for a moment that the word ‘teacher’ wasn’t in the lexicon of our language, and instead we fluctuated between terms such as, educator, learning support worker, tutor, education consultant, group learning facilitator, with some of them holding professional qualifications and others working as unqualified volunteers. It would very soon become impossible to differentiate between them, and all to easy to assume that none of them were particularly professional, and therefore are probably having little to no impact.
Well this is exactly what the youth sector is voluntarily doing to itself. Why are we afraid to call youth workers what they are? And those that work with young people, let’s call them……well, volunteers, sessional workers, support assistants, anything really, as long as we don’t claim that they’re youth workers?
I’m sorry if this offends anyone who volunteers with young people, or even those that are paid, unqualified and working with young people. The services you provide are invaluable and the sector couldn’t survive without you, but never-the-less unless you fall into the first category as defined above I do not consider you youth workers, and that’s fine, you’re simply something else.
So, if you’ve dedicated yourself to the sector and have made the commitment in becoming qualified, skilled and experienced, then you are a youth worker, so stand up tall and proudly start calling yourself a youth worker. And youth organisations, I call on you to advertise vacancies for ‘youth workers’ again, and to employ those that have demonstrated a dedication to their youth work careers through education, training and a developing professionalism.