You work with young people….I’m a youth worker!

Following the Creative Collisions conference, I had what felt like the start of a very interesting conversation with Dominic Cotton (Director of Communication and New Business at UK Youth).

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.

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8 Responses to You work with young people….I’m a youth worker!

  1. Matt – nice (quick) work. I’m glad out pub discussion prompted this. While I agree with much of what you say I think there is real onus of the youth work profession to clarify what it sets out to achieve in a way that the general public can get a handle on. I understand that non-formal outcomes are harder to pin down than those attained through mainstream education this is I believe at the root of the devaluation of youth work. Collectively we need to communicate more effectively the impact of youth work projects and then shout about them!

    • Matt Lent says:

      I agree entirely. Whilst definitions are important to help clarify remits and differentiate from less professional roles, the need for the profession to clearly articulate their objectives and evidence impact is essential.

      Soft outcomes, such as positive mind sets, confidence, self-efficacy, and slightly more solid outcomes, such as financial capabilities, effective communication, employability skills, community cohesion, are all merely aims to achieving hard outcomes, such as, qualifications, sustainable employment, crime reduction, economic and social stability, etc.

      It is difficult, although not impossible to measure the soft outcomes, but the tangible hard outcomes are extremely measurable, and all youth providers need to work to show a link between what the sector is doing and the outcomes that it is achieving.

      I’d be very happy to talk more about how ThinkForward are leading the way in this area, we are arguably one of the most evidenced youth initiative out there.

  2. broongirl says:

    A honest response – I’m really interested in where you define your term of youth work from? Remembering that of course one of youth work’s defining principles is informal education (which you mention) and is based on the day to day interactions (as Smith defines) of conversations and activities. Youth work is also based on Voluntary Participation – the relationship that we build is the key to the work we are able to undertake – that’s what makes youth workers different to other professions. It talks not of interventions, or targeted provision which instead is something the government has placed on youth work (though these types of work are beneficial). Unfortunately many youth work organisations have jumped on the bandwagon to ensure funding, and this slant threatens to not only uproot our founding principles, but undermine the whole value of youth work. Youth Work is rooted in communities, which most of the time many of the volunteers themselves come from and I know of volunteers who have engaged in youth work for years and years. The history of youth work, let us not forget, our roots of course, comes from volunteers and voluntary organisations 🙂 In my experience it is large youth work organisations who start in an area and don’t last the course, due to funding or differing priorities. It is these organisations which makes the communities feel let down, abandoned – I can show you many where I work and this has happened. I am a full time paid youth work manager (I am grateful for the job in difficult times) and though I agree with what you are saying about youth work jobs and the lack of them, professionalism in youth work is not something I am necessarily in agreement with. We are allowing the profession to be turned from a youth service into a business to be marketised – that is not the youth worker I trained to be 🙂 We need only to look to NCS to see this model of marketisation (though once again having run this programme I see its worth for the young people but not for the sector – short term and expensive). I think you drastically underestimate the value of volunteers and sessional workers as, yes, youth workers (I don’t think we should be calling them anything else). Many of my volunteers I work with have years and yearss of experience and skills which means they have networks some of the youth workers don’t even have. Let us to remember that true youth work, as services open to all, requires teams of different skills, background and age. The sessional workers we employ hold level II qualifications and two of them have a JNC youth work degree – they are most definitely youth workers. I hope you don’t mind me saying lastly that the biggest provider of youth work in the UK is volunteers, many who have picked up what the government has dropped and they are doing more than just playing table tennis.

    I hope you don’t mind me saying, I think you have missed the issue with the value of youth work being underestimated. It’s not to do with who is doing the work, but rather what work is being done and shouting about it. The great outcomes, through fantastic conversations and relationships, amazing transitions to independence that we support young people to make. We need to shout about our work – great case studies and raising awareness of the amazing outcomes youth work achieves. That’s what is missing and I for one know I need to do that more!

    • Matt Lent says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, really glad you joined the discussion.

      I agree that volunteering is fundamental to the root of youth work, the present delivery, and undoubtably in the future as well, and in no way do I aim to diminish those that volunteer.

      My criteria for professionalism isn’t paid or volunteering, but trained and skilled, as per my first definition.

      The main issue I have is that we aren’t actually calling our qualified professionals ‘youth workers’ any more, and this is in fact diminishing the professionals, the skilled, the experienced, and consequently the sector more widely.

      I also agree that there are numerous other issues facing the sector, and youth workers definitely need to shout more about their work and their successes, as I wrote here,

      As for the marketisation of youth work, that seems like a debate for another time.

      • broongirl says:

        🙂 Yes that’s a whole other subject 🙂 but on qualification front it depends what level of qualification is meant by skilled and trained? JNC’s are becoming more difficult due to funding, despite foundations fantastic commitment to new funding for under privileged, it’s just a splash in the ocean. Even level ii/iii are harder than ever to find, and you have many fantastic youth workers with no qualifications. People can learn – but the natural skill of working with yp can’t be taught 🙂 (we need the two together)

  3. Aston Wood says:

    There is little talk of values in this article’s attempt at a definition. Youth work is bound up in its values, and rightly so. Youth workers should be true to these values, before remuneration or qualification.
    You do not have to look far to find those you define as ‘youth workers’ who are crap at youth work, but happy to take a salary to get some kids through a curriculum and produce some outcomes, there are many more who have little comprehension and/or realisation of the values of work. Any definition of a youth worker should include a commitment to the values of youth work first and foremost, everything else I suspect will stem from that.

  4. Matt Lent says:

    Just because they’re crap at youth work doesn’t mean they’re not a youth worker. The same could be said for teachers, politicians, lawyers, or any profession, But they are still a member of the profession never-the-less.

    Of course they should be values led if they’re any good, but this is not the point of this piece, there are many other posts on the site that address that point. In fact everyone that works with young people should be values led.

    What I’m arguing here is that we have diluted what is perceived as and even called a ‘youth worker’. If any one can call themselves a youth worker because they spend 6 hours a week hanging out in a club, or playing pool and chatting, or organising football tournaments, or running a cooking course, then that undermines the in-depth and complex work that more committed professionals do. And that is why, in part at least, we don’t tend to call our youth professionals ‘youth worker’ anymore, because of the negative public perceptions and connotations of informality and low or unmeasured impact.

    This is my call to reclaim the term, and start to proudly call our sector professionals ‘Youth Worker’ again.

  5. broongirl says:

    Interesting points but Informal education is what is being undermined here and the value of hanging out around the pool table or on the sofa to build the respect and relationship that helps young people to make positive transitions. The complex work you talk about in my experience is possible due to these opportunities and the volunteer youth workers, sessional youthworkers, students and youthworkers do this in every session. What I think is happening in youth work is that some professionals are trading the core principles of youth work in favour of what is more aligned with social work model – it isn’t youth work – seen an interesting journal on this recently!

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