Is youth work something you do while you figure out what you really want to do, or is it a career? Most definitions of career include three elements: a defined occupation that is taken on over time with progressive achievement.
While many other things may also make up a career, the issues of time and progress are most distinct. In other fields, there is no push to leave direct work to join administration without a path of promotion, clear expectations of and preparation for management. Further, there is credibility in remaining in your chosen position. Is youth work somehow different from other fields? If it is, why is it?
Good youth workers often become supervisors and managers without adequate preparation in leadership. Practitioners leave the field because of narrow opportunities for promotion and little expectation of improvement in pay. Funding shifts, low wages for frontline staff, and murky professional pathways impede the development of the workforce and introduce a great degree of volatility in field.
The effect is that youth work looks like many entry-level jobs:
- low skill expectations
- high turnover
- little promise of promotion
We should not be surprised that this construction does not prepare many for leadership and loses talents to other better paying jobs with better hopes of advancement. Those practitioners that endure are underpaid and often subsidize their wages with other jobs. The few, again often those very best with youth, are moved into programmatic supervision and management roles without preparation, coaching or building skills in supervision or management. Additionally, the multiple entry points into youth work, have created the illusion that anyone can do this work. High school and college students, VISTA and AmeriCorps members, volunteers, interns and virtually anyone without a job has been suggested as someone to work with youth, often with little prior training or experience, and mostly with no defined expectation of a commitment to the field.
It is critical that we move youth work from its status as an entry level job to an occupation that is skill based with a clear path to advancement within direct service and from there to management.
Significant progress has been made by some local organizations and state systems to ensure that professional development is included for all levels of service and that there is preparation of practitioners for management. These efforts need to be studied and expanded. Some concrete suggestions appear in "Capturing Promising Practices in Recruitment and Retention of Frontline Youth Workers" by The National Collaboration for Youth, 2006.
We must also avoid positing youth work as a preparatory step to other careers like teaching; this has been successful, but it is a brain and skill drain on the field. See: Afterschool: A Powerful Path to Teacher Recruitment and Retention, promoting afterschool programs as a pipeline for teacher recruitment.
How can we specifically reinforce the belief that it is indeed a career and not just a pipeline to other professions?
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