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What are the implications of professionalizing youth work?

By Margo Herman

The newest resource postings on the Next Gen home page indicate that there is momentum toward professionalizing the field of youth work with core competencies, ethics, and certifications. I am hearing a variety of reactions to this trend. Some believe it holds great promise for advancing our field because it validates our knowledge base, values our impact, and provides a measure of quality assurance. Others are hesitant or alarmed by the potential for reduced flexibility as a more formal structure develops rules and regulations that may inadvertently pose a barrier to high quality youth work.

In the fall of 2010 the University of Minnesota Extension Youth Work Institute piloted a new 15-hour workshop called Leadership Matters. Twenty-two youth work supervisors and managers delved into the complexities of youth work supervision and leadership. One segment of the workshop examined core competencies, certifications and core knowledge. One particular activity that generated a great deal of energy asked the participants to debate the question: Should the youth work field professionalize?

One group argued FOR professionalizing with these key points:
  • Provides a common language and value base
  • Legitimizes the work
  • Improves understanding by the community about the field
  • Enhances quality, brings it back to the youth and what is best for them
  • Advances the field with potential for increasing pay
  • Provides a framework for programs, job descriptions, all systems to build upon
  • Supports the experience that youth workers bring to their work

The other group argued AGAINST professionalizing with these key points:
  • Creates bureaucracy with rules and regulations that may impede high quality youth work practice
  • Overemphasizes the tangible parts of the system rather than grappling with the complexities of the organic whole
  • Oversimplifies complex practice
  • Does not account for unpredictability of everyday youth work
  • Overemphasizes academics (earning an academic degree)
  • Undervalues practice and expertise which is harder to measure
  • May undervalue diversity or lower income youth workers as they are less likely to have a degree or specific credential

What is your reaction to these two sides of the argument? What side of the debate do you favor? What are some of the subtleties that our field should examine from this debate? Post a reply and also link this blog to other online networks to encourage a broader conversation!

-- Margo Herman, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Margo,
    All valid points, and ones taken up in my forthcoming book, Advancing Youth Work: Current Trends, Critical Questions, which aims to address the tensions regarding the professionalization of the field. More succinctly, the book looks at 3 C's: Competencies, Credentials, and Curriculum as the major trend areas and unpacks the work being done there (its value, and the critiques)
    Putting that ruthless plug for the book aside, I would also ask: What is the value lost in NOT professionalizing?
    My pragmatic self believes that professionalizing (a term that must be unpacked in and of itself) can put a spotlight on the work in the public sphere. If we can get parents and the general public to support youth work as a desired field of practice, then funding streams would be more readily available. Doing so would mean that we must first solidify our basic tenets, ethics, bodies of knowledge, values, etc. so that our field has a collective 'voice.' The value of this process along the journey to professionalizing is what interests me perhaps more than the outcome or final destination.
    Thanks for the thoughtful blog!

  2. HI, Dana- Hope summer in New York is allowing for some leisure time.
    I am pleased you mentioned the need to "unpack" the term professionalizing; absolutely true! And this blog space is an opportunity to begin. There is indeed tension within the perspectives, which makes it a rich blog topic, and a fascinating book topic. Congratulations on the September release of Advancing Youth Work! We will all benefit from your publication!
    The debate exercise in the Leadership Matters workshop created some passionate conversation on both sides. I perceived the group of youth work supervisors who engaged in the exercise as skeptical about the potential restrictiveness of professionalizing, but compelled by the longer term view of a collective perspective and enhanced public value about youth work. If each of these youth work supervisors engages in conversation with their staff and peers on this level, the conversation is stirred.
    Reaching for a collective voice requires so much conversation and evolution in our thinking. Next Gen provides a repository for resources that can help inform the collective voice, as well as a place to initiate these blog conversations on a national/international scale. Thanks for engaging in the topic!

  3. I think that your group did a nice job of summarizing the pros and cons of professionalizing. However, I would add one additional point.
    On the arguments in favor of professionalization you mention potential higher pay. However, the inevitable flip side of higher pay for workers is higher cost for funders or parents. Since funds are usually finite, this could result in less youth being served.
    If the programs are better then the added cost of professionalization might be worth it. But any discussions about professionalization should include cost as a factor. I believe that this is the most significant hurdle on the road to professionalization.

  4. The professionalization of youth work is an important and inevitable step for our future. I agree with Pete, and would like to focus on the "higher pay for workers" aspect of his comment. I have witnessed the professionalization of early childhood education (ECE) and struggle with the pay rates for these professionals. ECE workers have gotten the degrees and they do great work, but the pay is not significantly more. I wonder if the field of youth work will experience the same trend. This may be an overwhelming point, but I think it needs to be explored.

  5. I like the counterbalance between Dana's perspective of the value lost in NOT professionalizing and the cost factor discussed by Pete and Erica. We do have much to learn from the early childhood field as they are years ahead of us on this journey of professionalizing, and the realities encountered along the way.
    Another activity we delve into in Leadership Matters examines the difference between leadership and management. The counterbalance mentioned above reminds me of that activity. The leadership vision lies in the larger value of professionalizing, the management reality faces down the obstacles and practicalities of making it happen. We need both perspectives to make sustainable progress.

  6. Thanks for starting this conversation, Margo! I've been in many of these pro/con conversations about professionalizing the field and I echo Dana's comment regarding the danger of the term itself. By saying we should not professionalize, that inherently sounds negative because what field would not want to consider themselves "professionals"?
    I do worry about the last point on the list against professionalizing in particular, though, because I have seen this happen. In many communities in California, many of the youth workers do not have traditional college degrees but could be amazing youth workers because of their life experiences and ability to connect with the youth. When Proposition 49 was enacted, NCLB regulations came with the funding requiring all staff in state funded afterschool programs to meet the same qualifications as a paraprofessional meaning they needed at least 48 college units (the equivalent of an AA degree). Many communities feared losing 50-100% of their workforce because of this new regulation. It ended up coming down to a district by district decision what their requirements would be and as a result, most districts now offer an academic test that prospective staff can take if they do not have the requisite college units and this has generally worked.
    I think we need to develop opportunities for low-income folks who have the passion for youth work and want to give back to their community so they are supported in attaining higher education while they work in out of school time programs. These part-time jobs (most are part-time in California) are a great complement to a college education - especially if you're looking for a career working with youth, the community or the general "helping professions". We've tried to do just that with the California Teacher Pathway ( and we've been successful thus far utilizing gang prevention funds from the state to expand this program. There is an even bigger need for programs like this in today's economy where young people and the less educated are getting shut out of more and more job opportunities as over-qualified job seekers are settling for part-time, low wage work.

  7. I have worked in the "youth development" field for 20 years in the areas of relgious education and community outreach; childcare; camping; residential treatment, juvenile justice; and public education. Coupled with this experience I am married to a nurse and have family and friends who work in the early childhood arena and public education. When reflecting on the history of all helping professions. It seems they have all evolved or are evolving towards common standards that have led or will lead towards a sense of professionalization. Barbers used to be your common source of dental services. Nursing has gone from being purely a helping profession to a vocational and now a professional one. Each discipline through an evolutionary cycle seeks to be viewed as competent thus the development of standards, competencies, credentials, and academic programs so such disciplines can be measured as other disciplines are measured.

  8. Nice to see this dialogue reach coast to coast!
    Once again the last 2 posts highlight the spectrum of perspectives, from Rebecca reinforcing the practicality and consequence of regulatory barriers in a professionalized system, to Larry's appreciation of the evolving nature of professional standards and competencies. The reality of Prop 49 legislation that Rebecca mentions is indicative of the bureaucratic obstacles that youth workers fear. The economic and political environment impose tremendous forces that work against the visionary goal. However, I still go back to Dana's question in the first reply to the blog post: "What is the value lost in NOT professionalizing"? So we need to teeter-totter away to find the right balancing point in this process.
    I hope you all take some time to explore the Resources posted on the Next Gen site to gain a sense of where progress is being made in the areas of toolkits, core competencies, code of ethics, pathways, and education. We will continue to add resources to the website as we all contribute to the larger questioning about the goal of professionalizing.

  9. For me the question is not so much a "should we or shouldn't we?" but a question of "who and how?" I came up through the youth development movement in the mid-nineties in Minnesota. I worked on the application of the Prudential Youth Leadership curriculum for Minneapolis Unified School District while I was 20. I got my first director level job at the age of 24 working in a Beacon Center in San Francisco (I was the Educational Director responsible for creating literacy, tutoring and parent engagement programs). I started training other people that work with youth at 25.
    I never graduated college, and I have learned everything I know by doing, reflecting, modifying and re-doing. As a result at 35, I feel I have created a very unique pedagogical perspective of community-based education and its power to engage communities, build bridges between generations and cultures, and ultimately heal those that have been marginalize in a multitude of ways.
    My fear in the professionalization conversation, and this is even evident by the trajectory of the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, is that these conversations end up in the hands of researchers on university campuses and get disconnected from those that are doing the work. In the early to mid-naughts when Next Gen was getting started, it had those working directly with youth at the table in these conversations. Looking around this site, those people are not involved in the conversation. Additionally, this forum is lacking in diversity both in regards to age as well as race. In fact, Next Gen has done little to reach back to those that were a part of those initial conversations (almost all of whom were people of color).
    The conversation of professionalization and how it occurs must include youth, those that work with youth, the college/university systems, the community-based education community, the grassroots organizing community, researchers and policy makers. It has to include all. Otherwise it isn't even practicing what it preaches in regards to youth development. And when that happens, no amount of professionalization will matter. Because what will be taught will not be youth development.

  10. Jason- SUCH an essential point you make, and we have made effort to branch out our network of 3000 some who get the NEXT GEN news and blog to improve the base of participants. We want and need more involvement from youth workers coast to coast, rural and urban, young and old, all levels of education. There is no doubt about it. I challenge each reader here to send the Next Gen link to at least 5 youth workers in their area to join the conversation, voice their opinions. We all have an obligation to improve upon this; please do your small piece to reach more youth workers to join this conversation. Ellen Gannett's blog in June addressed the frustration of involving folks at a leadership level. Our Leadership Council is most certainly weighted with academics. We need people to step up, but the reality of youth work organization budgets and staffing and programming makes it challenging to do so. Some intentional conversations need to occur. Thanks for bringing forth this perspective, Jason!

  11. Its always great to jump into a blog after a number of people have posted. All the comments so far have been so interesting and so true! If professionalizing the field was easy and straight forward, we would have already done it! Looking at it from a systems approach can make the controversy a little easier to comprehend. Not to dismiss any of the opinions raised so far, but essentially would we all be discussing this year after year, if we had the will and enough resources to compensate youth workers adequately and fairly given their expertise as professionals?
    Once regulatory agencies institute requirements without systemic support, incentives (and rewards) or the infrastructure to make it happen - we set in motion a recipe for disaster! There simply aren't enough classes available to get everyone the training that is required, there aren't enough scholarships available, and there are few means of accounting for prior experience in the field. These implications should be well thought out and solved before we publicly require or promote professionalizing the field.

  12. Dear Colleagues,
    Greetings from Zambia.
    My personal involvement in the professionalisation of youth work debate has been the sucipious among youth workers themselves about the process of professionalisation.
    I think we need to do much to educate the public on Youth Work as a profesion and engage universities.
    Let us join hands in this very contenious debate.
    Andrew Tandeo


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