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Is youth work a career?

Thumbnail image for nextgen-main-logo.jpgIs 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?

Photo of Mo BarbosaGood 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

Photo of Laurie Jo WallaceWe 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?

Assistant Director, Training and Capacity Building

Laurie Jo Wallace, Health Resources in Action

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  1. Greetings Mo and LJ
    Thanks for your great food-for-thought article that is packed with a high "ouch" dose of reality.
    It is ironical that a work that has so great an impact for the future vis-a-vis the preparation of the next generation is characterized by such low professional regard. It's also telling that the promising ideas shared in the NCY 2006 study are as every bit relevant today, six years on.
    Having been in youth work for some 20 years, I have had to trail-blaze my own path of professional development. It has been a long and lonely path made even more agonizing because in my country (Singapore), there is a lack of the critical mass to push for the needed change in the field of youth work. Many of my peers have dropped out. Some have crossed to the "dark" side of pushing pen and paper behind some desk.
    Perhaps, it's time to seriously look into intentional collaborations that cross national and geographical boundaries. I'm game to explore international networking because it bears the potential of raising the stature of youth work. I believe with today's technology it has become increasingly easier and less costly to weave together a network of like-minded youth work professionals on our little planet.

  2. Thanks for your post, John! Thanks for posting from another hemisphere In Minnesota we are always interested in intentional collaboration. Cross geographical boundaries are encouraging as a bridge to some intriguing enrichment. Next Gen networking allows for some weaving together of youth work specific ideas. With a membership of 3055 people, great potential exists right in this enclave!
    My particular focus as an extension educator and faculty with the Youth Work Institute at the University of MN has been crafting a professional development curriculum called Leadership Matters specifically designed for youth work supervisors to delve into some leadership thinking about managing staff with some sense of empowerment and resources. We spark discussions about competencies and learning circles and pathways and strengths based leadership. We found several key things in designing the course: 1) many, if not most, youth work supervisors ended up in their jobs unintentionally, 2) few workshops of this nature are specifically gear to the youth work context. So far the reception to the content has been good! Check out the workshop description at

  3. A matter close to my heart! And so much to unpack in order to have a deep and critical conversation.
    1) Have we created enough public buy-in for youth work to be a career (which implies a funding stream for full time workers)?
    2) Do we need to think creatively about youth work as career possibilities - e.g., youth workers with the capacity to be deployed in multiple settings including schools - not to be teachers but to be youth workers in schools, in hospitals, in prisons, in foster homes.
    3) If career means frontline work with kids for life then I am not sure - I was a youth worker for many years before transitioning to other things within the broader field - my experience on the ground strongly influences and in needed ways my capacity to think about our practice, our profession, our field but with age engaging with young people daily on the ground would be too tiring for these old bones. So then what are the trajectories and do we need to limit or narrow the options. I rather like a world where folks are trained as youth workers, have gotten deep experience on the ground, and use that experience to inform other domains. At the same time, I agree it is worth figuring out how to invest in those who can/want to stay youth workers.

  4. Perhaps we should not think about needing to stay in direct youth work for our entire career, but what is our responsibility as youth workers in guiding and mentoring those with "younger bones" who really want to do this work and do it well.
    From someone with "old bones" who understands what you mean about "tiriing". We have to know when it is time to step back and let the younger generation take over.
    Jeri Ezaki

  5. This is an interesting thought. I have always thought we should have classes in youth development/youthworker as part of teacher training. One thing to consider is that youth workers enjoy the flexibility that non formal education offers.

  6. Hi Mo and LJ,
    Thanks for the article, When I think of youth work I see it at multiple levels for it to be successful (frontline, management, gov't,educational system, international movement). I think when we start connecting outcomes to direct youth work, it will move the occupation to a profession that is not seen "as something anyone can do". Outcomes are linked directly to educational system when a young person graduates or get credits. We as Youth Practitioners, change our language to illustrate that our role is pivotal to supporting youth development. Just recently in the City of Toronto, 17-29 Youth Worker position has been up for discussion to delete those full time positions. This is the sign of the time, where we as Youth Workers must articule the relevants of the work that we do. When we start seeing degrees and diplomas programs in Youth Engagement or Youth Development, I believe would support Youth Practioners in illustrating the effectiveness of our work. Formal education is always looking for innovate ways to connect to student and therefore the system will change on how post secondary schooling is delivered and whom will be accepted to YE/YD programs.

  7. Rebecca - for me there is no reticence per so but I do see the emphasis on moving youth workers into the teaching field to be too narrow for my own comfort. We know that children and youth move in and out and through multiple community settings and institutions and that all of that is critical in supporting development. I would hate to see the capital of youth work be limited to schools alone, though certainly my own recommendation of youth workers in schools creates a shared resource model.

  8. Youth workers in the public sector often start in a school or youth center environment, which is relatively safe. With experience, it is possible to move on to mentoring and counseling work, or more detached roles. It is often necessary to relocate for promotion to the small number of senior, principal area youth worker or development officer posts.


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