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Is youth work worth it? Not without adequate compensation and professional development

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Last month my fellow bloggers asked, "How can we reinforce the belief that youth work is a career and not just a pipeline for other professions?" The answer is complex. But one key is money, and perhaps in the current economic climate, this question is the elephant in the room: Is professional development or advancement in the field worth the investment without adequate compensation?

My opinion is that it isn't. Betsy StarrPassion and commitment to youth motivate youth workers to enter the field. However, to retain them, there is a clear need for increased compensation commensurate with advances in training, education, and job title. Otherwise, for many, it's just not worth it to stay.

First, the good news: some have found creative ways to meet this need.

  • Vermont offers professional recognition bonuses for achieving certificates, credentials, and degrees.
  • The After School Corporation in New York, in addition to offering academic support and assisting with finding scholarships, paid stipends to those completing certificate programs on several CUNY campuses.
  • The Missouri Afterschool Network is currently working with the Department of Higher Education to develop a career lattice and salary recommendations. People are also sharing ideas and resources more than ever.
  • The Next Gen community initiated the Career Pathways group that convenes quarterly phone calls to provide updates. (Please post a comment below if you'd like to join!).

And, the bad: it has been difficult to sustain compensation and incentive programs as funding sources dry up. For example, those piloting and adopting the TEACH scholarship program, touted as a promising model for school-age professional development, are still reeling from its recent decimation. Pennsylvania responded by looking into grants such as Race to the Top funding and by building collaborations with other agencies.

Professional development and compensation both help sustain a profession, and we need both, lest we be regarded as a pipeline to other careers. So, please post your comments, whether you have news to brighten our day or are looking to commiserate

Does your state have any innovative compensation or incentive programs in place or in the works? What other strategies can we provide for keeping youth workers motivated and on a career pathway?

Betsy Starr, National Institute on Out-of-School Time

Research associate

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Appropriate monetary compensation is definitely needed for professionals in this field. But along with looking at the money aspect I think its just as important to also address the wellness aspect for youth workers.
    If you are good at what you do and you're passionate, chances are you've put in a lot of overtime, and a lot of energy into things that were probably not on your job description; but these things needed to get done for the benefit of the young people you work with and the organization.
    This common theme over being so committed to the work leads to the risk of getting burnt out. So when you are giving so much to your work that it intersects with your personal life, it becomes a big issue. So how can organizations support in promoting "self care" in order to retain high quality youth workers, is an essential aspect to consider.

  2. I couldn't agree more Yves. I think as youthworkers we definitely have a duty to ourselves, our colleagues and the young people we work with to figure out how to better address self care. Yet I also thing as organizations and in the larger youthwork/youth development field we have a duty to teach and address these skills if we are to build both the capacity and professionalism of our work.

  3. Thank you for this frank argument about what I would argue are the two most critical aspects of the development of a professional out of school time workforce.
    Too often I hear from parents, community leaders, organizational management, and sometimes even youth practitioners, that "you don't need money" to offer a successful youth program, or "it's not about money" when it comes to what is important in youth work.
    My heart races. My cheeks flush. I am filled with anger at them for devaluing the complex, research-based, deeply personal, and emotionally consuming work that is necessary to achieve the social problem-solving outcomes they expect from out of school time activities. Then further, I feel extreme guilt at the thought that I am somehow "in it for the money" even when I know that it is my passion that keeps me going in spite of the lack of monitary compensation or professional support.
    This usually leaves me silent, steaming, and feeling defeated. I have no energy left to argue, I have no words that will battle these words, I have no book to throw. I am tired, I am broke, I am still working.
    When people say "it's not about money", to me, that means that this is something that should be valued beyond any possible compensation- it is so important to society and individuals within it that it is INVALUABLE.
    So where else do we find the caretakers of something so invaluable being so devalued?
    So, to me, this is a feminist issue. Caring professions are professions.
    Having allies like yourself who are unafraid to argue that adequate compensation and recognition through professional development certification is a requirement for the success of this INVALUABLE work gives me hope that my voice will not catch in my throat next time I feel devalued. I am committed to the furthering of this collective voice, and I hope together we can fight for the valuing of our profession and of the youth served by it.
    Thank you.

  4. Thank you Betsy for your frank address to the elephant in the room. And I could not agree with you more. Currently, it is not financially worth it or even viable for most people to stay in the youth work field - if that means low wages for long hours in direct service work only. Passion for the work only goes so far, it does not pay the bills and youth workers cannot afford to stay.
    I also think bonuses and stipends are only temporary fixes. For me, it circles back to the post and conversation started by Mo and Laurie Jo about is youth work a career or a pipeline to other careers. I think right now it's the latter. Unless we broaden our view of what "staying in the field" means.
    I like many others started my career as a direct-service youth worker. From there I created my own career path based on my own interests, education, financial needs and desires, through supervisor, policy work and eventually researcher.
    I think our role as advocates for the youth work field is to support those who wish to remain direct service youth workers in the setting of their choice with salaries that match their education and experience; as well as support those who use youth work as stepping stone to a viable career of their choice. As stated by other posts, training in youth work will make for better teachers, supervisors, funders, or what have you. It certainly made me a better researcher.
    However, this idea requires us all to embrace a broader definition of what it means to stay "in the field."

  5. Thanks, Julie, for your thoughtful comments, and for highlighting your own career pathway. Having a broad definition of the field which includes positions in advocacy, research, etc. can only help to strengthen it.
    Anyone else have a non-traditional pathway story to share?

  6. Of course, there are many forms of compensation, as Yves and Colleen have noted, which are certainly important ways to support youth workers.
    At the same time, we do need to continue to value the work. And as Angelina points out, it is a feminist issue. (It is not a coincidence that the National Institute on Out-of-School Time is housed at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College!)
    I think the tension between the idea that "it's not about the money" and that we need to adequately compensate and value youth workers can be resolved. It's not an either/or situation - we want people to be passionate about their work AND well-compensated for it.

  7. Youth’s participation in democratic governance is crucial to overcoming the many challenges they face in developing countries. These include political challenges, such as little or no youth participation in elections and policymaking; economic challenges, such as a lack of jobs even with a secondary or higher education; and social challenges, such as gender inequality and migration.

  8. I think execution ability is much important than a good idea.Because everyone has good ideas,but few people put them into practice...

  9. vetverbranding stimulerenApril 30, 2012 at 3:44 AM

    I think the tension between the idea that "it's not about the money" and that we need to adequately compensate and value youth workers can be resolved. It's not an either/or situation - we want people to be passionate about their work and well-compensated for it.

  10. Hi
    I am currently working a paper on youth development within the local borough of London UK.
    Your work has been very helpful and I will be sure to include reference to your site as a source of information. Thank you

  11. Leadership TrainingMay 2, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    Hello I'm Pamela Hall. I enjoyed reading a wonderful thread like this . Looking forward to see post like this.

  12. I think the government should take an initiative in this and once it does it should also make some kind of provision to sustain a proper development of youth work as a career option.

  13. I worked from 16 through high school and through college, and still graduated over $35,000 in debt. I have friends who played basketball in high school when I was working and won scholarships to universities, thus graduating near debt free. Looking back, better put your eggs in the sports basket these days vs. a part-time job.

  14. The job market for our youth is very competitive right now. I would like to invite anyone with helpful information as a guest blogger on our website located at to share your information and thoughts on how we can work together to help them enter the workforce. Thanks.

  15. I think goverment should incentivate young people to start their own businesses!

  16. Transcription ServicesAugust 10, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    It starts with passion. But passion alone will not keep anyone in the field for long. My daughter is a senior in college. She really wanted to follow a career in elementary ed. We all know where that’s going so midstride she realized she had to change course. Of course it’s about the money and finding the job. In the current economy, that’s a lot to ask.

  17. I think the tension between the idea that "it's not about the money" and that we need to adequately compensate and value youth workers can be resolved. It's not an either/or situation - we want people to be passionate about their work and well-compensated for it.

  18. Hello,
    I enjoyed your post a great deal. Why? I worked with youth for a number of years, and I will tell you that the reason why I didn't continue was because of the compensation. Work with youth is difficult. It drains you, and the reason why youth workers continue to work in it is because it's rewarding. However, once the rewarding piece gets covered by the stress of meeting financial ends meet, the work just doesn't seem to be worth it anymore. Everyone would love to work a job that is rewarding, but unfortunately, most jobs that are rewarding do not pay, and this is one of them.