A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
In this week’s blog, Gill Millar from Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West explores what the perfect age for a youth worker is and looks at whether youth workers are actually getting younger.
I’ve spent most of the last month preparing for the start of our new Level 2 and 3 qualifications in Youth Work Practice, in Somerset, Devon and Bath, supported by the local authorities and youth services. And we are starting to train youth work apprentices employed by Somerset Rural Youth Project.
The best bit of getting ready for the courses has been talking to the people who have applied to do the courses. There has been a great response with more applicants than places and we’ve had to turn down some really enthusiastic potential youth workers.
A lot of the people we’ve interviewed do their youth work on a voluntary basis, in local youth clubs, churches and arts/music projects. Many of them have day jobs in other occupations, but enjoy their youth work so much that they want to do the qualification in order to improve their practice and learn new skills. Some have even given up other paid jobs in order to devote their time and energy to providing for young people in their area. Some of those we have accepted on the course have been able to persuade their employer to reorganise their hours so they can attend daytime training sessions. There is real commitment here – these are not ‘just volunteers’.
There are also more and more younger people (21 and below) who got involved because they took part in youth projects themselves, stayed on as volunteers and are now moving into paid youth work, often in leadership roles or in music or other specialised projects. Both apprentices got involved with Somerset Rural Youth Project through NCS – first as participants then as workers on subsequent programmes. The apprenticeship gives them a next logical step in a career in youth work.
For most of my professional life in youth work the ‘normal’ career path into youth work has been for community-based volunteers to get involved in, or start up, local youth projects, get enthused about the work, do their ‘part-time worker’s course’ then maybe move on to become a professional youth worker by achieving a degree as a mature student. Linked to those are people who trained in another field, often teaching, sometimes social work, then after several years discovered through volunteering that they preferred the less formal approach to work with young people offered by youth work. There are fewer of these now, as they tend to need secure employment – hard to find in youth work at present – and changing career now requires a new degree, whereas in the past, teaching qualifications also counted as JNC qualifications.
I think there is now another ‘normal’ route into youth work, and it is one that many in the profession have concerns about. My experience of the growing number of younger people applying for Level 3 qualifications is similar to the changing profile of those undertaking degrees in youth work, where the percentage of those who start their youth work degrees before they are 21 has increased significantly in the past decade, matched by a similar decline in those starting at 35 or over (NYA Annual Monitoring Report 2013/14). So the overall youth work workforce must be getting younger (though we don’t know this as there is no reliable source of information about the youth workforce) and this has the potential to change the face of youth work.
Many in the youth work profession have reservations about the growth in numbers of young youth workers, fearing they lack the emotional maturity required, and worrying that they will find it harder to observe professional boundaries in their relationships with young people. The sector has been slow to engage with youth work apprenticeships, especially for those aged 16-18. Some youth workers see ‘senior members’ and young volunteers as having specific roles and are reluctant to consider seamless progression routes into youth work for those young people.
I think we are missing real opportunities to develop youth work by not embracing young entrants to the role. Certainly some young people do lack the emotional maturity a youth worker should have – but I can also think of a lot of middle aged people who are just as unsuitable. Some of the younger people who gain their youth work qualifications won’t stay in the profession all their lives – they will find other things they would rather do – but they will take the skills and knowledge they gained into other fields and will be able to influence others to be more positive about young people.
Young youth workers bring a lot of positives to the profession – they are often more willing to work evenings and weekends; they are MUCH better at using technology than many older colleagues; they are enthusiastic and open to new ways of thinking. I want youth work to encourage them and welcome them on board, recognise the strengths they bring and support them to develop experience and reflection. I’m pleased that Education & Training Standards Committee recently agreed to reduce the lower age limit for the Level 2 courses from 16 to 14 and for Level 3 from 18 to 16. This will help us develop pathways for young people including apprenticeships and contribute to reinvigorating youth work at a time when young people really need the opportunities it brings.
Regional Youth Work Adviser
Learning South West