By Mark Krueger
Turnover and incompetence among youth workers are serious threats to youth development. Across the country employers are struggling to find and keep good staff members to implement youth development programs. In December the Child Welfare League of America held a national symposium in Washington, D.C., to address what it called "the workforce crisis."
Some agencies report annual turnover rates of 50-100 percent. Many directors are unwilling to pay for and/or provide training because they don't believe the workers will stay long enough to use it. Things have gotten so bad that some agencies have turned to temporary help services to fill vacancies.
In recent editorial comment on National Public Radio, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich argued that the gap between human service graduates and graduates in business and science had widened considerably, making fields like youth work even less appealing today than they were in the past. My son, for example, graduated in 1998 with a B.S. in computer science. Today he's making $80,000 with stock options, full health insurance, retirement and tuition reimbursement. In comparison, youth workers who graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee usually start (like their colleagues across the country) in the neighborhood of $18,000-$20,000, with minimal benefits and no stock options. Further, once they are hired they receive little supervision and support. It's not surprising that only a few stay in the field.
At the same time there is more evidence than ever indicating that youth work requires as much, if not more, education and experience than most other professions. Further, largely because of the effort to develop a profession of child and youth care work, we know much more today than ever before about how to do the work. The literature includes numerous examples of best practices.
I am convinced, as are many others who study youth and organizational development, that efforts such as youth development will not have a significant and sustained impact until we have a field of educated, competent and adequately rewarded youth workers; youth workers who can learn from the vast amount of research in adolescent development and in child and youth care work; and who can integrate it into their daily interactions with youth. Without competence at the point of interaction, youth development cannot and does not work.
And without adequate pay, incentives and organizational support, workers are not likely to stay in the field long enough to develop the levels of competence that are required to produce positive effects.
Recognizing this need to speak out, the Academy of Child and Youth Care Professionals (a Philadelphia-based association of leading North American practitioners, administrators, trainers, government officials and professors) developed a position statement in November advocating a minimum youth worker salary of $30,000. Academy members were strong in their conviction that while this amount was not a true measure of youth workers' value to society, it was a reasonable beginning that would give those who were willing to make sacrifices a sense of hope that they could afford to stay in the field a while longer.
To support higher salaries, the North American Certification Project (a collaborative effort among Canadian and U.S. national professional associations of child and youth care workers) is also preparing recommendations for international certification standards. They are to be unveiled in June at the International Child Youth Care Conference. These standards will be based on the extensive work at universities and professional associations to identify core knowledge and competence in youth work practice. More information is available at the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice web page <acycp.org>.
Efforts like these provide a foundation on which to build, but they will not work unless the collective voice of youth development leaders speaks out louder and makes pay, competence and education for youth workers a priority. Youth development does not and cannot work without skilled professionals. Nothing is more urgent than the lack of support, standards and education for youth workers.
Mark Krueger is director of the Child and Youth Care Learning Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.