There is a tendency in youth work to either romanticize the task - "We're saving kids, doing the Lord's work"- or trash the job, as if lousy working conditions were restricted to human service programs. Carefully analyzing your workplace and your role in it probably won't change your mind. You love it or hate it.
But what of the countless youth workers who are not quite sure? They experience moments of profound satisfaction, but also feel trapped, unappreciated, confused about next steps and just plain under siege.
For those for whom these ups and downs spark soul-searching and doubt, here is a four-part guide to knowing if you and your agency have a future. Each statement is worth two points:
My agency delivers the goods and I am a direct contributor in this process. Most youth programs are, first and foremost, service organizations. They are labor-intensive operations where the differences between successful and unsuccessful programs can be quickly traced to the variable capacity of the programs to deliver their services. You don't need fancy evaluation models or outside auditors to find out if this statement is correct. Use your gut: Are people better off from your collective efforts? If your agency is getting the job done and you feel part of it, hang in there.
My agency serves the people truly in need of our services and succeeds in recruiting from these populations. Even under the best circumstances, targeting and recruiting teenagers into programs is not easy. Since agencies have few resources to devote to administrative functions, these tasks are frequently carried out by the most poorly paid and least experienced of program staff. If your agency is succeeding in this task, stay the course. If the agency is flubbing it, your program will likely lose its reputation in the community and it will take years to regain the confidence of potential young clients. Bail out, now!
People we serve as well as our donors, staff and other agencies "get" what we do and we are known to have a consistent mission, vision and identity. Many youth organizations fail to articulate their mission or identify it fully or clearly. But every organization has an identity, shaped by how it approaches its clients. In management literature, this approach is called the "service concept." Little things - such as the style of counseling, the way the phone is answered, even the physical layout - reinforce or contradict the service concept. If you aren't surrounded by and contributing to a really cool service concept, maybe it's time to jump ship. Positive service concept keeps you on the job.
I work in a smart organization with great people. Staffing and leadership are what practitioners think about 24/7, yet (surprisingly) these get only lip service in the policy and donor communities. For example, funding regulations almost never provide for long-term, stable staffing, and funders often expect services to begin as soon as the grant is made, ignoring the fact that staff need to be hired and trained.
The pressure that managers feel to hit the ground running can come at the expense of quality services to clients. Chronic underfunding and cash flow problems force senior staff to pursue more projects and "soft money," leading to further deterioration of staff functioning and morale. How does your organization size up on the leadership and staff competence measure?
If you scored four or below on this Ambivalent Youth Worker Assessment Tool (AYWAT, as in "eh, what?" Copyright pending), perhaps it is time to visit that new agency everyone is talking about and check out the jobs. Graduate school is another option. Perhaps the education system should replace the GREs with the AYWAT, because the latter predicts motivation and drive more precisely than any of the traditional tools.
Andrew Hahn is professor and director of the Heller School's master's degree programs in children, youth and family studies, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.