By Tim Burke
Leicester, England—As the youth work field in the United States struggles to develop quality staff training that is widely recognized by employers and brings the occupation more status, the British have been doing rather well with a national training system for 40 years.
While traditions differ on each side of the Atlantic, the English example gives some pointers on the benefits of training for workers and agencies.
The English call it the JNC qualification, after the Joint Negotiating Committee of employers and unions that created it. “Youth work started becoming a profession after the second World War,” explains Neil Marsland , a development officer with National Youth Agency, the body that provides official accreditation of youth work courses. By 1960, when the national government “started to pick up responsibility for youth work from the voluntary [nonprofit] sector and implemented legislation, it inevitably brought with it a welter of regulatory measures, including a training and qualification structure.”
Youth workers here can study for the national qualification at 26 universities. The qualification gives access to a pay level and set of conditions developed specifically for youth work that are not far short of those for teachers (although still not enough for the youth work unions campaigning for greater parity with teachers). Almost all full-time youth work jobs offered by local government, and many by nonprofits, are JNC jobs that require this qualification and pay scale.
The implications are far-reaching. Youth work is recognized as a distinct career choice, separate from teaching or social work. It also means there is a clear financial incentive to go through training.
Jason Wood, 23, is in the third year of his B.A. course in youth and community development at De Montfort University in Leicestershire. His involvement in a high-profile, successful campaign for more youth facilities in his community made him realize there was a more exciting life outside the dull administrative job that he was on track for.
When he began working with the statutory youth service in Gloucestershire at age 18, he had to take the locally delivered training that the county supplies for its part-time staff.
“I found this really legitimized youth work for me,” Wood says. “Many people still see youth work as about getting kids off the street, but I always thought there was more to it.”
The training and national qualifications “showed me this was a career worth pursuing. It gave me the confidence to leave a dull but safe job in health service administration.”
He could have gone for a two-year diploma, which would have included the JNC qualification, but, like an increasing number of his colleagues, he opted for the three-year route and a bachelor’s degree. He chose full-time study at De Montfort, a university of 23,000 students with a 40-year pedigree in youth work training.
It’s a financial stretch for him, but he’s entitled to the same student loan opportunities as his colleagues studying computer science or English literature. In some ways he is better off than they are: The local youth service is only too happy to give him paid part-time work.
“The fact that I’m doing qualifying training means I’m through the door [for a job] immediately,” he says. “It tells them that here is someone who takes youth work very seriously. And the fact that I’m doing training means people tend not to just give a job, they actually look at how they can help me along.”
Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that employers value the degree qualification.
Not Just Money
Employers routinely make the qualification a requirement, even though it costs them: The JNC pay rates for qualified workers are 30 percent higher than for those without the qualification. That stands in contrast to the United States, where the investment costs in tuition are much higher and the return on investment (through higher salaries) is not so certain.
Since the national Labor government that was elected in 1997 started making youth and social inclusion issues a top priority, an ever-wider range of employers has been seeking trained youth workers.
“Around 50 percent of youth work students move into areas outside of the youth service,” says Marsland of the National Youth Agency. “That includes areas such as work with young offenders, health education, drugs projects, careers advice.
The training “is clearly valued by employers. … It offers a sound liberal education but with a very focused, practical and theoretical basis.”
A fair number of employers also pay for staff to take the training. Vicky Spall, for example, is being supported by her employers at Staffordshire County Council. At 18, Spall went to a university and studied sociology and women’s studies. She did volunteer work and eventually gained employment as a local coordinator for Millennium Volunteers, the United Kingdom’s equivalent of AmeriCorps. The job did not require a JNC qualification, but brought her into contact with Staffordshire’s youth workers, and her interest in youth work started to grow.
“I didn’t really know what the youth service was all about,” she says. “But when I did the local training my appetite was whetted.” Vicky, now 25, is studying at De Montfort for a master’s degree in community education, which includes the professional qualification in youth work.
She attends classes one day a week for two 13-week semesters plus two weekend residential events and must carry out a work-based placement of 120 hours. For that she uses vacation time from her full-time job at Millennium Volunteers. “It is a big commitment, but one I’m happy to make because I see the value in it,” she says.
“It’s not just about more money. It’s helped me in my current job and it’s helped me in my volunteering, too.
“There is a lot of theory, but we’re encouraged to make the link to practice, and it does [affect] what I do daily. You find yourself doing something and you think, ‘Right, I know now why I’m doing this.’ Doing this training is also helping me to recognize bad practice when I come across it.”
Another key is gaining respect from co-workers. “I used to get people saying to me, ‘But you’re not qualified,’ and I used to get quite upset, thinking, ‘Why are they being so horrible to me?’ I understand now that it is about them encouraging youth work to be seen as a profession, something people have worked very hard for over the years.”
Mary Tyler, one of the course leaders at De Montfort, says that as the national government involves youth workers in more partnership with other services, getting peer respect is increasingly part of the motivation for students.
“It’s about having credibility with fellow professionals, being able to say to someone, ‘Actually, I’m just as well-qualified as you are.’”
Tim Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neil Marsland, development officer
National Youth Agency
17-23 Albion St.
Leicester LE1 6GD
011 (44) 116-285-3734
De Montfort University
Leicester LE1 9BH
011 (44) 116-250-6172
Course information: http://www.dmu.ac.uk/Subjects/Db
Student Youth Work Online
Youth work training in England
About 1,000 students are studying for national qualification in youth work.
They study in 40 programs at 26 institutions of higher education.
The institutions range from traditional universities to the YMCA George Williams College and the Christian-run Centre for Youth Ministry.
The courses typically include elements such as work with groups and individuals, applied social science, social policy, research methods, management skills and issues such as global youth work, detached youth work, counseling and black perspectives.
Most students must complete two work placements and a research project.
To count toward the national qualification, a course must be endorsed by the Education and Training Standards Committee (ETS) of the National Youth Agency.
To endorse a proposed course, ETS forms working groups of academics, employers, senior youth work practitioners and others. The group checks the proposal against agreed criteria and visits the institution.