Aiding Front-Line Youth Workers

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The human service work force is arguably the least visible part of the American labor market of 134 million wage earners. A recent Annie E. Casey Foundation study, “The Unsolved Challenge of System Reform: The Quality of Frontline Human Service Workers,” ( estimates that some 7 million people are providing direct care to children, youth and families. The survey included workers in child welfare, child care, juvenile justice, youth service and employment and training. It did not include home care workers or some 3 million teachers.

Janice Nittoli, the study’s author, soon learned that there is “a dearth of good information and scattershot data” about these workers. By tapping numerous sources, Nittoli estimates that there are 870,000 child welfare workers (with estimated average wages of $21,360 to $30,590), 300,000 juvenile justice workers ($30,000), 2 million full-time youth services workers ($21,628) and 500,000 employment and training workers ($30,800).

Writes Nittoli: “These jobs are hard. They require compassion and skill. Their attendant challenges are not financially rewarded or adequately supported. Indeed, front-line human service work is characterized by low pay, heavy workloads and excessive regulations. Lack of training and poor support cause many to leave the field, and those that do stay are typically motivated by values and a sense of mission that is stronger than the work’s disincentives.”

As if that summary isn’t grim enough, the study adds: “Front-line jobs are becoming more and more complex, while the responsibility placed on workers remains severely out of line with their preparation and baseline abilities. Many are leaving the field while a new generation of college graduates shows little interest in entering the human service sector.”

The report further notes, “The large number of people who hold front-line human services jobs is deeply at odds with how little we know about them and the work they do.” Few youth services managers will be surprised to learn that “market demand for human service workers does not produce upward pressure on wages. Publicly funded human services are, by definition, a market created by government, and the forces driving compensation are public policy and regulation, not the laws of supply and demand.”

Depressingly enough, Nittoli writes, “There is growing evidence that human services work has become a destination of last choice for talented young people.” One indirect indicator of this growing problem is a 7 percent drop in enrollment for B.A. degrees in social work and a 5 percent drop in M.S.W. enrollment from 1994 to 1998.

The report wisely notes, “We need to be careful not to become mired in studying the problem.”

That’s one problem youth workers in Milwaukee don’t have to fret about. Since 1979, what is now known as The Youth Work Learning Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been training aspiring youth workers and those already on the job. Led by Mark Krueger, the center has developed a range and type of skills enhancements that would do any city proud.

Among the offerings is the 40-hour Youth Development Certificate Program that trained 158 youth workers last year. Managers can take an advanced Youth Worker Supervision seminar. College students and employed youth workers can earn a Youth Worker Certificate in a 15- to 19-credit program.

This academic year, more than 250 youth work students will receive quality training. The eclectic mix of graduates includes youth workers from the YWCA, Woodland Youth and Family Services, St. Rose Residence, Planned Parenthood, the YMCA–Holton Youth Center, Girl Scouts, the Community Services Corps, Mequon United Methodist Church and the public schools’ recreation department.

Milwaukee’s impressive capacity building took plenty of time and helping hands. The Wisconsin Association of Child and Youth Care Professionals is now in its 40th year of promoting better training, working conditions and wages for youth workers. Milwaukee’s participation in the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds’ four-year BEST Initiative (1997-2001) was vital to the surge in citywide youth worker training.

The latest helping hand is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Youth Development Practitioner Apprenticeship program, also operating in eight other cities thanks to Lorenzo Harrison, a former youth worker who is now administrator of DOL’s Office of Youth Services. Through that office, the Youth Work Learning Center and the Milwaukee Private Industry Council will train youth workers jointly.

While Krueger’s 250 trained youth workers may seem like the proverbial drop in the bucket, don’t cry in your beer for Milwaukee. Krueger reports that not only is worker competence growing, the rate of staff turnover is decelerating and job satisfaction is improving, while allowing that these gains are “not from our training alone.” As for proof positive research that gains are being made in wages, there is none. The Casey report notes that “the lack of good information about youth workers and what they do stands in sharp contrast to the documented benefits of youth programs.”

Let’s hope that Casey, the Labor Department and others (hello, U.S. Departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services) will continue to fund research and training that advances knowledge of, and improvements in, front-line human service work.

– Bill Treanor