While an increasing amount of research in recent years has focused on the features of successful youth programs, precious little research has been done on the workers who carry out those programs.
So it is noteworthy that a cooperative extension service just released an analysis of the competency of youth workers – as judged by the workers themselves. Particularly interesting is that the study matches youth workers’ assessments with the findings from the nation’s most significant scientific evaluation of youth development practices.
The report, “Working with Teens: A Study of Staff Characteristics and Promotion of Youth Development,” examines the relationship between youth workers’ experience, training and educational backgrounds and their self-reported competency in implementing the eight features of positive youth programming outlined in a 2001 study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
Researchers at the University of Nevada developed lists of survey items that youth workers might align with the NAS features, and had respondents rate their level of competency for each item on a scale of 1 to 5. For example, the NAS study found that positive youth programs provide “physical and psychological safety.” The survey asked workers to rate their competence in “keeping youth from hurting each other,” “managing conflict between youth,” and other areas connected to physical and psychological safety.
Over six months, the researchers conducted an online survey of 981 adults in almost every state who work directly with youth. The youth workers were from both local and nationally affiliated programs, such as 4-H (accounting for one-third of all respondents), Big Brothers Big Sisters (11 percent) and Camp Fire (1 percent). Workers from rural, suburban and urban areas were represented almost equally.
Among the key findings: Youth program staff with formal education in youth development or related fields, and those with higher levels of experience, rated themselves higher in overall competency.
Feelings of competency were also strongly linked to how highly youth workers rated their job satisfaction and intent to continue working in the field.
That finding spurred the researchers to reinforce the need for training and continuing education to advance the movement toward greater professionalization of the youth field.
Need for Training
Youth work has long been seen as a “steppingstone kind of a job,” says study co-author Bill Evans, a state specialist for youth development studies and an associate professor at the University of Nevada at Reno.
“There will have to be a movement [toward professionalism] in the future as more and more youth workers are needed to develop and produce quality youth programming,” he says. “We’re going to need the best people, and we’re going to need to retain them.”
The report urges, “To advance the level of professional distinction and retention of qualified individuals in the field, it is important to promote the attainment of high competency levels” through youth development education, training and experiential opportunities.
The study also revealed some interesting facts and surprises about the characteristics of youth workers and their competency in implementing program features:
• Nearly two-thirds had worked in youth programs for more than four years, and nearly four in 10 had more than eight years’ experience.
• Nearly half said that they had learned “much” or “very much” from more experienced staff members or colleagues.
• Full-time workers tended to report a higher overall competency than part-time workers or volunteers.
• Those with “some college” or “a community college degree or certificate” rated their overall competency higher than those who had higher degrees.
“There could be a little bit of ‘the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know’ ” phenomenon, Evans says. It’s also possible that those with only some college or community college experience “are more aligned [with youth] on a variety of other indices like age and experiences.”
• The respondents felt most competent when implementing survey items associated with “positive social norms,” “appropriate structure” and “physical and psychological safety.” Those were items such as “ensuring that youth act appropriately in our program,” “making sure the youth follow our program’s rules” and “managing conflict between youth.”
“Those are the monitoring kinds of features that people expect – the bottom foundation you’ve got to have,” says Evans.
• Youth workers felt least competent implementing “opportunities for skill building” and the “integration of family, school and community efforts.” “That’s disappointing,” says Evans, “the skill-building one in particular. That’s a core thing I think people expect [youth workers] would be trying to develop among kids.”
Co-author Eric Killian, a youth development specialist and associate professor at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, explains:
“I think what happens is that [teens] are looking for a good place to hang out with someone who will care about them and listen to them. And youth workers seem to be pretty comfortable in developing that relationship, but that might not lead to accomplishing the ultimate goal of whatever the program wants to accomplish. If it’s a leadership program, or a community service program, that part might get put on the back burner.”
Value of Studying The Work Force
Killian says that while the NAS report was good for outlining the important features of youth programming, “we have lots of those type of lists.”
“What would be really nice is to provide youth workers with training, then put them into a place where they actually implement what they’ve learned,” he says. “It would be wonderful to say, ‘Here’s what we did, here’s what they learned, here’s how they implemented it, and how their program has changed because they did these things.’ ”
Evans says the potential for studies like this one lies in producing baseline information for youth programs and states on the competencies of their youth workers.
“What flows from that is training,” Evans says. “How can we enhance some of the competencies that are low, and how can we build on the strengths that the staff does possess?”
The study is available free at www.unce.unr.edu/publications/SP04/SP0423.pdf.