The High Passion and Low Pay of Youth Work

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Youth work has never been a promising career path for people whose life goals include driving their Beemer to their beach house. At the STARS Mentor Program in Wells, Minn., Coordinator Carolyn Smith understands why her pay tops out at about $28,000. But as she nears age 60, Smith admits that “every now and then I think, ‘What am I doing this for? I should be out making money to retire on.’ ”

Many youth workers ask the same kind of question. And every day, many of them leave for better-paying and less stressful jobs. Others hang on, taking home moderate paychecks in exchange for other benefits, such as flexible hours, interesting work and, most importantly, a passionate belief in their mission.

“I would only look for another job if I was told we had to shut the door,” writes Pamela Chamberlain, director of the Friend2Friend mentoring program in Jackson, Tenn., who sometimes pays the office rent instead of paying herself.

Discussing pay with youth workers around the country, and reviewing recent studies about salaries in human services, produces a picture that is both uplifting and depressing. The picture shows workers motivated by faith in their mission, but routinely contemplating leaving in frustration. As the Brookings Institution concluded in a 2003 study of people who work with low-income children, youth and families, “The human services workforce pays a penalty for its commitment to helping people.”

To be sure, not everyone is a martyr for the cause; many youth workers are content with their pay, and some organizations have raised salaries in an effort to keep their staff.

By and large, however, salaries range from bearable to what one executive director calls “unconscionable” – which is especially risky at a time when youth work is growing more complex and demanding, thanks to technology, government requirements and the increasingly complicated issues that youth bring to youth agencies. That’s why the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in 2003 that “human services delivery is reaching a state of crisis.”

The following is a look at what studies have found and staffers say, by phone and e-mail, about youth work salaries.

Pay doesn’t reflect work

A new study of 1,053 youth workers in eight communities (primarily urban) found a median salary range (meaning half the salaries were higher, and half were lower) of $25,000 to $26,000, and median hourly wages of $9 to $11. The study, by the Forum for Youth Investment and the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, found that 40 percent of those surveyed had second jobs. (See Report Roundup, page 24.)

In the Brookings study, conducted with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 67 percent of survey respondents “strongly or somewhat agreed that their pay was low.”

While you’d expect front-line workers to gripe about their pay, top administrators aren’t happy about what those workers are paid, either:

“From sophisticated communication skills to de-escalate angry youth to the increased expectation for documentation of events and outcomes, salaries haven’t kept pace with the skill level required,” writes Jerry Cantrell, executive director of the Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children, a child welfare agency based in Louisville, Ky.

Dalee M. Thomas Sr., superintendent of the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center in Virginia, says he turned down a raise several years ago so that a youth counselor could get one instead. “I knew the gap between my salary and theirs,” he said of the front-line workers. “They’re the ones doing a lot of the grunt work. They’re the ones getting spat upon, cursed, assaulted, everything else.”

“Political leadership … places very little value on those who work with kids in custody, yet the expectations are significant,” writes Earl Dunlap, CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services.

Getting Satisfaction

Not all youth workers are unhappy with their salaries.

Nabulungi Akinshegun feels fortunate to make $45,000 a year coordinating the Across Ages mentoring program at Interages Inc., in the Washington suburbs of Maryland. The 20-something youth worker is still finishing her bachelor’s degree. “It was a lot more than the after-school program [at another agency], where I was activities director,” she says.

At the juvenile probation office in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Ariz., a survey of salaries around the country a few years ago showed that the pay there was well below national standards. So the pay scale went up, says Probation Officer Traci Woody, who now earns $42,000.

Woody isn’t coasting financially, but she appreciates earning a decent living to help troubled youth. “I have three kids that I raise by myself, and I don’t think they do without a whole lot,” she says.

Where Youth Workers Stand

Average 2004 salaries in selected human services job categories, among private employers:

Child day care $16,238
Services for the elderly and disabled $17,921
Individual and family services $21,818
Temporary shelters $22,951
Child and youth services $25,156
Residential mental and substance abuse care $25,387
Arts, entertainment, recreation $27,607
Educational support services $32,977

Factors Behind Pay

Education, geography and agency size all affect salaries, according to various studies. Those in the Northeast and California tend to earn the most, reflecting the higher cost of living.

If there are more workers in your agency doing your type of job, you’ll probably earn less. In child welfare, public agencies tend to pay more than do private ones. This is one of the ways that “human services competes with itself,” says Ira Cutler, co-director of Cornerstones for Kids, a nonprofit funded by the Casey Foundation to promote reform and improvements in the human services work force.

Daniel Sauser is a case in point. He was working at a residential treatment facility for the for-profit Youth Services International in Iowa, when a job opened at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center, in Des Moines. Sauser says he makes “a lot more money [$51,600] working for the county. They pay better; the benefits are better. I think they treat their people better.”

Impact – Attracting Workers

Agency managers say it’s getting harder to find qualified workers, especially coming out of college.

“They can’t make a living, they can’t support families in some of the jobs,” says Cutler of Cornerstones.

That’s one reason that Neil Eddins, superintendent of the Youth Center of the High Plains in Amarillo, Texas, has this problem: “We are seeing a phenomenon with the current generation entering the work force:  They tend to not be interested in the helping professions; typically they gravitate toward technological fields,” he writes. “This business is more than a job; it is a calling and requires individuals committed to be change agents in the lives of children.”

Even college graduates who hear the calling might not be able to afford to answer it. Average college debt loads have increased significantly in recent years. The average graduate owes $19,000, according to several recent studies. A study report released in April by the state Public Interest Research Groups warned that rising student debt “could pose a challenge to states’ and local governments’ efforts to recruit and retain talented teachers and social workers.”

Impact – Retaining Workers

The low salaries are one reason the youth field has long been known for having such high staff turnover that many agencies might just as well install revolving doors.

Lynn B. Austin feels the problem as executive director of the Vigo County Juvenile Detention Center in Terre Haute, Ind., where detention officers start at $21,000 full time, while part-timers get $7.50 an hour.

“We have a large turnover, and the people we keep are below standards, for the most part,” Austin writes.

Richad Salcido of Texas has seen how low salaries spur turnover and how decent salaries can stop it. He joined Family Service of El Paso as a therapist in 1984. “We had very, very low salaries,” he says. “We had very poor retention. We just couldn’t keep people.”

Soon after becoming executive director in 1996, he began raising salaries and improving benefits. “Just because they work for a nonprofit doesn’t mean they should work for nothing,” he says of his employees. He has 60 full-timers.

Employees now get cost-of-living raises, while the company pays for 90 percent of the health plan costs and has a retirement plan. Salcido says he has virtually no annual turnover.

“I’m not paying them astronomical salaries,” he says. “At least they have hope.”

He is angry, however, about the pay of his two daughters, who are in social work. One, age 23, works with teen parents at the YWCA for $24,900, which he calls “unconscionable.” The other, age 27, works as an HIV case manager for Planned Parenthood, and earns $23,000, “which is ridiculous.”

The younger one “is still naïve and idealistic and wants to change the world. I think she will be a lifetime social worker,” he says. The other “is more disenchanted and is looking at other things. The salary might drive her out of the field.”

Middle-aged and older youth workers also find it difficult to stay, unless they have a spouse to take up the slack. In Durham, N.C., Amy Elliott earns $46,000 running a county alternative school program (“A New Day”) for adjudicated juveniles. “I don’t know how long I can afford to do it,” she says. “I have a deep passion and love for this work. I look at people my age [50] and what they make, and I get worried.”

And while Anderson Williams believes he’s adequately paid as director of a youth organizing program with the Oasis Center in Nashville, Tenn. – he makes $42,000 – he realizes that the nonprofit field doesn’t offer much upward mobility. The 30-year-old has a master’s degree in fine arts and plans always to work on fostering social change. But, he says, “I do not plan to be what I call ‘a nonprofit martyr.’ ”

What’s a Job Worth?

Average salaries for selected positions at human services agencies:

Receptionist $21,474
Residential youth worker $22,007
After-school worker $22,982
Records clerk $23,587
Tutor $26,502
Mentor $27,300
Case manager $27,998
Volunteer coordinator $31,250
Teacher, residential education $33,617
Recreational program supervisor $33,556
Program coordinator $36,960
Grant/proposal writer $41,078
Chaplain $44,923
Director of development $67,451
Chief executive officer $112,501

Source: “Human Services Compensation in the United States: 2005,” Alliance for Children and Families, which focuses on professional and front-line staff; the last three positions are from the alliance’s 2006 report, which focuses on executive staff.


Typically, workers at government jobs report better health, retirement and vacation benefits than those at nonprofits.

At the Interages Inc. mentoring program in Maryland, Akinshegun must pay for her own health insurance. “I’ve had a very hard time finding insurance I can afford,” she says. Consequently, she’s been on and off insurance policies.

“I was healthy until I didn’t have health insurance,” she says. “I was here not even three months, and got early-stage pneumonia. I’m still paying off the medical bills.”

Working conditions

For many youth workers, low pay isn’t their primary concern; it’s the workload.

In the Brookings survey, 81 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that “it is easy to burn out in the work they do.” Seventy percent strongly or somewhat agreed that they “always have too much work to do.”

Also, 38 percent said their organizations don’t have enough employees to do the job, while 31 percent said their organizations only sometimes or rarely have adequate access to equipment and supplies.

Chamberlain personifies those findings as she runs the Friend2Friend Mentoring Program in Tennessee. “I’m working by myself, as we cannot afford a second person, although the responsibilities are overwhelming,” she writes.

The problem of overworked and undersupported staff is one reason the Brookings report warned that “the human services workforce is nearing ‘critical condition.’ ”


Many jobs offer a benefit that doesn’t often appear on the list of salary scales, annual leave and dental coverage: flexible schedules.

“I’m very free to plan my own schedule,” says Carolyn Smith at the STARS Mentor Program in Minnesota. “I have a grandchild, and if I want to go visit him for a day … I do that. My mother’s in a nursing home about 90 miles away, so if I want to see her for a day, I can do that.”

In Tennessee, Sam Davidson says that not long ago, he was “pulling down around $45,000 a year” working in the hotel industry. But he was working 50-hour weeks and had little flexibility.

He makes less now – $15 an hour for 20 to 30 hours a week – coordinating youth leadership programs for the Oasis Center in Nashville. “My quality of life is much different,” he says. “I’m working much fewer hours and have less stress.”

Why Stay?

Despite the frustration, 98 percent of those in the Brookings survey said they “accomplished a great deal or fair amount in their job,” a reference to their sense of helping people or communities. Even among the 802 respondents in the study’s “low income” group, 49 percent said they plan to stay in their jobs more than 10 years; 39 percent said they plan to stay five years or less.

A lot of that can be explained by motivation. Just 15 percent of the workers cited salary as a “very important consideration,” in taking their jobs, making it the lowest factor among eight choices. The top factor: the “opportunity to help children, youth and families,” cited by 87 percent.

Here are some comments that personify those feelings:

“I have teaching certification and a college degree in Elementary Ed/English, but I love this job more than any other I have had in my 56 years. … The benefits of the position are from the heart – the kids being happy.” – Carolyn Hildebrand, coordinator of the Central Aroostook Mentoring Program in Presque Isle, Maine.

“[Pay] really wasn’t an issue. I have a weakness for what most people would deem bad kids. I think they’re misunderstood, kids, for the most part.” – Traci Woody, juvenile probation officer in Maricopa County, Ariz.

“I guess it’s kind of like my baby. I helped develop it in the very beginning. I believe in this. … I have a stake in its success.” – Carolyn Smith, coordinator at STARS in Minnesota.

Salary and Work Force Studies

(Note: Some of the reports below are free and some are for sale.)

“Growing the Next Generation of Youth Work Professionals: Workforce Opportunities and Challenges,” 2006
Next Generation Youth Work Coalition

“Human Services Compensation in the United States: 2006”
“Human Services Compensation in the United States: 2005”
Alliance for Children and Families

“2005 Management Compensation Report”
National Human Services Assembly

“2005 Salary Study”
Child Welfare League of America

“The Health of the Human Services Workforce,” 2003
The Brookings Institution and the Annie E. Casey Foundation