Help Your Youth Workers Succeed

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What do your youth workers need to succeed?

Search Institute and the National Collaboration for Youth recently surveyed more than 1,000 youth workers about their professional interests, goals and competencies. We found that many youth workers agree that certain skills are essential for their jobs, but they usually feel they’ve been inadequately prepared with those skills.

Here’s a challenge to see how your staff members are doing: Print the list in the box on the right, and have your workers mark three skills that they wish they could develop more. (Tell your staffers that they can’t mark them all.)

The respondents in the survey said all of those skills are important. Ranked as No. 1 was “developing positive relationships and communicating,” which 85 percent said is essential to their work. Only 28 percent, however, felt prepared in this area.

Similarly, 73 percent said it’s important to involve and empower youth, but only 23 percent felt they had the skills to do so. In fact, for each of the 10 skills, youth workers said they did not have enough training to do their jobs well.

Funded by the Lilly Endowment, the study (“Is There Common Ground?”) confirmed that youth workers want professional development opportunities and want to become better at what they do. In addition to the item that ranked first, the areas they want to focus on most are involving and empowering youth, and interacting with and relating to youth in ways that support building their assets.

For me, this study raises the question: Are we doing enough?

I think not.

Staff training costs money, but it’s an investment that pays off. Human resource experts say that inadequate employee training contributes to employee turnover. Turnover, of course, is one of the biggest problems for youth agencies, draining management resources and creating gaps in the quality of services.

Nevertheless, we in the youth field too often provide only administrative training or no training at all, instead of skill-based training. Skill-based training not only helps to make youth workers more competent, but boosts their energy and enthusiasm.

The YMCA, for instance, understands the importance of skill-based training. It has five levels of training and offers leadership/management certifications for its workers. The YMCA invests in its employees, because it believes that employee training pays off.

Yes, budgets are tight at most youth-serving organizations, but budgets reflect what your organization values. What does your budget say about how much you value professional youth development?

Maybe your organization has little access to professional training. Many youth programs, however, don’t take advantage of opportunities that already exist or that they can create.

For instance: The “Common Ground” study showed that although there is widespread interest in collaborative learning across sectors of the youth field, there are also barriers, such as misunderstandings among those sectors. Workers from faith-based organizations and from secular community-based organizations often believe they have different emphases to their work, and the study reaffirmed that community-based and faith-based youth workers appear to operate in parallel universes.

But both groups seek to nurture young people’s growth and development. Why don’t more of them attend training together? More than half of both community- and faith-based youth workers in the survey said they would be “very interested” in training, resources or other professional development opportunities that included staff from both groups. The survey also found widespread interest in building bridges to strengthen relationships and professional development opportunities across sectors.

Your staff can benefit greatly from high-quality professional training, no matter where it is offered or who it is with. You can begin by helping your staff connect with those in nearby organizations. Conduct joint trainings, workshops and other events. Share resources, best practices, program ideas, activities and curricula, including materials on professional development.

As one youth worker said in the survey, “Don’t reinvent the wheel. If there are programs or organizations out there that provide services or will train staff/volunteers, use them.”

Help your youth workers succeed. Provide funding for high-quality, skill-based training so that they can grow. Not only will your staff benefit, but so will the youth you serve – and even your bottom line.