Climbing Career Ladders: In England, youth work education pays

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Birkenhead, England—From an American point of view, Kai Wooder seems an unlikely candidate to get a degree in youth work. She grew up in a working class Liverpool home where, as she puts it, the emphasis was “more on survival than achievement.” She went through school with little to show for it.

Then Wooder volunteered with a youth-serving nonprofit. Soon she was earning a paycheck and taking classes to improve her youth work. Today, her combination of experience and education gives her an official, professionally qualified youth worker status that helps her find jobs and determines her salary.

While efforts are under way in the United States to increase opportunities for higher education in youth work, and to tie that education to career development, such a system is much further along in the United Kingdom. Youth-serving agencies and the national government have worked together to create a system that provides myriad opportunities for training that are linked to promotion and career development. A structured range of official youth worker qualifications helps both volunteers and professionals develop the skills and knowledge to build their careers.

The British system has grappled with such issues as who pays for the education, who assures the quality of that education, tangible payoffs for workers, and long-term benefits for youth-serving agencies.

Getting Qualified

To be considered a fully qualified youth worker in the United Kingdom, you need to hold a qualification that is recognized by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Youth and Community Work (commonly called JNC), which is made up of youth-work employers and trade unions. Almost all full-time youth-work jobs with local government agencies, and many with nonprofits, require a JNC qualification. So youth work here is seen in the same way as teaching or social work – as a profession with its own structures..

There are four basic types of qualifications: foundation degree, diploma in higher education, honors degree and post-graduate certificate. Workers can earn those qualifications in various ways, such as through training that is conducted at work, or through full-time study with work placements. The courses are validated on behalf of JNC by The National Youth Agency, a non-government body representing the youth work field, which guarantees a level of quality. (This reporter writes for that agency.)

Students can take these courses at about 40 institutions, ranging from traditional universities to speciality organizations, including YMCA George Williams College and the Christian-based Centre for Youth Ministry.

Wooder has been doing distance learning through the YMCA George Williams College for years, even as her places of employment have changed. “Wherever I’ve been I’ve continued studying – first a diploma, then the degree, and later, supervision courses,” Wooder said. “The George Williams philosophy about personal development and informal education has really steered my work.” Wooder now works as outreach manager for the Wirral branch of Brook, a leading nonprofit that provides sexual health advice to young people.

The JNC qualification gives workers a minimum set of conditions. For example, the pay rates for JNC-qualified staffers are determined by a scale of points, from one to 30. Those points are based on such factors as educational attainment, experience in youth work and the responsibilities of the jobs. Employers set the point levels for specific jobs.

A worker with some experience might be hired in the 19- to 23-point range, which pays about £26,000 to £29,000 ($52,000 to $58,000) a year. Pay at the top of the scale – 26 points – is £35,000 ($70,000). The system does not cover the higher-level management jobs.

A JNC qualification often brings a boost in pay even when it is not required for a job. For example, the Headland Project in the town of Hartlepool recently advertised the post of youth work coordinator on a scale of £18,000 to £21,000 if not fully qualified, or £22,000 to £25,000 if the applicant had full JNC qualification.


Although volunteers don’t need formal qualifications, virtually all employers require them to undergo some initial training, such as an “Introduction to Youth Work” course. Nichola Brown, work force development officer for the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, said good employers find creative ways to include training as part of a volunteer’s hours.

The question of who pays gets tricky. Local government authorities – which are obliged by law to provide a range of youth services – are likely to provide their staffers with access to training at levels 1, 2 and 3 of the country’s educational system, with level 3 being roughly equivalent to a high school diploma in the United States. In nonprofits, however, finding the cash for training can be difficult. The main public source of funding for adult training – the Learning and Skills Council – has refused to fund a level 2 qualification if the trainee already holds one. Thus, if a volunteer youth worker has a halfway decent school record, or a vocational qualification in butchery or plumbing, he wouldn’t get funded to study for his youth work qualification.

Brown hopes that developments in the government’s “Train to Gain” initiative for adult learners will lead to funding for that second level 2 qualification.

Going Pro

Jodie Stirrup is an example of how qualifications can give a hand up the career ladder. She focused on equine studies at a university, but also volunteered at a “junior youth club” run by Warwickshire County Council. The council required her to take its Introduction to Youth Work course. She later took more courses on working with older teens.

“Eventually, I got a job as assistant youth worker for 25 hours a week. It was becoming a career,” Stirrup said. “So I did part-time study with a college for a level 2 qualification in youth work. I was putting the building blocks in place.”

She now works with the Warwickshire Association of Youth Clubs, encouraging and supporting young people to volunteer in their communities, and is taking JNC-recognized courses at a university.

Those who have only dipped their toes in youth work – such as volunteers and part-timers – and those looking to move into youth work from other fields also get some help from the JNC.

Someone who has appropriate skills, qualities or experience, perhaps from having worked in a related profession, can be appointed as a Youth Worker in Training. Such employees start a few points lower on the scale than what the job is listed for, meaning the salary is lower than it would be for a qualified youth worker. But the designation provides the worker with support to continue studies toward full qualification. That support might include a contribution toward fees or paid time off for school work.

In addition, the JNC now recognizes pre-professional qualifications – that is, local training for part-time and volunteer staff. In the past, such training was sometimes geared only to local needs, and it varied in content and quality. For those reasons, workers couldn’t transfer those qualifications when they moved to other employers or other parts of the country.

Now, however, that local training can be accredited by one of four organizations, as long as it meets certain national requirements, thus earning JNC recognition. That helps employees find jobs and employers find qualified staff.

Moving to Management

There’s no formal qualification system to become a manager in youth work. Not much training is available, either, said Susie Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Principal Youth and Community Officers. Local authorities, however, are offering more chances for staffers across all departments to study for a generic management qualification, called the Certificate in Management Skills.

Most senior youth work management jobs are paid on the “Soulbury scale,” along with such other groups as educational psychologists. This scale ranges from £32,000 to £58,000 ($64,000 to $116,000).


Some changes are in store.

Officials expect that by 2010, they’ll see full implementation of measures to create an integrated youth work force, whereby youth workers will work more closely alongside youth justice staff, social workers and other specialists. Training courses will increasingly see students who are following different youth-related professions sitting alongside each other taking the same core courses before going back into their specialties. That will make it easier for people to move between youth-related professions.

“It will facilitate lateral movement,” said Di Evans, The National Youth Agency’s development officer for training. “A worker who is qualified in one of those areas – say, youth justice – won’t necessarily have to start at the bottom to start in another area.”

Also, the JNC qualification is moving more toward academics. Starting in September 2010, JNC will only recognize courses at honors degree level and above, which typically means at least three years of course work.

“There’s bound to be fears in some quarters that the degree requirement will restrict access,” Evans acknowledged. But she believes most students who were set to take two years of courses will continue another year for the honors degree.

Tim Burke is associate editor of Youth Work Now and is based in Leicester, England.