Climbing Career Ladders: More youth workers forge their own paths, but payoff remains iffy

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Manchester, N.H.—Until recently, youth-services coordinator Hector Fabio Urrea worked two jobs to make ends meet. For youth workers, that part of the story sounds depressingly familiar.

Then last spring, the 47-year-old Colombian native earned a bachelor of science degree at the Manchester campus of Springfield College’s School of Human Services. Suddenly, Urrea was in demand.

When he told his boss at Southern New Hampshire Services that he’d use his new credential to look for a better job, the agency scrambled to keep him, offering to make him manager of a new multicultural center. Urrea was ready to say yes – until the city’s Office of Youth Services offered him a counselor position that came with better benefits, including a retirement plan.

Urrea Graduates: “I made myself more marketable.”

With the degree, Urrea says, “I made myself more marketable.”

That’s the American way of climbing the career ladder, especially in youth work: You essentially build your own ladder, seizing opportunities to improve your credentials, then marketing yourself to bidders. While the youth work field has been largely bereft of clear career paths that bring more money and prestige, a career orientation has begun percolating through the ranks. More and more youth workers like Urrea see youth work as a profession with rungs to climb, where career aspirations can be fulfilled and where college degrees are essential.

Growing Opportunities

To be sure, this isn’t England, with its national grid of job qualifications and pay grades. But the flip side is that loosely defined job boundaries may draw people to the field from all kinds of backgrounds, fuel creative solutions to training issues and spark more upward mobility among front-line staff and managers.

For example, six staffers from Police Athletic League (PAL) sites around New York City graduated in July with after-school certificates, according to Janae Bailey, who until recently was program manager at PAL. That effort was funded through a program run by the Center for After-School Excellence in conjunction with five colleges of the City University of New York.

The biggest change in these graduates, Bailey says, is they’re “talking about what to do with their lives. Before, they were not openly expressing ambition in the same way.”

Such college programs related to youth work are proliferating. Springfield’s School of Human Services has more than 10 campuses around the country that serve 1,750 students in bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Other collaborations among community colleges, universities and nonprofit organizations are building paths that end with youth work certificates and degrees.

Education proponents say such alternative academic programs can light a fire under those who didn’t believe they had anywhere to go in the youth work field.

Consider Isacc Deberry, a 38-year-old after-school coordinator with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in Brooklyn, who graduated in July from the program at the Center for After-School Excellence. Deberry started the year-long certificate program with only a GED; he says what got him back in class after eight years as a youth worker was doing homework with children. He saw that he needed to improve his literacy skills in order to help his charges.

Gannett: Pathways in the field are now “plentiful.”

Photo: NIOST

“I realized how much I was missing,” he says. “What I’m doing in the next five to 10 years, I need the schooling.” He plans to start his own after-school program.

Still, people should approach the notion of a career ladder in the youth field with caution. Ellen Gannett, director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass., says her main “gripe” with college classes for youth workers is that they often aren’t tied to government qualification mandates or to financial incentives, such as pay increases.

“Unless they are,” Gannett says, “the rainbow at the end is nonexistent. You may have made an investment in your own education, but it doesn’t change your paycheck.”

Yet Gannett also points out that pathways in the field are now “plentiful,” far more than a decade ago. Many youth workers are starting to see education as their ticket to career advancement, even if requires a leap of faith.

Building Your Own Ladder

Urrea’s start-and-stop journey in youth work illustrates the impediments youth workers typically face in building careers and how they can get around them.

He began in his 20s as a volunteer coach with a Staten Island soccer league, while also working various sales jobs. When he moved to Nashua, N.H., in 1998, he became a metal-cutting computer technician to pay the bills. He did some coaching on the side “to release my stress,” he says.

Only after he was laid off in 2001 did he consider youth work as a profession.

His problem in seeking work was that he didn’t have a college degree. “When you interview, if you have your B.A., they offer you money,” Urrea said in March. When “I called for some jobs, they offered me pennies.”

In 2003, when he landed his position as youth-services coordinator of the Alliance for the Progress of Hispanic Americans (ALPHA) program of Southern New Hampshire Services, he made much less than at his old technician’s job.

To help support his wife and four children, he also worked for the Manchester School District as a bilingual family liaison. He’s done stints with other local agencies, including a Boys & Girls Club.

In past years, Urrea’s chances of moving up from there would have been slim. Youth work is not like public education, for instance, where teachers get credentials required by states, and can raise their salaries by earning advanced degrees. Union contracts link educational credentials to salary grades in an established grid.

While at ALPHA, however, Urrea found out about Springfield’s School of Human Services. Agencies in the United Kingdom often pay for youth workers to get credentials, but in the United States workers are typically on their own. Urrea was willing to take out a loan to cover the cost of completing a degree.

The school targets working students. Set in a renovated mill building in Manchester, the alternative degree program includes marathon classes on weekends. This allows full-time workers to enroll as full-time students, says Dean Robert Willey. The B.S. and M.S. programs are designed to be completed in two years or less.

Now that Urrea has a B.S., he plans to work one full-time job with pay and benefits that surpass the previous two. His new job with the city also comes with financial help for education; his new boss is encouraging him to go on for a master’s degree and a counseling license.

Point A to A.5

Streamlining the move from Point A, a community college, to Point B, a bachelor’s program, is another way to help adult students move up. But some youth workers struggle with higher education. The barriers are many, such as families to support, child-care issues and fear of academic failure. Getting them on track requires a different kind of push.

For example, those who receive an after-school certificate through the Center for After-School Excellence in New York City earn up to 10 college credits that can be applied toward a degree. The center funds whatever school costs aren’t covered by the students’ financial aid.

For employers, offering financial subsidies for staff education is a mixed bag. Some, like Bailey at the Police Athletic League, wax on about the new enthusiasm certificate-holders bring to the job. PAL gives $750 to staffers who complete the certificate.

But employers know that workers might jump to another agency once they get a certificate or degree.

Jeffrey Cooper, who graduated from the certificate program in July and is on track for a B.A., doesn’t see himself moving up through the New York Parks Department if he wants to stay in after-school education. In his mid-30s, he’s been an after-school coordinator for the department since 2006.

“Working for the City of New York is strange,” Cooper says. “People stay in positions for a really long time.”

Nonprofit organizations, with a larger vision of professionalizing the field, may provide the glue between prospective students and academia. The center was started by The After-School Corp. in a posh Manhattan high-rise and has an entrepreneurial bent. Classes for the certificate are taught at five New York-area colleges, but Mark Levine, executive director of the center, is hustling for other funding sources to increase the number of students in the program.

More than 70 participants walked through the first graduation ceremony in July, a joyful event by all accounts; 62 officially completed the program.

One of the center’s innovations has been to sign “linkage” agreements with eight local agencies to give hiring preferences to its certificate holders. These include Good Shepherd Services and Phipps Community Development Corp. According to Levine, more than 20 “Partners in Excellence,” including PAL and the Children’s Aid Society, are supposed to offer participants recognition for completing the certificate, such as a stipend, a raise or a new title.

All of this carries an administrative cost. Damali Dublin, registration coordinator for the center, guides students through paperwork hurdles and helps to boost their flagging confidence. The center just hired a counselor, and is interviewing prospective students this time around in an initial screening. Even so, many are academically unprepared, and few sail through the program. More than 20 of the original 85 participants dropped out, although some are re-enrolling.

Missing Links

Despite progress in building career paths, employers often put the onus on workers to make their own opportunities. At nonprofits, this is partly a matter of overhead cost; but the attitude is also deeply engrained in the American psyche.

Hal Jordan, CEO of the Greater Manchester Family YMCA, captures the basic argument from management’s point of view: “Young staff should continually ask their bosses to [let them] take on more responsibility,” he says. “You can be pigeonholed as an aquatics director at a pool, but you need to ask for more to improve yourself.” The problem is that front-line staffers often don’t feel entitled to ask to be moved up. This is particularly true for minority workers or those who don’t come from middle-class backgrounds.

Willey, the dean at Springfield’s School of Human Services, calls B.A. degrees “key pieces of empowerment.” However, even getting a youth-work certificate can change the way staffers think about their jobs. In a July 2008 preliminary evaluation of the SAYD (School Age Youth Development Credential) pilot run by Achieve Boston, employers said some SAYD graduates had started speaking up more in staff meetings. “It was an amazing change, in just a year,” one employer was quoted as saying of a long-time worker who had completed the certificate.

Programs that provide support to nontraditional students are arguably doing more than sparking a few personal ambitions. They’re helping to reinforce the idea that youth work is a profession, not just a quick stop on the way to a real job. They’re changing the perceptions of workers about their right to negotiate for better work conditions.

Not all the links are in place. Gannett, of NIOST, points out that professionalization of the field needs to be pushed from both the grassroots and the policy levels. Rural communities without deep-pocketed local agencies need state mandates, like those in the early-childhood field, to force the credentialing of workers.

But state licensing and standards have their downside. Levine, of the Center for After-School Excellence, calls the public-school teaching model too rigid for after-school educators. “One of the strengths of our field is the diversity of staff, including not only college students but moms from the neighborhood,” he says. “I don’t know anyone who wants to lose that vibrancy.”

Indeed, some observers prefer the term career “lattice” to ladder, underscoring multiple entry points to the profession. The reasons for going into youth work are so diverse that they belie any single approach to building a career.

For instance: Cooper, the Parks Department after-school coordinator, says that he has wanted to be a teacher since his teenage stint as a daycare worker. In the intervening years, he bounced from job to job.

He had a bumpy ride into youth work, but he’s committed to it now. He believes his after-school certificate “will help absolutely in applying for other jobs.”

For his part, Urrea notes that his decision to take the new counseling job was about more than money. If he’d taken the offer to manage a multicultural center, his work would have been 50 percent administrative. In his new position, he’ll be working “100 percent with youth and families,” he says. “My heart is going to be happier."