A New Push for Youth Worker Development, Credentials

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A collection of youth work consultants and service providers has launched a fresh offensive at an old objective: Making the case for professionalizing youth work through credentials and certifications.

“Good youth workers equal good outcomes for youth,” said Kristen Truffa, who serves as chair of a group known as ProYouthWork America and the compliance monitor for Goodwill Industries International's national mentoring program. “Our next step is helping to do strategic research on how to demonstrate this.”

Ultimately, said Truffa, the organization hopes to spark interest in some form of pilot project that could test the value of certified youth workers. “We can say it until the cows come home, but if we don’t have the research to back it up we’re never going to move this forward.”

The group began its campaign by releasing “Youth Work Practice,” a report identifying the reasons why the field needs workers with credentials tied to core competencies. Youth-serving organizations in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia all require youth workers to be certified.

The moral argument in the report is that “improving education and training for staff improves outcomes for young people and organizations.” PYWA also makes the more crucial policy argument of the day, cost effectiveness.

Training and development are a hard sell for employers, the report says, because it’s a “field that relies primarily on public grants and contracts to fund its services,” making it “vulnerable to year-to-year fluctuations and economic downturns that squeeze the public purse.”

But the turnover rate caused by low salaries and erratic training might actually be more costly to youth work organizations than hiring quality workers in the first place, PYWA argues. The report references a 2009 report from New England Network for Child, Youth and Family Services that found recruiting and training a new worker costs between 33 and 50 percent of the annual salary for her position.

The report also cites a number of states and universities that have developed credential or certificate programs. Texas has a state-wide certification program, for example, and Massachusetts-based Springfield College offers a youth development degree at its Boston, San Diego and Tampa Bay, Fla., campuses.

PYWA met this week to go through feedback it received about the report and to discuss the next steps for the group. One issue will be how to actually define who is a youth worker in need of a new credential, as opposed to an existing one such as a Masters of Social Work.

“When I started, working at an evening center, I had no idea I was a youth worker,” said Truffa, who has been involved in youth work for two decades now. “But I knew I didn’t want to be a social worker.” 

Also up for debate is whether to advocate for a national set of core youth worker standards, a concept pushed in education reform by the Obama administration.

The report quotes the Forum for Youth Investment, a proponent of professionalization but an opponent of national credentials: “Promoting the certification of competency through a single national credential, like early childhood [credentials], is unlikely to meet the needs of either the adults choosing this work or the organizations providing services.”

The National Training Institute for Community Youth Work supports a national standard. As quoted in the report: “Every youth development worker entering the field needs to start with the same set of core competencies – regardless of the setting in which he or she engages with young people.

Truffa said she personally sees middle ground on the issue. “If you don’t have a national way to look at” competency, she said, “there would be nobody to answer, ‘What does it take to be a good youth worker?’ But then, you can provide latitude based on states needs and capacity.”

What should be prevented, she said, is a situation where “I can get a certificate in New Jersey, and it doesn’t give me respect” in another state.

PYWA is an unstaffed partnership led by its three board members: Truffa, Nancy Fastenau and Tammy Hopper. It includes four partnering youth work providers: Mountain Plains Network for Youth in Bismarck, N.D.; the Pittsburgh-based Mid-Atlantic Network of Youth and Family Services; the New England Network for Child, Youth and Family Services in Charlotte, Vt.; and the Bonita Springs, Fla.-based Youth and Family Services Network.

Click here to read “Youth Work Practice.”

  • denise golden

    After over twenty years workingwith children as a Licensed Psychologist and LMFT I concur completely with the idea of certifying youth workers. But I see this presenting many problems as noted in the articles regarding money and career building. I do think however that this just speaks to a larger problem in the whole field of mental health which as a profession is not valued or seen as a “profession” by the general public.
    Unlike medical or educational professions which are valued and have some political clout, our profession is at the mercy of the generosity of strangers. Working with the most vulnerable of us,that is children, has the least amount of power in this nation. I believe that until we in the profession stand up for ourselves and consequently for our clients, the work we do will be taken for granted as well as the workers themselves.