Professional Development: Investing in Futures

The field of youth development faces major challenges in creating and sustaining our work force. Long treated as a component of our work that was “nice but not necessary,” professional development – the process of attracting, training and supporting youth workers – has undergone important changes over the past 15 years.

But those changes have been insufficient.

More youth organizations than ever recognize that professional development represents a legitimate cost of doing business. They generate or allocate precious financial resources to offer a variety of supports, including pre- and in-service training, mentoring, coaching and opportunities to engage in peer networks. Here are a few highlights from the local, state and national levels:

• Several local capacity-building intermediary organizations, such as Youthnet in Kansas City and Community Networks for Youth Development in San Francisco, provide a wide range of training and other work force supports. Fourteen of these organizations participated in the Wallace Foundation’s BEST (Building Exemplary Systems for Training Youth Workers) initiative, through which they offered basic youth work training organized by the Academy for Educational Development’s National Training Institute and built around the well-recognized Advancing Youth Development curriculum.

• Another exemplary local effort is the work of The After School Corporation (TASC) and the Partnership for After-School Education (PASE) in New York City. Working both separately and together, these intermediary organizations have greatly expanded both the quantity and quality of professional development opportunities across the city and the state. One of TASC’s major contributions over the past several years has been the creation of a funding mechanism that allows each of its grantees to choose professional development opportunities from a catalog of practical options, most of which are offered by youth development and after-school providers.

• Minnesota and Indiana have created model statewide professional development systems that include extensive training at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels, as well as peer support networks for youth workers.

• The Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the YMCA of the USA have created ambitious professional development systems that pay attention not only to training and staff recognition, but also to compensation guidelines and upward mobility. These and 19 other national organizations received a big boost during the 1990s, when the Wallace Foundation invested $55 million in the professional development of youth workers.

Such recent efforts represent substantial progress and strong building blocks for the work ahead. And there is monumental work ahead.

A recent issue of the journal New Directions for Youth Development outlined a number of pressing challenges – particularly the fact that the United States (unlike the United Kingdom, for example) has no organized strategy or system for developing its youth workers. As researcher Dale Blyth observed during a recent meeting I attended on the topic, “We are rich in isolated examples and poor in systemic thinking.”

Groups investing in a genuine professional development system could reap substantial benefits, including reduced staff turnover, improved program quality and stronger youth outcomes. Last November, 35 youth development professionals representing diverse sectors of the field came together to generate ideas for the design of a national youth development work force system. This planning group – convened by the National 4-H Headquarters, the National Collaboration for Youth and the University of Arizona School of Family and Consumer Sciences – reached consensus on several specific ideas, including an overall design for the core components of a professional development system. The group committed itself to pursuing the enactment of its vision.

The next steps include development of the following:

• Standards and competencies – agreement on the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to provide youth services at various levels.

• Training and delivery systems – aggressive development of a learning system that attracts, develops and sustains youth workers.

• Career ladder and compensation guidelines – mechanisms for recruiting workers to the field and for ensuring fair and adequate salaries throughout their careers.

•Evaluation – creation of basic evaluation approaches that address key questions, such as whether and how professional development improves practice, and what effect improved practice has on youth-service outcomes.

This strikes me as an ambitious response to a challenge that has plagued our field for decades. To succeed, this effort will require substantial investments of time, creativity, and intellectual and financial capital. I have no doubt that the stakeholders will see a major return on those investments.

I’d love to hear your ideas about how to make this happen, and examples of how your agencies have tried.


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