Why youth worker’s need to gain practical wisdom!!!

Over the last few months I have been encouraged to imagine what youth work might look like in the future. This has been an exciting process, however it has also had a disheartening effect on me. You see when you look forward you inevitably return to the present and you may even glance to the past.
Youth work as a profession has had a very rocky few decades in Australia and particularly over the past couple of years has been at the centre of immense change in the social services sector. Amongst the youth work fraternity this change has come in the form of associations for youth workers being instigated in some states with the purpose of gaining a professional membership of qualified youth workers. it has also had an assault on its professionality by groups such as RMIT University who have tried to envelop the youth work course into the social science stream so as to generalise it rather than have it as a stand alone course.
As I look into the past I lament the neo-liberal focus on professionalisation as meaning only having qualifications. I also lament the removal of practice wisdom from our day to day work and the replacement with rules and regulations. I lament that we have been so divisive in how we have dealt with each other as youth workers instead of banding together. We have made progress but we have also spent a lot of the time LOST in the wilderness navigating from glimpses of someone else’s map.
In their inspiring book “practical wisdom” Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe believe that we need to re-imagine our work as neither rules based or incentive driven but as being driven  by practical wisdom. They call for us to become ‘canny outlaws’ who buck the trend of standardisation and become more empathetic and learn from the collective wisdom of the sector. In their view we need to become wise through mentoring and practice development without the constrains of standardisation and rote learning.
As I gaze into the future of youth work I imagine a profession unlike any other. One where we mentor our new colleagues and share practice wisdom freely. One where gaining a qualification is inconsequential but where ongoing education is the benchmark. A profession where our work is so exceptional that we are envied by others and where it is so unique that it is not so easily quantifiable.. or dismissed as it is currently. I see  a profession of diverse skills, qualifications and theories that work in harmony to support young people as a whole person. I see a bright future. To get there we must stop tearing ourselves apart and begin to develop our own professional identity free from the constraints of other professions and those that have been imposed on us by governments and the neo-liberal agenda.
Lets change the future!

Dealing with our God complex!!!

I remember not long after I got married about 5 years into my youth work career being out every other night and working to fix the problems of every young person who came through my circle of influence. I also remember the conversation I had with my wife where she told me I needed to deal with my God complex!!!
I didn’t think I had a God complex! I was just the local youth worker. I was the one who they looked to for advice. I was the one they could come to to deal with their issues. I was the one who helped the through the storms and stresses of youth. There wasn’t another youth worker in the area and I was the first point of call for many of the young people.
Many youth workers, particularly early in their career, strive to do everything they can for the young people they work with. This is not wrong as some would have you believe. A little misguided perhaps, but not wrong. Where this misguided focus can tend to become trouble is when youth workers forget that they do not know everything. Sometimes we get in so deep that we forget to advocate, refer and empower.
Our God complex comes to the fore when we overstep our ability. As youth workers we aren’t psychologists, accountants, doctors or lawyers. we may have some understanding of other areas of practice, but for the most part as youth workers we know about young people and that is where our practice should stay. When our passion makes us over reach we become detrimental to our young people and bring our profession into disrepute.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS! When we know what we are able to do we can provide a great service to our young people. When we know our limits we can focus our ongoing professional development to expand our abilities. When we know our limits we can work with our colleagues from other disciplines comfortable in our own abilities. Most of all when we know our limits we can live a balanced life without the God complex.

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What post-qualifying education might look like!!!

I have been thinking a lot lately about the need for ongoing professional development and post-qualifying education for youth workers. for us to be the best, the Ultimate Youth Worker’s, we must continue to learn and develop as we progress through our career. However, in Australia there is no requirement for a person who works with young people to hold a qualification, let alone attend professional development!!!

In Australia there is currently no national professional association and very few states have fledgling professional associations for youth workers. Currently, these associations have limited memberships and do not require their membership to have ongoing professional development to maintain their membership. My wife is a psychologist and as such is required to meet a level of ongoing professional development to maintain her registration with her professional association. Some of my mates are social workers and they too have to meet a level of ongoing professional development for registration. Why not youth workers???
One of the main difficulties is pitching the professional development to a sector that has such a wide range of qualifications. In Victoria over %50 of “Youth Workers” hold a Certificate IV (a one year TAFE qualification) or less. There is a smaller percentage who hold a Diploma (2 years) and an even smaller percentage who hold a degree (3 years) and an almost unmentionable number who hold post-graduate qualifications. What often happens is that training groups pitch their training at the lowest common denominator or bastardise their training to meet the needs of a select few… meeting the needs of only a small proportion of workers. In effect most professional development courses rehash knowledge from TAFE level courses which does not bode well for CONTINUING professional development. 
Another reason is that it is easier to rehash old course material than to think outside the box and develop good ongoing training. There is a train of thought which states that if you have done your course and passed then you are competent and therefore do not need to learn other techniques and ideologies. The problem with this is that the profession stagnates. Imagine if doctors did that??? We would still be curing infection by chopping limbs off and alienating people with skin conditions like leprosy. We need fresh ideas thrown into the mix for the profession to grow and flourish. We need them for workers to gain a clear foundation for their practice.

But what would this continuing professional development look like???

First of all it means a minimum level of education for all Youth Workers. This is a contentious subject in Victoria as what would the minimum level be??? Many want a degree level qualification to be the minimum. However, those with TAFE qualifications are livid about the prospect of being excluded. However the idea of being professionals means stating that there is a group of people who can do a certain job and a group that can not. (see Jethro Sercombe Part 1 & Part 2).
Second, it means that Post-Qualifying education and continuing professional development must be more than rehashing old course material. We need researchers devoting themselves to the future of youth work. We need academics looking for the newest best practice theories to guide our practitioners. We need practitioners brave enough to challenge the status quo and say that we need to be better for the sake of our young people.
Finally, we need to develop a culture of excellence in the face of mounting Neo-Liberalism. When governments say it is better to have more people who are less qualified than having the best qualified workforce we need to say ‘Not good enough’. When employers skimp on professional development because their budgets are shrinking we need to say ‘Not good enough’. When our colleagues say to us that they won’t go to training because they don’t need it we need to say ‘Not good enough’. When professional development groups put forward substandard training at top dollar we need to say ‘Not good enough’. Expect more of our profession, our colleagues and ourselves! Do not settle for mediocre, it is not why you got into this work. Be the best you can be and expect it from others.
Youth work is an honourable profession. It requires passion and skills to be balanced for the best outcomes of our young people. I know you have passion, it is why you began the journey. Lets gain skills that will take youth work into the next century as a leading force in social services and community welfare.
Relational youth work

The importance of good professional supervision

Over the course of my career I have had over a dozen supervisors throughout half a dozen or so specialities. Some of these supervisors were Youth Workers, some Social Workers, some Pastors and some drug and alcohol workers. Their qualifications had ranged from Diploma level to Masters degrees and one had no formal welfare qualifications at all. Not an unknown factor to those of us in the youth sector.
In Australia there is no requirement for a supervisor to have a professional qualifications. As a Degree qualified Youth Worker and soon to be Masters qualified Social Worker I have never attended a class on supervision, i have never heard a lecture on what constitutes good supervision practice and i have never had a supervisor who had either. At best my supervisors had attended a 2 day course in supervision and at worse my supervisors had less than a year more experience in the field than i had. So if there are only a few courses for supervisors and mostof these less than a week long, how do you become a good supervisor???
The best supervisors I have had came from both ends of the spectrum. One was a qualified Social Worker with over a decade of experience who regularly attended courses on supervision. The other was a Youth Worker who had no qualifications but was an avid reader of supervision texts and attended every professional development opportunity focussed on supervision. The skill set that both of these supervisors had in common was and eager appetite to better their own practice as supervisors and a great ability to listen. The styles they used were different, the theoretical focus wide and varied and the outcomes specific to the needs of myself and my clients.
Maidment & Beddoe (2012) believe that supervision must be placed at the core of professional development for staff, “We want to place supervision at the heart of professional development, which is career-long and where, via diverse learning activities, practitioners refine and augment their knowledge, develop skills, and undertake supervision to enhance critically reflective practice“.
Do your supervisors support your development? If not you might be in the market for an external supervisor! What ever your situation if you want longevity in the sector studies show that you need a good supervisor.

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The need for audacious Ultimate Youth Workers

Over the past two days I have attended the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVIC) ConnectFor conference in Melbourne. During this time I was surrounded by many amazing youth workers who passed on knowledge and many researchers who called us to action. Most of all the young people, many of who had been in the child protection system, called us to CHANGE the sector for them.

Charles Leadbeater stated that we don’t need to give young people more education, but better and different education. He went on to say that we need more innovators… people who are bonkers and creative to change the system. He went on to state we need to stop doing things ‘to & for’ and start doing things ‘with & by’ young people in our practice. Finally he urged us to assume ambition & capability in young people.

Professor Mark Rose urged the Youth Workers to be AUDACIOUS if the face of overwhelming trends.he also urged us to not let political correctness get in the way of doing good work. finally he urged educators to provide high quality education as it is through education that people’s minds are opened to the future.

Dr Hilary Tierney discussed the state of the youth sector in Ireland with a focus on how it is working towards professionalisation. She spoke of how the Irish youth sector is legislated as a ‘Voluntary’ sector; meaning that young people volunteer to attend, adults volunteer to staff services and organisations are voluntarily managed and funded. The main gist of the presentation was that Ireland is struggling with all the same questions about professionalising that Australia and many other countries are. Amazing seminar!!!

After many years of work Mr Bill Scales AO presented the finding of the Vulnerable Youth Inquiry. He stated that a child born in Victoria has a 1 in 4 chance of being referred to Child Protection and that the economic cost of child abuse in Victoria is over $1.6 Billiion. He spoke of the need for an independent monitor for the vulnerable children in Victoria and how youth workers need to do their job WELL as it is critically important to the success of the sector.

Prof. Rob White spoke of the need for youth workers to be frontline warriors in times of change. He stated that the key attribute of a Youth Worker is their identity first and foremost as Youth Workers. He went on to say that the need for Youth Workers to be treated as whole people would reduce burnout with the need to continue professional development for longevity in the field.

It was today that the government announced that they were going to consult with the youth sector on the need to professionalise.

Finally, a group of young people asked us to BELIEVE in them. They asked us to be CONSISTENT and they asked us to be more EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT.

At Ultimate Youth Worker we believe that the sector is seeking a change. Youth Workers are seeking to be more than they have been and expecting their peers to be more than they had been taught in their courses. The winds of change are blowing, lets make the youth sector the most professional, emotionally intelligent and AUDACIOUS sector in Australia.

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RMIT youth work program

Recently i had a conversation with some colleagues about the current situation at RMIT. The short version is that the youth wok program which has been a stand alone program at RMIT for over 10 years is currently being folded into the social work stream.

Whilst this is still not completely sorted out (there is currently industrial support for the reestablishment of the course and the sector has also stated it worry about having the course dropped) i asked my colleagues what they thought.

My psychologist friend thought that this was not a complete loss. If anything having youth work come under the social work banner lends some credibility to the degree and the sector and even more so if the degree is folded into social work eg. a Bachelor of Social Work (Youth Work). Her argument was that by doing this youth work will gain some professional standing by standing with a current “semi-professional” body.

My social work friend stated that she thought it would De-value the social work program as they had fought for years to get as far up the professional ladder as they had gotten and now by virtue of attendance youth workers will now get that. she also stated that there are vast differences in their courses and youth work would need to do more case work and ethics subjects to truly be part of social work.

My youth work mates were mixed. One stated that by losing the strongest youth work program in Australia it sends a message to the educators and the sector that youth work is devalued. Also by losing some of the most qualified and well recognised staff the sector is taking a huge blow to gaining a body of knowledge that is substantiated. If this body of knowledge is left unsubstantiated the argument for professionalisation of the sector takes a monumental step backwards.

My other youth work mate suggested that as over 50% of youth workers are certificate IV qualified or less the hit to the sector will be minimal. As we have no Professional Association we are not losing “professional” standing. As there are only four degree level qualifications throughout Australia it is to small a collegiate to worry about and youth workers will do what we have always done and practice anyway.

Personally as a youth worker i am distressed to hear that the largest and most recognised youth work program in Australia could be disestablished so easily. To lose such a body of knowledge and resources is a huge blow to the sector… and to the push for professionalisation. As a stand alone industry Youth Work will take a long time to recover from such a hit. However, perhaps this is the beginning of something new. Perhaps we are looking at the beginning of the College of Youth Workers of the Australian Association of Social Workers. perhaps if we come under the banner of Social Work we can build a strength for the profession of Youth Work that we could not gain as a stand alone industry.

I do not know what the future holds for the Youth Work industry. I hope that we gain the recognition we deserve as experts in the field of human beings aged 12 – 25. i also know that which ever way the discussion at RMIT goes this is a hit to the core of youth work as a “profession” that will take years to get over.

What extra standing will i have if Youth Workers professionalise?

I was recently chating with a bunch of social workers about their professional association and it became clear to me that even after all the work that has gone into the AASW as a professional association their membership still have the professional standing of a monkey with an organ grinder.
Why do I think this you may ask??? Basically because anyone can call themselves a social worker and there is nothing that they can do about it. For all intents and purposes the AASW is a registration board for all those social workers who want to be members. there is no requirement of them to be members and no legislative power to make it a requirement.
The difference in a professional association such as the APS, the Victorian Institute of Teachers or the Nurses Board of Victoria is that they are legislated and mandated by the Government and as such are able to “register” and “qualify” their membership. You cannot call yourself a Psychologist, Teacher or Registered Nurse if you are not one, and you can be held accountable by the law if you do so without their authority. It also means that you can be removed from practice if you are deemed to have broken the rules of the association.
If Youth Workers are to reach the level of PROFESSIONALS we need to take our campaign to the next level. Social workers are starting to move this way through the provision of Medicare provider numbers to those in their membership who qualify, however even this needs to go a step further. Members must be required to register with the association to practice.
This is the same for Youth Work. At the present anyone can call themselves a Youth Worker. Some of my best mates and closest colleagues are unqualified Youth Workers, however if we are to become a body of professional workers then we need to be required to register.
The only way a person can be required to register before practice is if they are legislated to do so. You don’t often see people practicing as a doctor without registration for long before they are caught and arrested. The same should be said for Youth Workers and Social Workers.
We need to advocate for this intervention if we are ever to be taken seriously as a profession. What extra standing will I have if Youth Workers professionalise? Little if any, because at the moment the current form of association in Victoria will render us little more than a club.

Child Protection

Child Protection is a contentious issue in Australia and indeed around the world. late last year the debate around the effectiveness of the Victorian Child Protection System hit boiling point.

With child deaths being investigated, cases of known Paedophiles having access to children because of DHS procedural inadequacies and reports of child abuse rising many people wayed into the debate.

The Australian Association of Social Workers called for in a media release:

  • A Government and Community Sector workforce strategy which includes accreditation of
    staff. This will ensure high quality and committed staff work with vulnerable children and
    their families in the public and community sector;
  • An increased investment in those professionals working with children and their families,
    including measures to increase the training and recruitment of high quality staff into child
    protection services and industry plans to retain experienced professionals in the sector;

Along with many of my fellow Child Protection colleagues we believe that a well trained and invested in workforce would be a really great start. In Victoria around 200 position will be funded to “fiil the gaps” in the Child Protection system, however as these 200 come into the sector the statistics would say at least that number will leave.

What would it take to retain Child Protection staff for the long term? What does youth work training have to offer this collegiate?

The debate rolls on.

I was speaking to a group of youth work educators this week when the question of professionalising came up. I was interested to hear their perspectives on the current situation in Victoria.

Some of the issues that were brought up included:

  1. Why diploma and certificate four students would not be able to have full membership when in the field their work is generally the same as that of degree qualified workers.
  2. How a committee looking at professionalising can have good governance and oversight if they only have a select few people invested in the development of an association.
  3. That there has not been a thorough sector consultaton, particularly in rural settings; and
  4. That many students at certificate four and diploma level feel they are being left out of the discussion

Is it best practice to not involve the entire sector in the development of a “Professional Assocciation?”.

Western Australia had many issues in the inception of its professional association that Victoria seems destined to repeat. The sad fact is that not everybody will be happy if a professional association of Victoran youth workers is set up. However, Victoria’s committee should take a page out of WA’s book and consult the sector more widely and network more strongly so as to have more support for an association.
New Zealand spent a much longer time consulting and trialing the ideas of professionalising. To date it is working well. Maybe a longer and more thorough consultation is required.