Sociology for youth workers As youth workers we draw on many different frameworks to help us make sense of the world our young people live in. One of the most used frameworks in our kit bag is sociology. Through the sociological lens we can analyse social phenomena at different levels and from different perspectives. From concrete…
How do you keep great youth workers?
Youth work is one of the most difficult professions around. You tend to work with some very difficult clients who are generally not showing their best side. Managers know this, yet it still boggles my mind how often I have heard managers complaining about their lack of ability to keep great youth workers. The kicker is that they really do have something considerable to complain about.
There isn’t much more costly or disruptive as your best people walking out the door. The managers I have spoken with over the years tend to blame their turnover problems on everything under the sun, but with turnover in excess of 21% across the sector we need to face some hard truths.
Here are nine very simple things every team leader and manager can do to make sure they retain the very best youth workers in their organisation.
Don’t overwork people
The one thing that has become more obvious to me over the years is that the work of youth work has become a lot harder. We are dealing with more trauma, more responsibility and more paperwork than ever before. Governments have decreased funding while increasing our KPI’s. The stress factors have risen significantly. Our people are already working hard, so don’t add to the work load unnecessarily.
If we add to the workload significantly it can be counterproductive to the goal. You can only work them so long until they leave for better pastures. An increase in position or pay can help at least in the short term… however, in our experience this has a six month shelf life.
Recognise and reward
If managers could only do one thing to minimise retention issues and keep great youth workers this might be the one thing. A pat on the back goes a very long way. So do the words ‘well done’. Recognise great staff everywhere. in meetings, to donors, to the board, throughout the sector. Reward them where you can too. This may cost money… but its a lot less than having to hire new staff or deal with an employee who leaves because of psychological distress. Give a great worker an extra week of holidays. A night out for them and their special person. Buy them a book. Pay for course fees. Write them a card. The point is just do something.
Care about your employees
Every management role I have ever held hinged on the people who worked for me. I knew my successes were only able to come to fruition if they were fully committed to me and the mission. The best way for this to happen is to get to know your staff. Not just the professional but the personal too. I knew my staffs partners, children, birthdays, work anniversaries, work history, courses they had done, their illnesses and pains as well as their hopes and dreams. I would spend a minimum of half an hour one on one with my team and let them know I was there to bat for them. Knowing your staff is the key to care.
Hire and promote the right people
Hiring the right people is the most important part of a managers job. Getting the right person to fit the team, the organisational mission and then expecting them to have the right skill set means doing a good job at recruitment. Many of the interviews I have had lasted less than 30 minutes and many of the youth workers I speak with would say the same. It is not nearly enough. Hiring is the single most difficult task a manager has to learn to do if they want to keep great youth workers. Working with duds is a major demotivator for those stuck working alongside them. Ultimate Youth Workers want to work with equally awesome people. Oh, and promoting a dud is even more a slap in the face. Get the right people and they will stay.
The most talented youth workers are passionate people. Providing opportunities for them to pursue their passions improves their productivity and job satisfaction. Support them to develop their passion. Help with fundraisers, hook them up with networks, give them the opportunity to expand their horizon. It will not only fill their passion but will reap exponential productivity time and brownie points for the tough times.
Further develop peoples skills
When we speak to youth workers and their managers we are appalled at the minimal amount of money and time spent developing staff. If you want to keep your best people you have to invest in them. At the very least you need to listen to your youth workers and provide them with feedback. It is the role of every manager to educate their staff, find areas to develop in them. Read, do webinars, join peak bodies, further your education and become better.
Engage their creativity
You hired the best people, right? Then why do you want to hold them back and stick them in a box. These amazing youth workers want to change the world and see everything they touch turn to gold. Why would you want to squash this? Let them off the leash a little. Expect reports but let them do things in their way. Guide and challenge your staff but let them use their talent and their skills to do the job you hired them for in the first place.
Challenge youth workers intellectually
This comes as a surprise to many people but youth workers are thought workers. We think a lot. Its a mentally draining job. When I used to push my students they would bemoan my making them think more… But in the field they are the ones who others look too. If you don’t make your great staff think and reflect they will most definitely get bored. If they get bored you won’t be able to keep great youth workers. If you haven’t done a degree yet, Check this one out.
Love them all!
If you don’t love your staff they will know it. If you love one or two, the others will know it. If you don’t love your team you won’t go the extra mile for them. Managers who go the extra mile will always keep the best staff. Love, Love Love!
This post was based off an article by Dr travis Bradberry on HuffingtonPost.
Let me be blunt about youth work. You can not try out youth work. Its not like playing a game of basketball and then giving up. Its not like trying to paint and deciding you are not able to do better than stick figures. Its not like cooking where if you stuff up you can throw it in the bin. If you give youth work a go it is literally life and death. Your words, your actions, even your body language can support or shred the young people you work with in a heartbeat.
We get a lot of emails from people saying they want to try and be a youth worker. I cringe every time I read this statement. Its so non-committal. Many of our friends in the sector have stories of people they have met who during the course of their conversations state that they would love to try being a youth worker. Most of these people think its all coffees and camps, rainbows and unicorns. If you really want to be a youth worker you need to know that it is hard work. It is serious work. It takes people who genuinely care and want to work with young people through good times and bad.
I couldn’t resist a Star Wars quote. As the great Jedi master says, “Do or do not, there is no try”. In youth work we can’t try. Trying lends itself to giving up when it doesn’t work. Trying lends itself to being half-assed. Trying is… well just not enough. Be a youth worker. Give yourself to it fully. Don’t dip your toe in, do a belly whacker. The only way our young people will trust us and open up is if they see us fully engaged in youth work. it is the core to ethical practice. As Howard Sercombe says it provides space for young people to disclose. Do youth work with everything you are and everything you have and the rewards will be endless.
Self care is hard
So my last two months have been absolutely crazy. I have spoken at the Tasmanian Youth Conference in Launceston. Presented at the 16th International Mental Health Conference on the Gold Coast. I have also completed four weeks of my final field placement for my Master of Social Work and taught three classes a week in the Bachelor and Grad Dip Youth Studies program at Eastern College Australia. To top it of two of my children have had birthdays and half a dozen other extended family members decided to have them as well. I confess, my self care has gone right out the window.
I have a self care plan. I review it every three months. Even still I have been overcome by events. My sleep patterns are shot. I am living off coffee and even that has started to wear off. I generally feel pretty wrecked. This all because I wasn’t ready for the tsunami of events that have come my way. I knew they were coming and I smiled and watched them come. I didn’t enact my self care plan. I was an idiot!
Self care is hard if you don’t plan for it! I knew I was going to have a few crazy months and I penciled in the idea of having my quarterly retreat and then never did anything about it. I knew I needed to recharge the batteries before heading into this period of my life… but I put it off. Now I am paying for it. No self care strategy works unless you put it in to action. My strategy calls for a period of rest and reflection before long stints of work which never happened. Did I mention I’m and idiot!!! Self care is my baby. I would speak about it until I am blue in the face. Yet even poor little old me is lost without my plan and its implementation.
Don’t forget to implement your plan! Self care is hard if you don’t plan for it! Its impossible if you don’t work your plan.
One of the most often cited reasons for staff turnover in the youth sector is the lack of promotion opportunities. Whether it is leading teams or projects many youth workers want to move up the ladder. However we also have a relatively low entry point to becoming a youth worker with over 50% of the Australian youth sector having a Certificate IV or less. This lack of career progression options has been an issue within the sector for many years with the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition recently bringing it t the forefront again. It also forms the basis for one of the most frequently asked questions I get from students at university and TAFE… how do we get a decent job in the youth sector?
So with limited opportunities and a limited pool of highly qualified youth workers, what is a youth worker to do??? Plan their career!
Whether you are just starting your career or you are years into it, it is important to realise that no one other than you is looking out for your career progression. Most youth work organisations do not do succession planning or if they do it is mainly focussed on the top job. So if you thought that your manager was getting you ready for or had a focus on developing you for your next role, the chances are you are wrong. There are a few managers and organisations who take very seriously the idea of staff development and succession planning. However for the most part you are on your own.
If there are limited opportunities for you to progress upwards in your organisation (usually because you are in a small or medium sized organisation) then you may need to think laterally. What other organisations do work you want to be involved in? What requirements do they have for staff? What qualifications do they want you to have? Is there specific knowledge or experience you need for the roles? In our experience you will need depth of knowledge about young people and a breadth of experience if you are to stand out for the roles you want.
If you imagine a Certificate IV as the minimum standard and a PhD as the maximum depth that your qualifications can have, look at the depth of your qualifications. More depth provides you more opportunity to get promoted. The other axis to look into is breadth. If all you have focused on is youth work you may have great depth (which is fantastic for an academic) but you will have no breadth. Now if you choose to gain some qualifications in the peripheries then you begin to gain some breadth. Drug and Alcohol, Mental Health, Management, Business, Family Therapy, Education; all of these periphery qualifications and more can give you more options for your career.
Depth and breadth of your qualifications are only one part of your career development plan. It gives you options. To begin the process though you have to have an area in mind that you want to end up in. At the beginning of my career I knew that I wanted to be the best at working with young people who were at the crisis end of the spectrum. That meant I had to Gain qualifications in these areas. I gained qualifications in Youth Work, AOD and Dual Diagnosis. Qualifications gave me some options. If you don’t have much depth or breadth November is always a great time to check out some options for building your qualifications.
Mental health is the leading health issue of our time!
It is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the western world. One in four of our young people will have a diagnosed mental health issue by the age of 25. Many of the leading mental health diagnoses are most prevalent in adolescence. Most of all mental health is an issue of which youth workers must have a rock solid understanding. Unfortunately, most youth work education gives a youth worker a passing knowledge at best… and this is dangerous.
At Ultimate Youth Worker we believe that all youth workers should have a first responder understanding of mental health. In the same way that paramedics have enough understanding of medicine to save your life and get you to hospital, we believe youth workers should have enough understanding about mental health to assess, triage and refer to mental health clinicians. We need more training. We need more education. We need more understanding.
Most young people are thankful for our empathy and care… but know how limited our knowledge of their issues are. Over the month of October we will be devoting time to help you understand more about mental health. October is mental health month and as a treat each week we will focus on one mental health issue and give you more depth than any course you have ever attended. We want you to be the best you could possibly be, and to do that we want you to have the best resources possible.
Organisations such as BeyondBlue and Headspace have fantastic resources aimed at young people and their families. They give a cursory understanding of the issues and provide a comforting nudge in the direction of support. As a tool for youth worker knowledge however they are limited. As youth workers we are often in a position to first identify mental health issues in young people and as such we need to have a better grasp of the issues. We must gain more than a mental health first aid certificate if we are to truly support our young people to recover their mental health.
Knowledge is power. It is also responsibility.
As a youth worker with over a decade in practice a number of qualifications and a private practice I have supported many youth workers on placement. In these situations I have tried to provide the best learning environment for each individual student. However many youth workers report that they are little more than gofers. Go for coffee, go for printing, go for this meeting.
This unfortunately is not an uncommon experience of students on placement. As a field placement supervisor I have spoken to dozens of students over the past year about their experience and the vast majority have felt like goffers. Go for coffee, go for my printing, go for … The list is endless. Students, particularly in their final year, need to be allowed to practice their skillset not just watch as it is done by others. They need opportunity to practice in a supervised environment to gain confidence and experience. They need supervisors who can let go of their work and pass it on to them.
If you are going to take on a student this year here are a few ideas to help them and you integrate as much as possible.
- Reading is essential to any job but more than a week of reading policies and procedure manuals is over the top.
- Regular weekly supervision that addresses different aspects of the role is essential. Dont just ask about tasks, but set articles to be read before sessions to stimulate conversation.
- Dont expect students to know everything.
- Expect them to be competent at a first job standard.
- Give them genuine tasks to sink their teeth in. They may be cheap labour, but they are useless to you as goffers! Remember it is costing the student to do the placement.
- Have a plan of action from day one with a number of tasks that must be achieved and review this weekly.
- Finally, get to know your student and have space for them to get to know you.
Know who you are! The amount of students I speak to who do not have a good understanding of their own values and what makes them tick would blow your mind. One of the first things I ask when trying to help potential youth workers is why they want to be a youth worker… if you cant answer this question you may need to take a while to sort it out before continuing.
Volunteer work is a great way to build skills and experience. If you are young or have not worked in the sector before then volunteering with a reputable organisation can be a great way to get skills and training… and a job (or at least a good reference).
Get some qualifications. In this day and age qualifications are king. You need to have the piece of paper under your belt before many organisations will even look at you. Currently there is a push towards a minimum standard of a two year diploma in Australia, but more is better.
Build your networks. Join local council groups, local area networks and peak bodies. Anywhere there is a youth worker join their group. This gives you profile in the sector and opportunity to get information and information is key to good interviews.
Work out what area of youth work you most want to get into. Youth work is a wide and varied and it can give you an immense amount of joy… if you are in the right area. Work out what gets you going and then run for it with all your might.