Theory and practice: skills and knowledge of youth work

I had a discussion with a couple of students the other day which is a regular occurrence in my experience. The students ask some variation of “what is more important for gaining employment, experience or qualifications?” It is always a question on new graduate minds as they lack experience. But it is one of the most damaging questions our field faces at the moment. This question supposes that either knowledge or skills are better than one another. They are not.

Over the past decade I have interviewed dozens of youth workers and they inevitably fall into one of three categories. First, those who rely on their years of experience. Second, Those who rely on their qualification. Third, those with theory and practice. The third group wins hands down every time. Those with experience often tell stories of what they did in any given situation. Those with qualifications tell you why they would do something. Those with theory and practice tell you what they did and why they did it.

The best practitioners are those with both the theory and practice for the job, but this takes time. A highly qualified and experienced practitioner takes years to develop. With the average youth worker lasting between two and five years in the sector it is a struggle to get qualified and experienced staff. This is where the question is dangerous for our field. Those with the experience state that they know how to best work with young people because they have been ‘doing’ it for years. Those with qualifications counter that if you do not know why you are doing something or the theory behind it you will cause more damage than help for those young people. While this goes on the other professions laugh and pat us on the head.

For the record we believe qualifications are more important than experience, at least in the short term. After a couple of years in the sector you will have the experience. Qualification builds a foundation which you build experience on. Experience first is a very shaky foundation as it is through your experience that you will see theory. A very limited view. But there is something we seek more, attitude. We would take less qualification and experience for a more passionate teachable attitude any day. We can give you experience and we can send you to get qualified but attitude that is all on you.

Theory and practice

Theory and practice

Ultimate Youth Workers build their understanding of theory at every chance possible. They develop practice skills with every young person they meet. Most of all they have an unshakeable attitude which puts the needs of their young people first. Having an understanding of how theory relates to practice and vice-versa is integral to best practice youth work.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Youth work career development: Qualifications, depth and breadth

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?

youth-work-degree

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.

[Tweet “Whether you are just starting your career or you are years into it, you need to think about career progression.”]

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.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Life is what happens to you while your busy making other plans.

Plans are important

I was talking with a student of mine today about the need for youth workers to have plans. Career plans. Professional development plans. Self-care plans. Plans for working with clients. Plans for networking. Plans, plans, plans. It dawned on me as I said this that most youth workers I know don’t really do this. We sit around and lament that nothing is happening or we spend our time up to our neck in crisis.

Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

plans are important
Planning meeting in progress

Making plans

If we are to excel as youth workers, to truly become “Ultimate” we must plan our work and work our plan. If we do not plan we are at the mercy of whatever storm comes our way. When we don’t have plans we are saying blatantly that we do not care what happens in the future.

We need to become proficient at forward planning. It doesn’t mean we have to have it all worked out… But we have to start somewhere.

Here are a few places for us to begin our plans.

Career development: Begin by getting a handle on the type of youth work career you want. Then work out where you are starting from. Think about the depth and breadth of your qualifications, the experience you have and your values. Then plan for your future. Listen to this podcast to help you out with this task.

Self Care Plan: There are really only a few things our team harp on about and at the top of the list is self care. Youth workers really struggle with this concept so its a good place to begin a plan. Try this one.

Networking: A youth worker is only as good as the network they keep. Ultimate Youth Workers know that they need a solid network. It helps us to provide the most exceptional service to our young people. Plan who you need on your network and use a tool like LinkedIn to manage it.

With these quick plans in hand you will be better than 90% of your colleagues who fail to plan even a little. But don’t rest on your laurels. Get out a piece of paper and start planning today.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Youth work and excellence.

One of the values of Ultimate Youth Worker is ‘excellence in all we do’. We expect that if people are paying for our services they deserve nothing but the most exceptional service. As I have been teaching the last year or so I have come across a scary value that has crept into our sector. Close enough is good enough. It is in students and service providers. We have started to give half assed service.
 
There are many reasons for this. Our funding agreements tell us to do less with more people. Our clients are more complex and we don’t have any more time. Our education of youth workers has focussed so much on competency and not on relationship. All in all it has led to a focus on just getting through. To our clients though this shows up as a lack of care, support and service. Most of all a complete lack of understanding of their circumstance.
 
If we are to be seen as professional and to be effective we must rid ourselves of half assed service. No more six week interventions. No more close enough is good enough. We must focus on the needs of our clients. We must seek to provide excellence in all we do! Look at the values of your organisation… Are you really acting in the best interests of your clients? Is it excellence you seek?

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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