Now more than ever, youth workers have a lot to offer the Victorian community. Their work contributes to a range of positive impacts, from preventing crime and strengthening school engagement to building neighbourhoods that are great places for all young people to grow up in.
But there’s a problem: many people don’t know about youth workers or what they do
We know youth workers are unique professionals who build trust and understanding between young people, their families and communities. They work in many settings, including schools, local government, youth justice and health services.
Youth workers help young people to make informed choices about things like education, work, health and relationships, overcome challenges like poor mental health and unemployment, and take up positive opportunities to build their skills, become independent, and contribute to their communities. In Victoria, youth workers are guided by the Code of Ethical Practice.
An analysis of youth work in Ireland found the economic benefits outweighed the costs by more than double, over a 10 year period. This was due to a reduction in crime and drug use, and a rise in young people’s engagement in education and work.
We recently put a call out for Victorians who’d been supported by youth workers in the past to share their stories, and received a host of heartfelt responses:
“If it wasn't for my youth worker, I would have felt like I was never going to be good enough.”
“If it wasn't for my youth worker, I would have possibly never finished high school.”
“If it wasn't for my youth worker, I would have probably been in jail.”
“If it wasn’t for my youth worker, I would have been dead, or still addicted to ice.”
Why, then, do so many youth workers we speak to tell us it’s hard to be recognised as experts in their field?
Unfortunately, we’ve found that not all adults understand the value of providing supports specifically for young people. Sometimes people assume that parents and teachers can take care of all young people’s needs. Youth work interventions often have to rely on limited, short-term funding, which undermines their stability. Or they can be weakened if they’re absorbed into (or replaced by) large “mainstream” community service providers without expertise in supporting young people.
Unlike some professionals, youth workers can’t always assume their role will be understood and supported by those in senior positions. Many youth workers operate in broad service settings where their CEO, senior management or board of governance may have come from totally different backgrounds and experiences. Educating “up” about the value of youth work can be a challenging part of a youth worker’s job.
Some people have also wondered whether the diversity of youth work – a strength of the profession in many ways – might have a down side in terms of popular perception. Youth workers don’t have one standard model; they work in many different services, doing everything from large-scale community planning to providing intensive support for marginalised young people. Many have bachelor’s level youth work qualifications while many do not, often coming from a variety of different disciplines though still guided by the practices and philosophy of youth work. (Meanwhile, there are other figures in the community who might identify as “youth workers”, but whose philosophy and practice don’t align with the Code at all).
Youth work also faces another, very different challenge: properly harnessing the great enthusiasm some community members feel for helping young people. Many people who faced disadvantage in their own youth now aspire to become youth workers, to give back to the community. They can make excellent workers due to their passion, optimism, lived experience and ability to connect with others. However, it’s essential they can access high quality training, qualifications, work experience, career mentoring and support with things like trauma and English language skills.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Due to the proliferation of Vocational Education and Training (VET) providers (some 100% online) and the community’s loose understanding of what “youth work” means, some aspiring workers have ended up doing inappropriate qualifications and struggling to find a job. As one youth worker told us recently “Wanting to ‘do good’ is not enough!”
So what’s the solution?
We’re gearing up to launch Youth Work Matters, a state election campaign to raise the profile of youth work and create more conversations about its value in Victorian communities.
Ahead of November’s state government election, the campaign is calling on political parties to commit to increasing the number of trained, supported youth workers in rural, regional and metropolitan Victoria.
Youth Work Matters also calls for a strategic, state-wide approach to improve outcomes for young people, especially those most marginalised, and for initiatives to recruit, train and mentor new youth workers from priority communities and locations.
We will keep advocating for youth workers to be supported to build their expertise and career pathways, promote their achievements, and rise to leadership positions. And we will continue to emphasise the unique contributions youth workers can make to state-wide reforms, such as Victoria’s Roadmap for Reform, 10 Year Mental Health Plan and Suicide Prevention Framework.