I can say with my hand on my heart that I practice youth work with integrity for the interests of the young person and not because it makes me a better educator. It does inform my teaching and it keeps me updated with contemporary youth work.–Paul Chalkley
Youth work has the power to not only change a young person’s life but also our entire community. When we invest in youth work education we invest in a more professional sector that supports the future of youth workers and the young people they work with. Education is where emerging youth workers learn the tools and knowledge to create stronger practices that benefit young people.
Youth work is a highly skilled and unique practice and youth workers often support young people experiencing complex circumstances. When YACVic worked with our sector to develop our Code of Ethical Practice in 2007, we identified the elements that make youth work valuable and unique. The Code remains a powerful force to unify, guide and professionalise the sector.
At YACVic, we want a professional, sustainable and collegial future for youth work. We want students of youth work to know they are part of a strong, connected sector that works together to achieve a common purpose: to make sure young people know they matter and to make their lives better.
Our #youthworkmatters campaign is one step forward to say that we’re committed to the future of the sector, youth workers and young people. A stronger sector needs to invest in current and future youth workers and this will benefit all young people, not only in Victoria but Australia-wide.
We thought it was time to sit down and chat with those who are shaping the future of youth work. We met up with youth work academic Paul Chalkley and youth work undergraduate student Bridie Keily at the Australian Catholic University (ACU).
What is the value of studying youth work at undergraduate level rather than just completing a TAFE level qualification?
Paul: Diploma and undergraduate qualifications both have a role in youth work and I don’t believe in using the language of ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ when we talk about education. The mandatory minimum qualification for some youth work positions is a Certificate IV in Child, Youth and Family Studies. I do, however, think that an undergraduate qualification gives the graduate student more career options. Employers are increasingly looking for higher standards of qualification and a bachelor's degree will open more doors for students as their career progresses. We need to provide safe practices for young people, youth workers, and the organisations we’re working for. That’s why I encourage students to undertake further study so that they can develop frameworks that are ethically–based and informed by theory.
What values have you learnt from studying youth work?
Bridie: I’ve learnt alot from studying youth work but my main takeaways would firstly be to build relationships. Youth workers should strive to build rapport with the young person. Secondly, practice active listening. Listen with intent. Often marginalised young people do not feel heard due to their situation. It is our duty as youth workers to make sure those who feel voiceless can have a voice. I would also say that I definitely use a strength-based approach when working with young people. It is the duty of youth workers to see the best in the young person. We focus on the good that is happening in their lives and how they can enhance their strengths to better their wellbeing.
Were there any barriers when you started studying youth work?
Bridie: I did get a lot of questions from friends and family such as, “Why aren’t you studying social work?” and “What do youth workers do?”. Social work has more recognition in society because it’s a broader field of work.
It’s hard not to doubt myself when others question why I pursue youth work. But then I remember that no matter what field you work in, people will always question you and it can bring you down. I know that I have a passion for working with and for young people and I have a lot of love and hope for the youth sector – that’s what keeps me going. I think youth work is misunderstood and I feel it is my duty to educate those around me about what a youth worker does and our influence in young people’s lives.
Why is social work seen as more professional than youth work?
Paul: Social work has been acknowledged professionally for a bit longer than youth work. Social workers have an accreditation process that requires more box ticking. Youth work can sometimes be misunderstood and seen as low skill base work, possibly because some people start youth work as volunteers. This isn’t a true reflection of what real youth work is. Youth work is a highly skilled practice. We work with marginalised and at-risk young people, some of whom are dealing with high social and emotional needs, drug and alcohol concerns, homelessness, youth justice concerns and mental health issues.
I think that the training of youth workers on a national level is quite disparate. Edith Cowan University in Perth has got a full online degree. Here in Melbourne we've got three universities that offer an on-campus degree. Everywhere else around the country students only have access to diploma-level qualifications.
How has professionalising youth work changed over the years?
Paul: We're seeing an inevitable pathway towards qualifications that are mandatory, professional standards of behaviour and adherence to a code of ethical conduct and practice. In Victoria the government has introduced child safety standards and regulations around working with young people. When I first started back in the late 90’s as a practising youth worker, I would have people saying they were youth workers who had just done volunteer work. I don't hear that discussion these days. I do hear what Bridie said that there are still some places you can get jobs working with young people without the formal qualifications but that funnel is narrowing as the sector demands a higher standard and code of practice. There is also the Youth Workers Association that is making steps towards professional recognition for youth workers.
What benefit does professionalising youth work have for young people? Would the quality of service change?
Paul: Professionalising our sector will hopefully lead to higher quality and theoretically–informed practices by youth workers, as well as ensuring adequate training, formation and education of new and emerging youth workers. This would lead to better outcomes for the young people we work with and hopefully increased awareness of self–care and support for all youth workers. I want to see longevity of youth workers in the field because this would have positive flow–on benefits in the work we do with young people.
Can you talk more on why it’s important for the sector to think about wellbeing of youth workers?
Paul: Youth work is often fun, relaxed and conducted in an easy-going and friendly manner. At the same time, it can be highly challenging, stressful and even traumatic. As youth workers we will often work with some of society’s most at-risk and marginalised young people, and as a result, we are often working in a space that is taxing both personally and professionally. Good youth work requires safe practices that protect both the young person and the practitioner. Essential to achieving this is appropriate and skilled supervision of the youth worker, encouragement to practice good self-care and a workplace culture that holistically supports individual youth workers in the work they do.
How important is it to be connected to your work here at ACU and to practice youth work?
Paul: I can say with my hand on my heart that I practice youth work with integrity for the interests of the young person and not because it makes me a better educator. It does inform my teaching and it keeps me updated with contemporary youth work. I think the students enjoy my teaching when I bring current anecdotes into the classroom. I believe that all good youth work educators should have a background in practice.
What advice would give to young people who wants to get involved in the youth sector?
Bridie: Network! Getting as much experience through volunteering and getting to know people in this area of youth work is really important.
Paul: I think it's the ‘GST’ (Get Some Training) approach. The more GST we have for our future youth workers the better. We need to make it known in public discourse that youth work is credible and valuable for young people. I would advise anyone thinking about youth work as a career pathway to get a job where they engage with young people. It might not look like youth work – it might be scouts, running camps, or basketball. Engaging with young people in any way will develop your communication skills and you will learn to build rapport with them.
Where can people can go to network?
Paul: I advise any graduate, including myself, to connect with the local city council services and the networks they have on offer. Many council services have a youth services network and it’s easy to get involved.
It's the magic of having a cuppa and biscuit afterwards and making connections with other practitioners – that’s the beauty of these experiences. Through those connections you can start to rely on each other because you've got history, it's personal, and it gives you a sense of belonging.
What are the major challenges you face in youth work?
Bridie: It's really challenging when a young person tells you to go away or show behaviours that are difficult to deal with. Learning from Paul and other lecturers at ACU has helped me apply theory to practice. I learn a lot from working and volunteering with young people.
What would you say to a first year student studying youth work?
Paul: Volunteer. In fact the reason I got into youth work is because I was volunteering for a youth mentoring program. At the time I connected with an 11-year-old boy and mentored him weekly until he was 14. This connection inspired me to get some training.
Bridie: I agree with Paul. It’s important to volunteer because you will find your niche and passion within the sector. What you learn from working and volunteering with young people is invaluable and when you bring these experiences to the classroom you have more fruitful discussions. I would also tell a first year student to hold onto the love and compassion that you felt on your first day in class. The youth work sector is waiting for you to shine and positively influence young and marginalised people in our community.
What do hope for the future of youth work?
Bridie: I want it to be more known as a profession in our society and community and I want young people to know that there are those services and relationships available. When I was younger I certainly had no idea there were youth workers out there. I think more people being educated by studying their bachelor and even diploma is important as well.
Paul: I hope that we continue to provide services that are rooted in genuine caring relationships that have the best interests of the young person at the heart of the practice.
About our interviewees
Paul Chalkley began practicing youth work in the late 90’s and has been a tertiary qualified youth worker for the past 20 years. He is an academic at ACU and is one of Bridie’s lecturers. Paul’s Masters thesis was on what constitutes good residential care. Alongside his academic profession he also works casually as a youth worker in residential care.
Bridie Keily is an emerging youth worker and is in her second year of bachelor degree in youth work at ACU. She started studying a diploma in youth work at ACU before deciding to continue with an undergraduate degree. Alongside her studies, she works at a campsite on the Mornington Peninsula and as a youth minister at a Parish.
Feeling inspired about youth work?
Learn more about the power of youth work by reading our blog pieces, How do I become a youth worker? and How everyone can understand the value of youth work.
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