ISSUE 115  SEPTEMBER 2008 BACK

THE PROFESSION

Career development for child and youth workers

Kiaras Gharabaghi

As I answered the usual questions posed by the US Customs Officer prior to boarding my flight from Athens to New York, I started reflecting on the past few days of international travel I had undertaken all in the name of child and youth care. Between explaining that my name is of Azeri origin, and then patiently helping the officer figure out where Azerbaijan is on a world map, followed by a lengthy speech on how I ended up traveling with a German passport and finally, why I am a permanent resident in Canada, it occurred to me that notwithstanding my profound dislike of American custom procedures and its awkward interfacing with my tri-national political identity, I was loving my momentary predicament. The uncertainty of whether I would be allowed to board the flight was not really warranted given that in spite of what on paper looks like a perfect set up for international intrigue, I really am “just” a child and youth worker trying to get home after a couple of very satisfying professional experiences.

Loving one’s professional situation, it seems to me, is a gift that we can, if we try hard enough, give to ourselves. I know that for me, loving what I do requires much more than having good days at work; it requires more than knowing that I am good at what I do; and it requires much more than being acknowledged for what I do. In fact, although material issues are important, it also requires much more than a good salary and decent benefits. In order for me to love what I do, I have to feel tension, uncertainty, lack of predictability, sometimes even fear and self doubt, all somehow mitigated by a belief that there is more I could do, other ways of approaching my profession, new and uncharted territories to explore and to be challenged by.

Child and youth care offers a career path that provides opportunities for all of the above. It is possible to make a decent living in this field, to balance family life and professional obligations, to enter uncharted waters, to discover new possibilities, and to experience a wide range of professional situations, environments and challenges. The path, however, is not marked clearly, involves many risky propositions, sometimes seems to double back, and may even from time to time require a guide. Unlike more established professions, ours hasn’t quite developed to the point where there is clarity amongst ourselves about what we can do, much less amongst other professions that might be involved in advancing our career goals. I think that it is important for us to contemplate the possibilities, and the practicalities of career development and advancement. There are two reasons why I think it is important:

First, I have met far too many individuals working as child and youth workers directly with vulnerable children and youth, who have long given up on their career. These individuals have fallen victim to complacency and accepting themselves as second rate employees in dead end jobs. Not surprisingly, I have always found that this kind of child and youth worker has very little to offer to kids, and sometimes even contributes to making life more difficult for them. When asked about their career aspirations, they almost never cite a child and youth workers job or career; instead, they dream of “bigger and better things”, like being a clinician, a psychologist or, delusional as this might sound, a social worker. And when asked about what is dissatisfying about child and youth care, they typically cite the schedules, the lack of power, the lack of acknowledgement, and the perceived incompetence of administrators, managers, and policy makers.

These child and youth care workers really are “finished–; their negativity about themselves perpetuates their resistance to change, to adopting new ideas and new approaches, to engaging with children and youth and allowing them a voice in what happens. In other words, they reproduce their own perceived oppression in how they work with the kids. For many of these child and youth workers, it is too late to change course; their best option, on behalf of themselves and certainly on behalf of kids, is to get out.

But the second reason why I think it is important to think about career development and advancement is that very few child and youth workers in the group above started off that way. I would like to think that the vast majority of individuals entering the field do so for good reasons; to make a difference, to be with youth, to do better for kids than was done for them. And in fact, I still know many, many child and youth workers who have maintained their positive outlook, who perform exceptionally well in their jobs, and who remain dedicated to kids and even humbled by the privilege to be part of their lives. But they too are increasingly wondering what to do with themselves in the coming years. And because they are so good at what they do, because they are positive, attentive, interested, and supremely competent, we, as a profession, are always at risk of losing them to other professions, other fields, and other sectors. In the absence of clearly identifiable paths to career advancement, these people are more likely to switch to somewhere where they can see the path and where they can channel their competence in seemingly more productive ways.

That is a real shame. We shouldn’t lose these excellent child and youth workers, and in many ways, we can ill afford to lose them. And I don’t think we have to lose them. Our profession offers them the opportunities needed to keep them loving what they do. Our job is to outline what these opportunities are more clearly, and at least to provide some inspiration by talking about the possibilities. After all, amongst us are child and youth care professionals who are CEOs or Executive Directors of large Children's Services organizations, successful owners of child and youth care businesses, child and youth care consultants with local, national and international assignments, academics at all levels of education, and child and youth workers who still spend each and every day with edgy youth, but in environments and contexts of their choice. And while it is still true that the majority of child and youth workers are at the lower end of the income spectrum, many are not; peanuts may have to be accepted early in one’s career, but pecans are realistic and pistachios are not out of reach.

To spread some optimism, consider these simple facts:

  1. Nearly half of the worlds 6.5 billion people fall into the age group typically engaged by child and youth workers (6 to 24); there will never be a shortage of children or youth who would benefit from knowing a child and youth worker;

  2. Even in the richest countries in the world, there has been a consistent and long term trend toward an increase in all of the major root causes of problems for children and youth: child poverty, mental health concerns, family disintegration, child welfare referrals, school drop out rates, and in most cases, youth crime (although in Canada at least, there has actually been a decrease in serious youth crime as well as in youth convictions over the past five years);

  3. Virtually all evidence-based practices point to the importance of long term and intensive engagement with children and youth experiencing challenges; this surely is a specialty of child and youth care professionals;

  4. Almost all major systems serving children and youth have turned to child and youth care professionals to strengthen their services; that’s true for education, family-based care and interventions, the youth criminal justice system, foster care, hospitals, and specialized clinical interventions such as eating disorder clinics, services providing specialized treatment for children with autism, and services seeking to support older youth in their transition to independence;

  5. For some time now, the profession of child and youth care has been producing its own research, evidence-base, and clinical knowledge about children, youth and families, and the production of this material is increasing rapidly; this means that the profession is increasingly succeeding in introducing child and youth care as not only a labour force, but also as a field of knowledge, a major step in disciplinary evolution.

Children and youth will remain a major concern for many years to come, perhaps forever. And with the challenges for children and youth, and also their families, becoming increasingly intense, child and youth workers will be needed. Where there are child and youth workers, there are supervisors, managers, directors, and there are organizations and institutions in need of management and consultation. Our discipline is uniquely situated to be at the centre of future developments in children's services worldwide. We are (or ought to be) adaptable, flexible, culturally competent, and we can work in institutions, organizations, communities and families. We can join, follow, lead, organize, be present, and engage. And whatever we do, we do so through the medium of relationships, which surely is one of the reasons our profession is so adaptable in the first place.

To carve out a career in our field, there are a few skills and activities that one might focus on. I would suggest the following ten skills and activities that may be helpful:

  1. Read! In a rapidly developing field, new ideas, methods and practices are emerging quickly, and so is new language to describe all of these. The only way to keep up is to read. Journals, books, on-line material, government reports, research reports, etc. Read every day.

  2. Again read!! In addition to field specific material, read things from other fields, because child and youth care almost always unfolds alongside other professions. It is imperative to know what those other professions are all about, much like we always demand that other professions develop a better understanding of ours.

  3. And once again read!!! In order to feed your imagination, and in order to set your goals not according to what is expected but what might be desirable, read literature. Nothing will get you imagining and contemplating like good literature.

  4. Network! It is what you know that matters most, but who you know really, really helps!

  5. Know what’s going on in the broader field. Keep up with the news, check out related Ministry web sites and the sites of related associations (for example, associations related to Child Welfare organizations, Children's Mental Health, etc.).

  6. Write and present! Writing has two advantages: first, it gets your name out there and it helps with networking. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it forces you to really think about issues, concerns, concepts, etc. Presenting also has two advantages: it puts a face to your name for those who might be interested in what you wrote about somewhere; secondly, it helps you learn to take risks, to expose yourself to stress and high pressure situations, and to overcome any feelings of “I can’t do this”.

  7. Take a stand on behalf of kids and youth. The best way to know that you are doing the right thing and moving in the right direction is never ever to forget that your ultimate professional loyalty lies with children and youth, not colleagues, teams, organizations, policies or whatever. Stand up for Children's Rights and for ethical conduct in our discipline.

  8. Take risks! Nothing particularly interesting ever happens without the willingness to take some risks. Not every decision you make about your career has to be researched and studied to death. Sometimes opportunities present themselves suddenly and unexpectedly, and you either take it or leave it. Don’t take everything, but don’t just dismiss opportunities because you didn’t have enough time to study them fully either. One caveat though: I am for taking risks, but never at the expense of children and youth.

  9. Broaden your experiential basis; lateral moves are enormously useful to gain a deeper appreciation for the nuances of different kinds of services. You may not gain materially, but moving from residential care to special education to family-based care will help you understand the service system as well as children and youth much better.

  10. Be kind! Child and youth care is a complex profession, with many different elements that may require many different skills, including assertiveness, leadership, decision-making and so on. But none of this has any meaning at all if we forget about the foundation of meaningful human relationships “be kind, to children and youth, to colleagues from within and outside of the discipline, and to yourself. 

THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net)
Registered Non-Profit and Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (031-323-NPO, PBO 930015296)

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