Q: How important are youth work qualifications when looking at a career, in comparison to experience through volunteering?
A: Unfortunately there isn’t one straight answer for this question. Each organization and agency is different and therefore is looking for different things in an applicant. Some are looking for qualifications and some are looking for experience.
Youth Work Qualifications
Requiring youth work qualifications benefits an employer for a couple of reasons. By requiring a type of degree or certificate, they can be better informed about your knowledge-base. Some degrees or qualifications are required for certain types of youth work, such as at activity centers or in social work.
Requiring a certain level of education also provides a benchmark for all applicants and helps them weed out some candidates. In the current economic climate that can be a very valuable tool for recruiters and employers, as they’re receiving so many applications for each position.
However, having qualifications doesn’t necessarily mean more experience or better rapport with young people. It can be frustrating to be a fantastic youth worker who just hasn’t had the opportunity to pursue higher education, thereby costing you the opportunity to be considered for a job before someone has even met you.
I’ve experienced this on occasion with my degree – a Master’s in Youth Work and Community Development – because a ‘youth work degree’ isn’t really something offered in the US. There are social work degrees, youth ministry degrees and other human services degrees but not a ‘youth work degree’. It can be frustrating, but the right role and employer for you will see beyond your unconventional or lack of qualifications.
All that being said, theoretical underpinning (a base of theory from research and studies that informs your youth work practice) is essential. You can be a fun youth worker, make up great games and build relationships with youth, but knowing about things like group dynamics, the effects of Personal, Cultural and Structural barriers on youth, the history of modern youth work and adolescent development issues will only serve to make you that much better of a youth worker.
Take your professional development seriously and attend training, conferences and courses whenever it’s appropriate and possible.
Youth Work Experience
Some organizations rely heavily on youth work experience when recruiting for a youth worker. While theoretical underpinning is important, there’s no substitute for real world experience working with youth. If you’re interested in youth work as a career, the more opportunities you have to work with young people, the better.
Youth workers with some experience are often better able to:
- Think on their feet – the more you practice coming up with games, creating new activities, changing the plans to suit the mood of the room and judging the feeling in the room during a discussion, the better at all of them you will become
- Build rapport quickly – you find more ways to engage young people in conversation the more you practice it. You’ll be able to get beyond, ‘so do you like any subjects in school?’ or ‘what’s your favorite color?’ as your opening line
That doesn’t mean that a youth worker without the experience doesn’t possess these qualities. It takes time to get better at what you do. It’s true for musicians, artists, managers and youth workers. Use volunteer opportunities to increase your level of experience, especially if you are planning to change careers from something completely un-youthy like corporate tax law.
Years of experience are still not a complete replacement for training. You’ll be better able to serve the young people you work with when you can understand youth behavior or where a certain law came from. Best practice is often rooted in both theoretical underpinning and real life practice in the profession of youth work.
The best of both worlds is a youth worker who is well-rounded. One who has some experience working directly with young people – learning how to plan, build rapport, knows the lingo of youth culture and has proven dedication to a low-pay, low-appreciation (at times) job. But also one who takes their professional development seriously and makes every effort to increase their knowledge and understanding, even if it’s not possible to undertake a degree course.
Question: Which do you think is more important in youth work – Qualifications or Experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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