Previous Experience Required… But Not Desired

Youth work experience
Acting like you work here doesn’t go over well in most youth work settings

We’ve all seen it on a job description: ‘Those with Previous Youth Work Experience Preferred’ or ‘Previous Experience with Youth Required.’

Experience is becoming much more valuable to youth work employers, even for faith-based youth workers. Unless you’re planning to start at the bottom – with volunteering, an internship, part-time position or an entry level position without very good pay – you’ll need some kind of previous youth work experience.

But is all previous experience good? Is every type of youth work the same as every other? Is ‘working with youth’ all that’s really required while the rest is teachable? My answer to all three is ‘No’ and here is why:

No, I don’t think that all previous experience is good

As a reflective practitioner, you’ll want to reflect and determine if your experience was good for the youth and best for your professional development. There are a lot of youth programs out there, including faith-based, that:

  • Hire poor, inexperienced and/or unqualified staff
  • Don’t have important procedures in place
  • Have unsupportive management
  • Have poor youth to adult ratios
  • Don’t have child protection policies
  • Don’t do background checks
  • And much more

The reasons for this are varied and too much to cover right now, but they can range from cost-cutting measures to lack of organizational structure.

If your experience included any of the issues above or others, take the time to identify what changes you would make in your own practice going forward, finding out best practice in those areas and unlearning bad habits. 

No, I don’t think every type of youth work is not the same as every other.

Taking 5 minutes one day, I identified over 45 different types of youth work that I know about or have worked with; that’s not even taking into account hybrid programs that merge two or more types of youth work together.

These could include programs that focus on ‘Sexual Health of Youth,’ ‘Homeless Youth’ and ‘Sexual Health of Homeless Youth’. Just about the only thing they all have in common is that they work with youth. So while some previous experience of working with homeless youth may be beneficial in building relationships with youth in a sexual health youth program, you may find it difficult to transfer a lot of your skills, education and experience to the new role. Don’t try to ‘fake it ’til you make it’, as you’ll do the youth in your programs a disservice.

Additionally, the previous experience from one type of youth work can be really challenging to ‘unlearn’ when entering a new type, especially if you’ve done it for a long time.

For example, I once knew a worker who had done ten years working as a detention center guard. He then moved to the more ‘warm and fuzzy’ role of staff at a family-style foster care program, where all interactions were supposed to be natural, like in a loving family. His years of previous experience kicked in whenever there was conflict and he often ran the home like a detention facility with strict schedules, cleanliness regimes and zero-tolerance rules.

His experiences were great when it came to finding youth who stole things or were lying, but many times the youth felt attacked and ‘guarded.’ He had the best intentions but was unable to overcome so much of his previous experience. It’s possible that a better fit, for his experience, would have been in a more regulated residential foster care program or as a youth offending officer.

Youth work is as diverse as the youth within the programs, therefore you can’t say that all experience you gain within each of them is the same. Take the time to identify your transferable skills and those where you need further professional development.

No, I don’t think that all you need is experience working with youth and that everything else is teachable.

There are some things that are teachable in youth work; using our example above, sexual health statistics can be taught, homeless issues and their solutions, methods for scripture memorization in faith-based programs – all those can be taught. But you need to recognize what can’t be taught. Some types of youth work are better suited to certain youth workers than others and no amount of previous experience with youth will change that.

I have a lot of experience with youth, but I wouldn’t apply for a role teaching youth outdoor activities. Yes, I could learn all the safety information in the world and maybe even be ‘passable’ in the role, but it wouldn’t be best for the youth in those programs.

Why? Because it’s not my passion, nor is outdoor education something I care very much about. When we do things that we don’t care about, things get sloppy and mistakes are made.

I wouldn’t want to have any of those mistakes happen at an outdoor center or in the middle of a lake with a group of youth – would you? I’d want a youth worker whose experience and passion match up in the perfect role for them which, in turn, will make the program outstanding through knowledgeable, safe and experienced staff  for the youth participating.

Your strengths and what you’re passionate about will provide a natural fit for your natural abilities in relating to youth and the skills you learn through education and best practice.

Remember these three things when you see ‘previous youth work experience required':

  1. Reflect on areas of best practice and room for improvement in your previous experiences
  2. Remind yourself that all youth work is different and decide if you have the appropriate skills and experience for the job. If you don’t, try your desired role out as a volunteer and gain some insight and new experience in that area of youth work.
  3. Identify your strengths and passions. Learn what can be learned, trust your natural skills and choose a path based on what you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about something, it’s much more likely to positively affect more youth in your program. 

Questions: Do you agree or disagree about my thoughts regarding previous experience in youth work? Why or why not? What are some things you consider when applying for a new youth work position? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Tony Brown

    In terms of assessing the skills of a youth worker at interview, you should consider a multi stage process.
    This should include an activity with a group of young people that would be assessed by the young peopl involved, and also be observed by a professional.

    I also include a written test and a presentation.

    Another useful element is a group discussion that is observed or a group team activity.

    What every you use, it should allow you to assess the candidates in a range of functions related to the job.

    If it is a youth work job, then. Young person activity is essential.

    Email me if you want furthe details on the process I use.

    Sorry, I am writting this on my phone.

    • Shae


      Thank you for sharing your insights in this area. I agree completely, I have been on both sides of the interview process and it definitely is good to have some time spent with youth and allow them time to be a part of process.


  • kelsey

    This is so true! I have known youth workers that, just because they have “experience” they are hoisted up the youth ladder and given responsiblities they can’t handle nor deserve. I wish there was a way, in the interview process, to see the interviewee interact with youth. Just because you have worked with youth doesn’t mean you “get” them, care for them, or actually wish to better their lives. Not all youth experiences are created equal.

    • Stephen

      Exactly! When we interviewed to be group home parents, part of the process was to spend the evening in one of the houses so they could see how we interacted with the young people.

      In another of Shae’s previous jobs, part of her interview was conducted by the young people who were regulars in the youth cafe – they got to ask all kinds of different questions and the management took their feedback on board when choosing who to hire (Shae got the job!)

      We think youth participation is really important, so would love to see all youth work interviews incorporate actual youth into the interview process.