Youth & Community Work

Where to from here? Professionalising the youth work sector in Europe: charting murky waters

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A recent youth sector conference in Estonia interrogated the current state of play regarding the training and development for youth sector professionals. Despite the absence of consolidated data, there is worrying evidence that where youth worker training exists, it too often fails to prepare youth workers for reality - despite political support and plenty of international training opportunities.

In October 2013, a youth sector conference hosted in Estonia[1] interrogated the current state of play regarding the training and development for youth sector professionals. The conference took a thematic focus on youth work and a geographic focus on Europe, with occasional glimpses at other youth sector professions as well as other countries.

A lack of consolidated data

Youth worker qualification and status overview in Europe from 2008
Youth worker qualification and status overview

Quite astonishingly, no internationally comparative overview of youth worker education and training schemes exists.

The 2008 study on the socio-economic scope of youth work in Europe (see our library entry or download the pdf version the study), conducted by a research consortium led by the Institute for Social Work and Social Education for the Youth Partnership, largely came up with a blank when trying to collate information about youth worker training (see the image).

In 7 of the 10 surveyed countries, no data was available on the education, training and qualification of youth workers, and in two of the remaining three, 80 per cent of the respondents opted not to answer questions related to their qualification.

Failing to prepare youth workers for reality

The mixed picture presented in this study was reflected in the reality of the participants in Tallinn: Many cited a complete absence of locally available and formally recognised qualification pathways for youth workers in their national context.

During the conference Jennifer Brooker - the Youth Work Coordinator at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia - presented a comparison of curriculums for youth worker training in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, showcasing that where youth worker training does exist, it often fails to prepare youth workers for the needs and realities of the sector.[2]

Bob is disillusioned and despondent.

Given this situation, it’s no wonder then that our fictional youth worker Bob, invented to illustrate the context of the seminar in October 2013, is disillusioned and despondent.

So, is there any hope for Bob, any hope for the average youth worker out there?

Repeated policy commitments in Europe and beyond

At the very least, the youth sector is certainly not shy of initiatives to shape, reform and professionalise youth worker education.

A number of political resolutions at EU level have underlined the importance of providing education and training to youth sector professionals, inviting stakeholders to:

  • promote different kinds of sustainable support for youth work, e.g. sufficient funding, resources or infrastructure. This also implies removing barriers to engaging in youth work and where appropriate create strategies on youth work;
  • enhance the quality of youth work, the capacity building and competence development of youth workers;
  • support the development of new strategies or enhance existing ones for the capacity building of youth workers;
  • promote the employability of youth workers […] and their mobility through better knowledge of their qualifications.

Source: Council of the European Union (2010). Resolution of the Council on youth work (pdf).

Similar calls for recognised standards, college level programmes and skills based certification were heard at the 2013 edition of the Commonwealth Conference on Education and Training of Youth Workers.

A myriad of opportunities

Professionalising the youth sector: charting murky waters 1

Turning from resolution to the realities of youth work training and qualifications, at first sight it can hardly be argued that there is an absence of opportunities. At regional level across the globe, substantial efforts have been made to establish training structured programmes, from the Commonwealth Diploma in Youth Development Work delivered in 45 countries and the (currently stalled) Masters in European Youth Studies to the BSc in Youth Development Work offered in the Caribbean and the series of trainings for Asian Youth Workers.

Alongside these opportunities a range of online and distance learning opportunities, including the introductory Youth Work Matters course offered by the University of Minnesota and the Open University’s BA Honours in Youth Work, provide anyone with enough time, financial resources technical equipment and reliable internet access the opportunity for professional development in the field, wherever they happen to be located.

Moreover, there are extensive non-formal opportunities that aim to develop youth workers’ competencies such as the range of trainings offered through the SALTO-YOUTH programmes and by the Youth Partnership. Increasingly, programmes are being built that reflect and respond to specific regional needs, from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean. Globally, symposia and conferences provide opportunities for networking and exchanging practice, and for the curious self-initiators there are a number of open access journals, online resource centres, and libraries.

So with the support of policy makers and the apparent availability of opportunities, why do many in the sector perceive there to be a failing in the quality and provision of youth work training?

Many small opportunities mask the bigger problem

Three main reasons emerged from the discussions at the Tallinn conference:

  1. First, in too many countries there simply aren’t structured pathways or a qualification framework for youth workers to develop professionally and obtain recognised status - too much is left to chance. In many places regional training programmes mask the dearth of opportunities available at a national level.
  2. Second, the continued absence of a comparative international overview of the situation of youth work education means that there is an incomplete picture of the failings and shortcomings. Such a picture would be a useful starting point for the initiation of a more strategic approach to youth sector training.
  3. Third, the myriad of international non-formal trainings, whilst frequently valuable and relevant, fail to add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. A collection of disparate training activities, workshops and seminars is certainly no substitute for a comprehensive qualification pathway that could be used to leverage and confer much needed status to the profession.

A bias that neglects the prototypical youth worker

At the Tallinn conference, Yael Ohana guided the way through the maze that the various initiatives have created over the past years (presentation, mindmap, video).[3] By dissecting the competence profiles for youth work professionals and the studies produced to that end, Yael illustrated that the focus has largely been on European-level youth trainers, and the—arguably prototypical—neighbourhood youth worker has only received marginal interest so far.

Initiatives for the recognition of youth work, which are summarised well on the website of the Youth Partnership (here and here), complement the surge of competence profiles with resolutions as well as portfolios and passbooks. The focus of most of these initiatives has been on youth trainers and youth work volunteers, again with a bias towards internationally active youth sector professionals. There is a worrying gap between international youth work training and those working in local communities around the world.

Where to from here?

Professionalising the youth sector: charting murky waters 4

The number of gaps—that can be turned to opportunities for intervention and change—in relation to the education and training of youth workers are plenty. One idea that has gained traction among the attendees of the Tallinn conference is to shift some of the attention to local level initiatives. Several ideas emerged for training and exchange programmes between municipalities within and beyond Europe, which may well become one of the outcomes of the conference that will become tangible most quickly.

The European youth work mapping remains as relevant and overdue as when it was requested by the Council of the European Union in 2010; with the push from various directions including the Tallinn conference it will hopefully be commissioned in 2014 and become available in 2015.
The larger shift that is needed in the sector, however, is to focus less on those who—currently—have the strongest voice, namely European and international trainers, and to focus more on those who have—as of yet—no own organisations, no own networks, and no own voices at European and international level, but who arguably do the bulk of the work: local youth workers.

While pushing for that shift, however, we should respect and embrace the diversity of youth work practice from the very start. We don’t need more possibilities for youth workers, misunderstood as one homogenous group. Much rather, we need more offers, options and possibilities for those who work with young people in youth clubs, and on the streets, and in prisons, and in schools - to name just four of the many profiles that have evolved in the youth sector over time.

At the start of a new generation of European programmes, this shift is possible - and in our hands. But will it happen?


[1] - The event was hosted by Foundation Archimedes in the framework of the European Social Fund’s Estonian programme “Developing youth work quality” and the European Union’s Youth in Action (YiA) Programme. []

[2] - Jennifer Brooker’s research will be published in Brian Belton, International Youth Work (forthcoming). []

[3] - We owe Yael the inspiration for this article’s headline. Thanks! []

Team credits:

Written and edited byJohn Muir, Alex Farrow andAndreas Karsten.

Image credits:

The table is from the quoted study “The Socioeconomic Scope of Youth Work in Europe” (table 67, page 116, pdf).

The two visual recordings are by Siiri Taimla of Joonmeedia, who documented key sessions of the conference. The entire set of visual recordings is online here.

Featured Image Credit: Vincentp