Who are the new youth workers?

Funding cuts mean youth workers are increasingly taking jobs outside traditional youth work settings. Joe Lepper explores how roles are changing and what that means for young people.

Austerity has transformed youth services in recent years, narrowing traditional career pathways and leaving youth workers to look for new ways to support young people.

Figures released by Unison last year revealed that over the previous six years, council youth services had shed 3,652 jobs and £387m from their budgets.

In London alone, local authorities cut staffing levels by 39 per cent between 2011/12 and 2016/17, according to an investigation by the Green Party earlier this year.

It is little wonder that National Youth Agency (NYA) figures show just 8.8 per cent of youth work degree graduates went on to work for council youth services in 2014/15, down from 17.5 per cent the previous year.

"It is hard to overestimate how much difference the reduction in local government funding has made to youth services," says Gill Millar, chair of NYA's education and training standards committee.

Tough decisions

Universal, open-access provision has been hit the hardest, she adds, with councils "taking some tough decisions" around youth club closures and instead focusing far smaller youth services budgets on supporting their most vulnerable local young people.

Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, national officer for Unite's Community Youth and Play Workers section, fears this will mean young people at risk of problems and crisis could miss out on support from youth workers.

"Youth work is often the glue that keeps a community together and cutting back on it doesn't help in protecting young people, particularly in terms of mental health and depression," he says.

He is also concerned that where youth work roles are advertised they are increasingly for lower paid support posts, which threatens to diminish the value of youth work as a profession.

"If you de-professionalise in this way then there is little incentive for people to take a degree-level course and become a youth worker," he says.

However, Barry Williams, director of strategy and membership at charity Ambition, says the reduction in youth service roles does not tell the full story of youth work's recent evolution.

He maintains youth workers, with their skills in building relationships and trust with hard-to-reach groups, are still sought, albeit via a wider range of career routes.

"Rather than under a youth services department they are instead being used by other council departments or voluntary services, in areas such as social care, early help for families, housing, community safety, youth offending and in education," says Williams.

The latest available NYA data, which is awaiting official validation, appears to back this up, revealing that in 2015 the voluntary sector employed 44 per cent of youth workers, compared with 27 per cent in 2011.

In addition, these figures show the proportion of youth workers employed across councils has risen from 19 per cent in 2011 to 22 per cent in 2015. However, the NYA stresses the data, which was supplied by TAG - The Professional Association of Lecturers in Youth and Community Work - is not yet confirmed with the full dataset available next month (July).

Dorset Youth Association is among those to offer alternative opportunities, deploying youth workers to help families with complex needs, through the Strengthening Families parenting programme as well as Dorset County Council's Troubled Families scheme.

Association chief executive Dave Thompson believes this can offer greater job satisfaction for youth workers. "If you work with a child independently of the family then you are only going to bring about a certain amount of change," he explains. "But if you work with the whole family you have a much better chance of providing long-term change."

Community development organisations and housing associations are increasingly offering employment pathways to youth workers as well, adds Williams. He cites the example of housing association Clarion Housing Group, which uses youth workers to help young tenants with housing and employment issues and take part in community volunteering (see panel, above).

National Citizen Service

The National Citizen Service (NCS), which runs summer activities for young people and has received £475m of government funding since 2014/15, offers further social action opportunities.

Already universities are having to adapt to this changing landscape to attract students and ensure they can find work.

This year, Manchester Metropolitan University has taken the bold step of axing its JNC (Joint Negotiating Committee)-accredited youth work degree course, which it has run for the last 40 years.

Instead, from September 2018, it will run a community and education degree course. This will not be JNC-accredited but will instead offer a broader curriculum, including youth work, community development and a focus on digital and creative skills.

Gill Millar says this focus on creativity is a shrewd move with increasing opportunities for youth workers to help young people in this area.

"If you are a youth worker who is also a digital or artistic creator then that will put you in a better place job-wise," she says.

YMCA George Williams College has adapted differently, still seeing the value in the JNC accreditation for its youth work degree course but focusing it more on building relationship skills, "which can then be applied to any context of working with children, young people and families", says Kate Vintiner, the college's interim principal and chief executive.

Relationship skills

Judith Brooks, George Williams College's head of further education programmes and apprenticeships, says this focus on relationship skills also gives youth work graduates greater flexibility to follow funding trends.

"You can specialise too early, the wind changes and you are left out on a limb," she says. "If you have that basic relational work, you can take that to any setting."

This flexibility will be needed if youth work training is to address a slump in student numbers. The NYA's unvalidated training figures - official data will be published in July - show a 28 per cent drop in students recruited on courses between 2014/15 and 2015/16.

Attracting more men into youth work will be key. The NYA's official figures for 2014/15's intake show 75 per cent of students were female, compared with 65 per cent the previous year.

Millar says the average age is also falling, with the traditional degree recruit a decade ago being in their early 30s. More are now joining courses in their early 20s after a year or two of gaining relevant experience.

This rapid evolution of youth work has arguably left Whitehall struggling to keep up - youth services and young people's issues have been shunted around three government departments over the last four years, with little policy emerging.

Since its 2013 move from the Department for Education to the Cabinet Office, and then last year to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the focus has increasingly been narrowed on the National Citizen Service and youth social action opportunities.

Wider demand

NYA associate director Jon Boagey says "there are still plenty of narratives around young people across government", which reflect the wider demand for youth work across public services.

This includes the Department of Health's £1.4bn investment to improve children and young people's mental health by 2020 and the DfE's promotion of apprenticeships and the importance of life skills in the workplace.

What is lacking though is "a high-profile minister to bring all that together", suggests Boagey.

Such an appointment in the next parliament could be pivotal in ensuring this new breed of youth workers is properly recognised.


By Matt Lent, director of policy and partnerships, UK Youth

When I was a trainee youth worker in the early 1990s, it was made abundantly clear that there were certain fundamental values and skills that had been cast in stone decades previously.

As a profession we committed to a non-judgmental, empathetic, open approach. We aimed to provide safe spaces and environments, developing relationships based on trust, and building positive peer networks for all young people. We worked over the long-term, creating genuine opportunities for young people's personal and professional development, alongside providing specialised support, advocacy and referrals - resulting in the young people we worked with being better able to manage their own personal circumstances, make well-informed decisions and positive contributions.

The trusted relationship a young person has with their youth worker is unique; not a parent and not a friend, not an authority figure and not a peer, but something else, hard to define and impossible to ignore. It is through these unique relationships that a young person can get involved, grow and learn, give back and gain independence.

But today being a youth worker seems to be a very different experience.

With approximately £400m of cuts to local youth services in seven years, and local authority youth provision increasingly becoming more targeted, we are not adequately servicing the needs of the growing number of young people looking for and needing support outside formal education.

UK Youth is witnessing our membership respond innovatively to this challenge, through the establishment of new charities, social enterprises, mutuals and community interest companies. In many cases these new organisations are trying to sustain open-access, year-round services, but they often have extremely limited budgets. UK Youth is working to create more pioneering collaborations and cross-sector partnerships; unlocking national funding; investing in direct delivery; and campaigning for policy changes.

While these changes are necessary to ensure all young people have access to high-quality youth services, the role of the youth worker is also having to rapidly adapt with the required skillsets broadening beyond recognition. In order to survive, youth workers now need to be fundraisers, business managers, marketing experts, lobbyists, impact assessors, data analysts, recruiters, HR managers, events planners, safeguarding officers - the list goes on.

In the face of mere survival it would be easy to relegate the very particular niche skills youth workers need to do their actual job - supporting young people - so these become less important.

So as we find new ways to survive and flourish as a sector, and are busy creating new infrastructures, developing new skills and adapting to the modern funding climate, it is vital we do not lose sight of our raison d'etre or how important and vital traditional youth work skills still are.

Youth workers can and must develop a broad set of new skills, but once the dust has settled they must still self-identify as youth workers, still be able to meet the needs of the young people in their service, and still put young people at the front and centre of all they do.



  • Gareth Mepham
  • Youth and community work manager
  • Berkshire Youth

"I run The Wayz youth club in Bracknell, which I first attended when I was eight years old, became a volunteer at 14 and at 18 I started to run its holiday scheme. I did that part-time and also worked at a special needs school and also another youth club.

While at university, reading education studies, I carried on volunteering at The Wayz, travelling back and forth from Cardiff where I was studying. I was then given the opportunity in my third year to lead on youth work at The Wayz.

When I graduated I was asked to manage the centre and took a JNC-accredited management and youth work postgraduate diploma.

That was when I was 23 - I'm 31 now, and still here. A lot of our staff have also come through that same volunteer process, which is something we encourage and have developed.

As young people join the youth club we have lots of conversations about volunteering and offer training that benefits them.

I brought in a ‘six stages of volunteering' programme, from community volunteer to becoming more involved, leading on activities, peer mentoring through to joining the youth work team and working for older teenagers.

I want to stay and carry on what I'm doing. There isn't a day I come in when I'm bored."

  • Joanne Rich
  • Youth engagement manager
  • Clarion Housing Group

"I have always loved working with young people from when I used to volunteer in my teenage years.

I started off by co-creating a youth festival with young people for a local authority then worked as a support officer at The Prince's Trust. More recently I was a development officer at social entrepreneur foundation Unltd, where we distributed grants of up to £2,000 to young people who had great ideas of how to improve their communities.

I am currently responsible for the youth strategy and programmes across our group, supporting our young people in their tenancies, into employment and through volunteering in their communities.

Most importantly I co-create these programmes with a team of young people who we meet monthly to discuss how we can improve services for our young tenants. This is what keeps my passion alive as I am still working alongside young people directly, while having a strategic role."

  • Jay Brown
  • Youth project worker
  • Dorset Youth Association

"I have been here three and half years and have two roles. The first is to support around 50 youth clubs and groups across Dorset, providing advice, training and help with activities. The charity was set up 70 years ago to do that and that carries on.

My second role is to run Roots, which is an advice, information and guidance service for young people aged 13 to 25. It is mainly a drop-in service for those seeking help with absolutely anything you can think of and possibly more. I can signpost young people where to go but also attend meetings with other agencies with them. We see a fair amount of homeless young people.

I started in youth work 10 years ago as an amateur boxing coach. I was spending a lot of time talking to the young people so went to a local youth centre to volunteer and ended up getting a job running it and did my Level 3 diploma through the youth service."

  • Robert McKenzie
  • Volunteering and apprenticeship co-ordinator
  • Tower Hamlets integrated youth and community services

"I had a lot of issues in my childhood - my mother died when I was 11 - and I was dealing with those issues when I started to go to a youth club. I found the help there really valuable and began volunteering at the club.

I qualified to be a mechanic after I finished school but was still volunteering at the club part-time and did a Level 2 youth work course. I got accepted on a youth work degree course at YMCA George Williams College, graduating three years ago.

My first role as a graduate was with the Connexions careers service and in the evening I co-ordinated a youth club.

At Tower Hamlets I became a trainer for peer programmes, around sexual health, anti-smoking and drugs awareness. I was an accreditation officer for the youth service to ensure qualifications and accreditations for young people across the council were high quality. I now co-ordinate the council's youth work apprenticeships and volunteering.

The bread and butter of youth support is still here. We are lucky in Tower Hamlets as we have both universal and targeted provision. Over my career there has been an increasing focus on value for money, looking at key performance indicators and showing a young person's journey through an intervention."

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