Youth work is a wonderful, challenging career, and it is a career that can bring you into contact with some of the most vulnerable young people in your city or local area.
A lot of people who want to get into youth work think that life experience makes all the difference and is the most important thing. While it can help, it's good training that helps more and actually makes all the difference. A mix of the two, alongside very solid and strong boundaries, can be magical.
If you think that you'd make a good youth worker because you yourself encountered difficulties growing up, that might be true but you might also need a gentle reality check. Experience alone is not enough, and your experiences are unique to you. They might help you build empathy and understanding, which is important, but they do need to be tempered with knowledge.
Your experience as a homeless person, or as someone who struggled with mental health issues, or as someone who ran afoul of the law and ended up in remand or adult jail, and your experiences with drugs and alcohol are your experiences and yours alone. They're important, impactful, life-changing experiences but every other person who has had those exact same ones dealt with (or are dealing with) them in different ways and they were caused by different life circumstances. One of the most dangerous things we can do when working with young people in general is assume things, and the most dangerous thing we can do when working with young people and are using our own personal experiences as a guide, is assume the young person's feelings and thoughts are the same as ours might have been.
That is why good training is important. It will empower you with frameworks and approaches that protect you and protect the young people you work with. Good training will also teach you how to apply appropriate boundaries and do really good work that you can be proud of. You will learn, among many other things, objectivity, you will learn a little something about a philosophy called unconditional positive regard, and you will learn to operate from a strengths-based approach that will enable a young person to "do for themselves."
It's not a youth workers job to "save" a young person, but to empower them and resource them so that they can save themselves, and by learning how to do that, dig themselves out of any other holes they might find themselves in later on in life. Good training teaches us how to do that.
Over the years STREAT has had the pleasure of working with a number of universities who offer excellent qualifications in both youth work and social work, as well as other allied-health professions.
When looking for a course, make sure you speak to a course coordinator to get a good understanding of what you will be studying, and think carefully about whether or not it is the right course for you. Also give some thought to the area you want to specialise in or the type of organisation you want to work for. Youth justice? Homelessness? Drug and alcohol rehabilitation? Mental health? If you know what you're passionate about, it makes choosing a course so much easier.
Another wise choice is to talk to people in the organisations you might want to work in. Find out what qualification level they require. Some organisations are happy to take people on who have a Certificate IV, some prefer a qualification at the Diploma level, and more and more these days many organisations prefer someone with a Bachelor level qualification. Experience is also important, so be prepared to do some volunteering.
What does STREAT look for when it employs a youth work professional?
We deal with extremely vulnerable young people who present with multiple-complex issues and, often, significant trauma. To reflect that, we only employ degree qualified professionals with no-less that five-years experience working with similar groups of young people.
What that means is you need a Bachelor level degree in either youth work, social work or another associated field like disabilities, and it means you need to have five-years practical experience working with young people who present with a wide-range of issues.
We know that will disappoint some of you reading this article, and that certainly is not our intention. As we suggest above, if you're wanting to get into youth work, research the businesses and organisations you want to work for and get the qualifications they're looking for. If you want to work in STREAT's Youth Programs Team at some point in the future, go get your degree and some experience, because it is very unlikely you will ever regret doing so whether you end up working for us or not!
Youth work is a wonderful career that can be very rewarding and we high-five you for wanting to dedicate a part of your life to helping vulnerable people. With some careful thought and planning, you can build a long term career that will help change thousands of lives for the better and that is extraordinary.
If you move ahead with your passion for this industry, we wish you all the best!