High Standards

Andrew Hahn
May 1, 1998

Through every nook and cranny of the youth service field, activities unfold, day-in and day-out, 24-hours-a-day, year-round. Youth development professionals prowl tough streets and suburban malls; they ply their craft managing storefront facilities and administering big downtown youth-serving agencies. Surely there is a field of youth development.

But is this field a profession — or just an occupation? When youth workers are polled, some identify with youth work as the central organizing principle of their professional lives. Others say they are social workers, program planners or even accountants. Still others define themselves in terms of setting: “I am a lifer in the YWCA system.”

Gordon Raley (from the National Collaboration for Youth) and I tackle these questions in several articles to be published this year. We found that researchers who monitor youth development programs have not been able to quantify with precision the scale, nature or boundaries of this multifaceted field. This impedes the widespread recognition of youth work as a profession or career. Without information on the size and scope of its reach, it is hard to define exactly who or what constitutes the field.

Second, until recently little has been known about the professional self-identification of the people who work with youth. The fact that many workers identify with multiple professional roles hinders the field of youth development from acquiring the same immediate professional recognition of more homogenous and clearly credentialed occupations, like nurses, lawyers and teachers.

Third, funding and policy patterns tend to support specialization around areas such as drug abuse, youth unemployment, teen pregnancy, residential care, and social services. This draws attention from the cross-cutting theme of positive youth development. The diversity of subfields within youth development is both its primary virtue and source of definitional confusion.

Finally, in some places in the United States all you need to become a child or youth worker is 15 hours of in-service profession-building. Hardly the stuff of professional training.

Nevertheless, youth development is beginning to bear markings of a profession. In Texas, to be certified as an entry level child and youth worker you need at least one year of work experience. You must complete training in first aid, CPR, and other health and safety skills. You must pass exams in ethics and crisis intervention. Then you get to the new test developed under the auspices of the Texas Youth and Child Care Worker Association, Child and Youth Care Worker Certification Institute.

The Institute is a coalition of organizational leaders and individual members, thus resisting any attempt by one lobby to capture the certification process. A credentialing process is underway for children and youth workers in daycare, juvenile justice, traditional youth-serving settings, and residential care, to provide a recognized credential that focuses on high quality professional standards. How did Texas do this?

The Institute collected lists and background information on competencies used throughout the world in certification and college programs. The inter-disciplinary leaders distilled the list down to core competencies needed for effective professional life. After a stakeholder process of review and comment, the Institute developed an exam for entry level child and youth workers. Soon exams will be developed for the practice and professional levels. The lesson is that high standards can be developed.

University of Pittsburgh Professor Karen VanderVen says that for a field to achieve full professionalism, it needs to consider the knowledge that transformational leaders need to have in order to build theories and expand practice models. I would add that we need leaders who can change intransigent systems and navigate through thorny issues such as the growth of for-profits in youth development.

The more we can replicate the Texas model, the more likely that young staff will identify proudly with the field of youth work and stay with it. Isn’t this the true meaning of professional career ladders?


Hahn, Andrew. "High Standards." Youth Today, May 1998, p. 54.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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