The New Professions

The Chief Executive of Community Learning Scotland has recently asked why youth workers who are paid and trained to organise and advocate for others, are so badly organised themselves. True there is no specialist trade union for youth workers in Scotland, but organising youth workers anywhere has been described by some as being like trying to herd cats, or to sculpt water. Is there something within the culture of youth work that makes the extreme devotion to young people, but neglect of those who work with them almost unprofessional ? Doug Nicholls, General Secretary of the Community and Youth Workers’ Union reflects.

I’ll be there for you.
If a young person is in difficulties, their youth worker will be there for them all hours of the day and night. Young people turn to youth workers like no others, yet there is no large infrastructure or staff rota system to make sure we are actually guaranteed to be there. Much of the service runs on unpaid good will. This is no way to run essential services. In event in legal terms every single hour you are on call, you should be paid for. There is no clock watching in our sector and the JNC terms and conditions with their flexible sessional arrangements allow for this approach. Quite right too. But there’s a down side - look after young people except your own at home seems to be the motto. Youth workers do not appear to have heard of family friendly policies.

The tough get going.
Dealing with a young person in a crisis is emotionally draining. Equally so the highs of good relationships and successful activities are sometimes so exhilarating you get tired afterwards, seriously tired as the highs and lows over months takes their toll. The chances are youth workers will be up till 2.00am either dealing with the crisis or brilliant performance, or worrying about tomorrow, then six hours later they’ll be getting ready to go to court to speak up for another young person, or getting the mini bus for the residential 400 miles away. This is irresponsible dedication.

Panics and pressures.
All jobs have their panics and intense periods. But this sort of pattern in youth work, combined with always being on duty, constant evening and weekend working has led to youth work being revealed in a Sunday Times survey as being the fifth most stressful job. But this almost becomes a virtue with some employers actually expecting additional voluntary hours in contracts, or workers looking down on colleagues who fall ill with stress as if they have a genetic weakness and aren’t tough enough.

Toil – dashing back to crash.
Employers are encouraged by the JNC to have local Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) agreements. Few do. But where they do, it is often the workers themselves who ignore them - dashing back after the international exchange to immediately take on the next part of the programme.

Rights and entitlements and hypocrisy.
So how will our service react to a recent categoric ruling in the courts that says where you are required to be contactable on duty, you are at work ? It is also of course illegal to employ anyone for more than 48 hours a week. Think about this in relation to residentials and international exchanges. Both have been brilliant for young people. But most have been organised on the cheap with insufficient attention to the health and safety of the staff concerned. If a part time worker works 48 hours on a weekend residential they are entitled to payment for 48 hours. Similarly a two week exchange overseas is 336 hours work. How do you compensate in such circumstances ? You can’t mow you lawn at home while you are on a residential or overseas, therefore you are at work. If you want to create a balance with home and work, as you would expect young people to, then how do you discipline yourself to manage time ? What organisation and agreements with employers do you look to for support?

Mercenaries of the young.
If young people are having their facilities and services removed or threatened and systems are being introduced which seek to police rather than guide or support young people, the youth workers placards will go up in their defence. It will be youth workers helping to organise the responsible protest and all the political education that goes with it. Why then collude with illegal actions through self exploitation at work ? If young people seek employment advice from a youth worker about a bad situation, how can we in all honesty advise them from a position of weakness ourselves ? Do as I say, not as I do.

Disastrous consequences of compassion.
Most answer in effect if we look after ourselves according to the law, the service would not be able to fund the activity and young people would lose out ? But what if you are burnt out and a young person needs support or they are harmed as a result of your lack of preparation ? Your judgement and sensitivity will be impaired. Also, what future for the young people who want to be youth workers themselves if you work more than your 37 hours a week and they see our job as the quickest way to accident and emergency ? By doing this aren’t you hiding real need for resources ? Aren’t you actually depriving young people of more staffing ?

Young people and their problems and causes come first. Or do they ? Is a deep commitment and selfless devotion really in the long term helpful to young people and the Youth Service ? Who respects the fanatic ? Working together to organise for improvements in the workplace does not come easily to youth workers who are trained to develop the individual and the personal and who dwell at work on feelings. But if youth work is to prosper collective organisation is now more needed than ever. After all this is what we expect of young people. You can’t do it alone or suffer in silence on your own. Organise or fossilise for the sake of young people. Solve the problems as a strong collective group. We will lose respect otherwise.

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