Still Stuck in Low Wage Jobs: Is It Time That We Solve the Youth Worker Compensation Problem?

Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2007

by Ellen S. Gannett, M.Ed.

Afterschool practitioners and youth workers play a critical role in today’s society, serving as positive adult role models, mentors, coaches, tutors and friends for young people, and a vital support for working parents. Too often, however, these practitioners do not receive the recognition or resources they need to feel valued in their work by the public and, more importantly, by their employers. While most youth workers are educated, satisfied and committed to making a difference in the lives of the children and youth they serve, too many report being underpaid, underappreciated, and at times overworked, often holding down multiple jobs just to make a living wage. Stress and burnout are all too real and recruitment of qualified administrators and staff remains challenging. For our most vulnerable youth who depend on quality out-of-school time programs, it is imperative that private and public policy makers understand the domino effect that results from underpaid youth workers.

As a member of the steering committee for The Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, a national group of individuals and organizations committed to developing a strong, diverse afterschool and youth development workforce, I have joined others in the belief that state and local funders—public and private—have a critical choice ahead of them. They can ignore the problem and hope that the dedication of the people who work with their children and youth outweighs their frustration. Or they can tackle the problem head on, cognizant of the fact that ultimately, efforts to recognize and reward training and experience must lead to discussions about compensation and incentives.

In 2005, with support from Cornerstones for Kids, the Next Generation Work Coalition mobilized its members by mounting a linked set of surveys that provided the country with the clearest, most comprehensive picture yet of the youth work profession. These studies found that while most of those surveyed by the Next Generation Coalition members report having access to training and professional development opportunities, most also reported that tangible rewards for training and experience were few and far between. Job mobility—within and between organizations—may reflect workers decisions to compensate for the lack of recognition and advancement within jobs and organizations by moving between them.

Findings from Growing the Next Generation of Youth Work Professionals suggest that while training is available, links between training and tangible rewards are weak at best. Most youth workers say there are not clear opportunities for promotion within their organization; and for many frontline staff, career advancement and recognition—in particular salary increases—requires job changes.

While cause-effect research is not available, these findings strongly suggest that the youth-worker workforce could be stabilized by ensuring that states work on policy changes to ensure that there are career pathways in place. This is an important strategy for ensuring a supported and stable workforce.

The Next Generation Youth Work Coalition strongly believes that a flexible and fair career pathways system is based on Principles that:

In response to these findings and these Principles, National Institute on Out-of-School Time, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment and the National Collaboration for Youth (NCY), has kicked off a new project Clear Policies for Career Pathways, that will demonstrate that it is possible to rewire organizational and governmental policies in ways that create real changes in how youth worker education, training, and experience is recognized and rewarded by supporting state and local coalitions interested in pursuing these options.

If given the opportunity to access career pathways for training and education, and advancement of their careers, youth workers will be better equipped to “make a career” in what has now become a vital industry. If the field can support them in this pursuit by providing healthy work environments with adequate salaries and benefits, youth workers will be able to provide quality care and services to youth while still being able to provide for themselves and their own families.

Ellen S. Gannett, M.Ed. is the director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women, where she is celebrating her 25th anniversary working in the program. As a national speaker and trainer, she has conducted hundreds of seminars throughout the country. Her recent work has focused on workforce issues and professional development. Gannett co-authored NIOST’s publications, Links to Learning: A Curriculum Planning Guide for Afterschool Programs; City Initiatives in School-Age Child Care; and chapters in the following books: Employer-Supported Child Care: Investing in Human Resources, by Burud et al, published by Auburn House, Boston, and Yearbook in Early Childhood Education, Vol. 5: Issues in Child Care, edited by Spondek and Saraho, published by Teachers College Press. She also co-authored the 1998 edition of ASQ: Assessing School-Age Child Care Quality as well as the project’s publication, School-Age Child Care: A Policy Report.

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