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Professionalism in Open Youth Work in Switzerland


This article provides a critical review of the current situation of the existing autonomous image of professionalism in the domain of open youth work in Switzerland.


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Autonomous Image of Professionalism

Key hints for the professional autonomous image of open youth work in Switzerland are provided by the well-known “Principles paper for decision makers and professionals in open youth work”, which the “Dachverband Offene Kinder- und Jugendarbeit Schweiz – DOJ (Swiss Open Youth Work umbrella organisation) published as a central professional orientation guide in 2007. Open youth work in Switzerland is understood here as a “subdomain of professional social work with a socio-spatial reference and a socio-political, educational and socio-cultural agenda” (Dachverband Offene Jugendarbeit Schweiz 2007: 3). The DOJ also requires the full-time employment of professionals with a recognised qualification in social work, a degree in related occupational fields or many years of practical experience.

But what is the professionalism in the practice of youth work in Switzerland really like?

Another significant aspect is that “professional” experts are, as a rule, employed by local government bodies or publicly funded sponsorships and do not carry out their activities on a voluntary basis. Regular further training programmes and options which allow for reflection, as well as the use of a concept as a work basis, are considered additional factors for professionalism (cf. ebd.: 7). Another thing worth mentioning is that open youth work, as a branch of social work, is governed by the Swiss Social Work Professional Code, which formulates key principles and values and guiding principles for professional social work (cf. AvenirSocial 2010).

With this credo, the claim is formulated in alignment with professionally sound practice in the domain of open youth work; however, at the same time, it does not exclude those professionals who work as so-called “career changers” with no kind of specific professional qualification in the domain of open youth work. In line with this, open youth work in Switzerland is to be distinguished from the otherwise-existing fields of social work, where a professionally recognised qualification in social work is expected (normally at bachelor’s degree level). This, consequently, suggests a lesser level of professionalisation in this field of work. But what is the professionalism in the practice of youth work in Switzerland really like?


Open youth work in Switzerland has evolved out of practice over many years (cf. Wettstein 2005: 470; Gerodetti/Schnurr 2013: 834). Since the 1980s, increasing differentiation and professionalisation have been noted in the field, accompanied by, among other things, youth policy developments (cf. Gutmann/Gerodetti 2013: 270). Since the 1990s, these have led to the establishment of canton-level and national (association) structures, including the creation of the DOJ.

These associations have pursued an active professionalisation policy in the area of open youth work. At the same time, the establishment of universities of applied science in 1995 led to an expansion and scientification of social work in Switzerland, which, from a perspective of professionalisation theory, should be regarded as a positive step (cf. Gredig/Goldberg 2010: 408f., 413). This was supported by the beginning of professionalisation in the open youth work field.

Current situation

Given that science and research have been intertwined with open youth work only for about ten years, to date, there is no country-wide representative empirical knowledge for professionalism in the domain of open youth work in Switzerland. All that exists is individual cantonal inventories, on the basis of which the following situation can be outlined:

Qualifications of youth workers: The four cantonal inventories (Gavez/Haab 2005; Gerodetti et al. 2016; Heeg et al. 2011; Steiner et al. 2011) that were managed between 2005 and 2015 show that, on average in the cantons of Aargau, Basel-Landschaft , Solothurn and Zurich, a bit more than 50% of youth workers possessed a social-domain qualification (e.g. a high-school qualification in the domain of social work, etc.), while the other half may be referred to as “non-specialist career changers”.

Training courses for youth workers: In addition to the Universities of Applied Science of Social Work, which today represent the central training facilities for youth workers, since the Summer of 2016, there has been a “Community Animation HF” training programme co-initiated by the DOJ, at the Higher Fachschule level. It remains to be seen whether or not this new training programme works as a contribution to the aforementioned professionalisation trend or, rather, panders to deprofessionalisation tendencies. In each case, the training course offers a (new) possibility, i.e. one where non-specialist career changers can acquire necessary qualifications.

Conceptual foundations: In Switzerland, the concept of youth work training constitutes the professional basis for daily work, and is of major relevance as far as professionalism in the field is concerned. The results of the inventories in the cantons of Aargau, Basel-Landschaft and Solothurn show that approximately 80% of youth work facilities recognise a concept and, consequently, describe their work (in a technically sound) way.
Self-reflection, subject-related exchanges and further training also have a decisive influence on professionalism. As there is no existing empirical data on these aspects in Switzerland, the only thing that can be stated here is that these professionality criteria may be applied very differently, depending on the region. This is because, unlike the comparatively well-developed and professionalised youth work facilities in cities or in agglomeration areas, in rural areas, one can often still find youth work centres poorly staffed with part-time workers only. Furthermore, in addition to scarce resources, there are also fewer professional exchange and qualification options, and a staff turnover which tends to be high also appears conspicuous. All this is a sign that the conditions which influence professionalism are most varied in open youth work in Switzerland.

Future Prospects

In surveying terms, it can thus be summed up that the previous decades of open youth work in Switzerland were strongly defined by professionalisation efforts. The situation description noted here does not currently constitute a reason to “label the attained status of professionalism as all too rosy” (Gerodetti/Schnurr 2013: 834). This means that youth workers’ qualifications still require development in many areas. Furthermore, professionalism in the field of youth work in Switzerland appears to be marked by large regional differences. The future challenge will lie in self-critically reviewing the aspects of lacking professionalism and implementing appropriate measures for the further advancement of professionalisation in this important field of action in the domain of social work.

For references and further reading have a look at our: literature-professionalism-in-open-youth-work-in-switzerland

by Julia Gerodetti, Marcus Casutt, Manuel Fuchs (2016)

Julia Gerodetti is a researcher at the Institute for Studies in Children and Youth Services at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW).

Marcus Casutt, Managing Director at the umbrella organisation of Swiss Open Youth Work , Dachverband offene Kinder- und Jugendarbeit Schweiz (DOJ)

Manuel Fuchs is a researcher at the Institute for Studies in Children and Youth Services at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW).

Photos:  group walking © Vilnius open youth centre “MES”, group work © Alexandra Beweis


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