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Youth Work as a Profession


What do we mean when we say that youth work is a ‘profession’, or that the work we do is ‘professional’?


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One approach is to say that professions can be distinguished from other occupations by virtue of having a number of characteristics or ‘traits’. Traits that are commonly identified as applying to professions but not to other occupations or activities include:

  • They rely not just on the possession of a skill-set but on mastery of a body of theoretical knowledge.
  • They require extensive formal training, usually in university-level institutions.
  • Their special status is recognised by the state, and is sometimes regulated by the state.
  • Their practice is often governed by codes of practice, and professional associations may sanction (or expel) members who are found to be in breach of such codes.


Making reference to traits like these certainly helps to highlight the differences between some of the oldest and best-established professions (for example law or medicine) and less highly-skilled occupations like refuse collector, or ‘trades’ like plumber and electrician. But the extent to which they apply to youth work is less clear. They certainly do not all apply equally in the case of youth work, or to youth work in every European country.

But the extent to which they apply to youth work is less clear.

but with the promotion and defence of positive human values.

Another approach is to say that professions, unlike (or at least much more than) other occupations, make a special contribution to the wellbeing of society as a whole, because they are concerned not just with the mastery of theory and the deployment of skill (and the integration of both of these) but with the promotion and defence of positive human values. As such, professions are “moral communities”.

This approach reflects the thinking of Émile Durkheim, one of the founding figures in the discipline of sociology.
A more critical view is to say that such talk of a social contribution is nothing more than rhetoric, and that in practice occupations seeking recognition as professions have been primarily concerned with bolstering the salaries, the working conditions and the social status of their members.

For some decades, these alternative views have underpinned debates about whether youth work should ‘professionalise’ with some arguing that professionalisation would acknowledge and strengthen youth work’s benefits for both young people and society and others saying that it would primarily be of benefit to youth workers themselves and would put a distance between youth workers and young people, just as there tends to be a distance between doctors and patients, or teachers and pupils.

A further complication arises because the word ‘professional’ is used with different meanings in different contexts, even going beyond the alternative interpretations summarised above.

Although a plumber or electrician might not be a member of a profession in the same way that a lawyer or medic is, we might still thank someone who had attended to our plumbing or electrical needs on the grounds that they did a ‘highly professional’ job; or complain if we thought that that their efforts were ‘unprofessional’. And the word frequently occurs in sporting contexts, such as in a reference to ‘professional footballers’, or to a boxer ‘turning professional’. This reminds us that the word professional may sometimes simply mean ‘done to a high standard’, or alternatively ‘done on a salaried basis’ rather than done out of interest or love alone (as an ‘amateur’).

There is therefore an inescapable ethical dimension at the heart of professions

This distinction is highly relevant to the youth work context. The great majority of those involved in youth work throughout Europe are volunteers rather than salaried employees, as the European Commission’s Value of Youth Work in Europe study (2014) made clear. Does this mean they cannot be ‘professional’?

Faced with the complexity of these matters of interpretation and evaluation, it can be helpful to return to the route word from which the words ‘professional’, professionalism’ and ‘professionalise’ all stem (readers will appreciate that I am talking about the English language and that there will be nuances or even clear differences when it comes to discussing these matters in other languages). The verb ‘to profess’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘to avow, acknowledge or confess’. Following from this, one crucial meaning of the word ‘profession’ is ‘a solemn declaration, promise or vow’, such as that made by a person entering a religious order.

By implication, therefore, another meaning of the word profession, when it is used to refer to a group of people, is ‘all those who have made a common declaration or promise’, all those who share a common commitment. But this does not just refer to any type of promise or commitment. If it did then political parties or football supporters’ clubs would also be professions! The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that traditionally the term profession referred to a concern with some aspect of the ‘affairs of others’, or in other words to human welfare and the application of knowledge or learning to promote and advance such welfare . There is therefore an inescapable ethical dimension at the heart of professions, a dimension emphasised by the American author Daryl Koehn (1994) and explored with particular reference to the youth work context by Howard Sercombe (2010).

Seen in this light, being a professional youth worker means above all else having made a commitment to the wellbeing of young people and to doing whatever one can – as a primary life interest – to further it. This approach to youth work as a profession therefore places the emphasis not the characteristics or attributes of professions (such as those listed at the start of this article) but on their essence, and the essence of youth work is the wellbeing of youth people. Everything else- all the other characteristics – should flow from this, rather than the other way around. So questions relating to the skills necessary to do youth work, the theoretical knowledge required, the forms of education and training that are appropriate, the role of professional associations and the state, should all be answered on the basis of what is most likely to promote the interests and further the wellbeing of young people.

Furthermore, such questions must be answered in a way that is genuinely in the interest of all young people rather than only some. For example, meeting the needs of some groups of young people may require particular skills or familiarity with a particular body of theoretical knowledge. Ensuring that the work that we do is inclusive and equitable means that education and training for youth workers – no matter what group(s) of young people they intend to work with – should enhance their understanding of matters relating to equality and inequality in society. And all youth work, if it is to be in young people’s interests, must demonstrably be of high quality.

Adopting a ‘professional’ approach to youth work in this sense does not depend on being paid for the work that one does, and therefore appropriate education and training is important for volunteers as well as for paid workers. A commitment to continuous professional development is also vital, again not for its own sake but so as to ensure optimal benefits for young people. And from this perspective it is reasonable, indeed necessary, to insist on support and recognition for youth workers – including adequate training systems but also equitable salaries and job conditions – not because it aggrandizes their position but because it is not in young people’s interests that those with their interests most at heart are treated as the ‘poor relations’ of other professional groups.

Daryl Koehn (1994) The Ground of Professional Ethics. London: Routledge
Howard Sercombe (2010) Youth Work Ethics. London: Sage

See also:
Maurice Devlin (2012) ‘Youth Work, Professionalism and Professionalisation in Europe’, in F. Coussée, H. Williamson & G. Verschelden (eds) The History of Youth Work in Europe, Volume 3. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

by Maurice Devlin (2016)

Maurice Devlin is Jean Monnet Professor and Director of the Centre for Youth Research and Development at Maynooth University, Ireland, where he also teaches on professional programmes for youth and community workers.

Photos: © poywe/Harti Gräbner, Alexandra Beweis

Video: © poywe/Alexandra Beweis


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