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Youth work is youth work… Or?


One of the quintessential questions of the conference “Exploring the Digital Dimension of Youth Workers’ Competences” was, for SALTO Training and Cooperation Resource Centre, how to approach this dimension in the European Training Strategy (ETS) Competence Model for Youth Workers to Work Internationally.


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In the beginning was an ETS competence model for youth workers

While preparing the conference together with IZ, POYWE, AufZAQ and the team of facilitators, it became clear that based on the previous attempts and steps made towards defining what and how to address the digital competences of youth workers in a model such as the ETS one, we would need more than a few heads gathered around the question.

End of November 2016 when the model for youth workers was presented and open for a last round of consultations and comments during the event ‘Bridges for Trainers’, many participants asked once more where was the space for digital competences in the model, in spite of a few references in some competence areas. Back then, it still seemed rather complex to enlarge the scope of the model to dimensions that we knew could not be covered in their entirety, and the need to remain as ‘generic’ as possible. At the same time, we also knew that the entry points and the very structure of the model did shed a different light on what youth workers do and how they do it, and looked at a different way to comprehend their professional profiles. We left the question of the digital competences there.

Values, attitudes and principles generally do not differ whether youth work happens ‘online’ or with the support of digital tools

A living model?

As in any process meant to be dynamic and evolving in a field of work constantly in movement and interconnected to its environment – that is itself also in a constant transformation – the question of the digital competences came back, and it became almost impossible not to embrace it as something that ought to be part of the model for youth workers. The question that emerged was: how should it be approached and integrated? Both options, that is: as a separate area or in a transversal manner all throughout the model, were possible, with their pros and cons. This is also the moment when we had to acknowledge that instead of reserving the final decision to the group advising on the overall European Training Strategy and to a couple of experts, we needed to turn to a wider range of practitioners, and therefore, to youth workers themselves, being ready for whatever would come. It is in this spirit that SALTO Training and Cooperation engaged in the process of the conference.

The conference – a few enlightening outcomes

Articulated around two models – the ETS one and the AufZAQ one – the conference called for, more than exploring the digital dimension of youth workers’ competences, feedback on how to approach what lies beneath. Both models are different, operate on different levels, and have very different processes of implementation and even, of accreditation. Nonetheless, both models do approach what youth workers do and how they do it, of attitudes, knowledge, skills and how those are applied when put in action. Exchanges, reflections, and inputs have contributed to a series of main outcomes, or even messages, that prove to be extremely beneficial in order to give an answer to this ‘how’ question.

Youth work is youth work

No matter the lenses we wear when looking at it, youth work is youth work. In a nutshell, one could say that it aims at empowering young people in their societies, to grow, to act, to shape, to change, to have an active, engaged critical attitude, or sometimes, to at least cope with their environments and situations. Having a focus on the digital dimension of that work and on the competences to do it did not alter this fundamental understanding.

The notion of value-based youth work and the related attitudes and principles

Values, attitudes and principles generally do not differ whether youth work happens ‘online’ or with the support of digital tools than if done in a more ‘traditional way’. For instance, and in line with what is already present in the ETS competence model for youth workers, we could observe quotes connected to values and principles such as honesty, empathy, curiosity, confidentiality, genuineness, transparency, authenticity, and walk-the-talk, to name a few.



the online /offline world is not binary, it is often hybrid

Other elements very much present in the ETS model could also be noted when listing various types of activities and dimensions of so-called digital youth work: problem-solving, leadership, diversity and connected to it, the notion of identity, the notion of role-model, have the necessary knowledge (topic-related), learning, team work, etc.

All these contributed to understanding that youth work has a number of common pillars that are, to use a strong word, ‘intrinsic’ to the nature of youth work and which somehow justifies the focus of the ETS competence model on a generic approach to competence and competence areas.

If so, what makes the dimension of digital competences special?

As said by a participant when exploring youth workers’ roles, “the online /offline world is not binary, it is often hybrid”. Indeed, throughout the conference, it appeared that more than ‘digital competences’ per se, we were perhaps more exploring the ‘digital mind’ of youth workers, those who are able or expected to think digitally depending on the context and situations they evolve in and the young people they work with, both in proactive and reactive terms. It is a mind that ‘goes towards’ and tries to reach the young people in their environment. Should that mean an online environment, then this is where thy will meet.

It is that ‘digital mind’ and the process of reaching out that is – in the frame of the conference – what makes a series of competences of youth workers specific. Or in other words: in terms of attitudes, knowledge and skills, that ‘digital mind’ does not only include having the same set of values, principles and competences as partially described above, but also requires certain ones that would make a difference when developing specific training courses or at least, those that are focusing essentially on the digital dimension of youth work. For instance, almost any course would tackle teamwork, confidentiality, empathy, honesty, etc. But not all would imply to dedicate a specific amount of time to the safeguard of young people in video games, to knowledge of the gaming culture, to knowledge of software licensing, specific skills in online counselling, digital safety apps and programmes, or more generally, e-participation (and the list could be continued).

Conclusions and next steps

Concluding words

The conference highlighted that this ‘digital mind’ needs to be present in the ETS competence model for youth workers, everywhere, transversally, even though it also requires its space in the introduction and in how to approach and use the model. Some specific competences – no matter if from an attitude, knowledge or skill perspective – would deserve to be underlined as well. But there is no need for a separate area as such, if we agree that youth work is youth work and that the model remains rather generic. It nonetheless needs to adjust to this changing and evolving context mentioned at the very beginning of this article, and cannot ignore some dimensions of the youth work practice and youth workers’ profiles.

The next steps

In line with the care dedicated to having the solidarity dimension better highlighted in the competence model and with the addition of a competence area on ‘being civically engaged’ or ‘active critical youth citizenship’, SALTO Training and Cooperation will undertake the revision of the model from that ‘digital mind’ perspective. The adjustments will happen throughout 2020, even though the COVID-19 crisis inevitably impacts this process, while a high number of initiatives and planned processes suffer from delay and postponing, in a field that will never be the same again and that is itself heavily affected. In that sense, the space given to the digital dimension of youth workers’ competences will undoubtedly grow and gain more significance than expected back at the time of the conference,

Nonetheless, no matter if as planned or with a little delay, the revision will take place and a consultation process will provide the chance to the participants and other groups of youth workers to provide feedback on its accuracy or shortcomings to be dealt with.

We are grateful for the contributions, time and thoughts that the group of participants shared with the organisers and for their support in making the ETS competence model better and more fitting.

this ‘digital mind’ needs to be present in the ETS competence model for youth workers, everywhere, transversally

by Gisèle Evrard Marković (2020)

Gisèle Evrard Marković works as coordinator of the European Training Strategy at SALTO Training and Cooperation RC. Her background is volunteering and European youth work as trainer, facilitator and moderator

Title © Shane Rounce on Unsplash,
all others © Domagoj Morić

Video © Domagoj Morić


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