From Monday 6th November to Sunday 12th November it’s Youth Work Week 2023. The theme this year is…Youth work in every place and space.
‘The key purpose of youth work is to….‘Enable young people to develop holistically, working with them to facilitate their personal, social and educational development, to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their potential’ – Youth Work National Occupational Standards
What makes youth work distinctive from other services is that youth workers have a voluntary relationship with young people which starts from where the young people are at, their interests, goals and experiences.
Youth Work is a distinct educational process adapted across a variety of settings to support a young person’s personal, social, emotional and educational development. It begins with the development of a unique, trusting relationship with young people, which is utilised to:
We thought the best way to actually celebrate and champion youth work during #YouthWorkWeek, was to speak to an actual youth worker!
We recently had the chance to sit down with YMCA Northumberland Youth Worker McKenzie to hear about his experience as a young person starting a career in youth work. McKenzie has recently become a paid member of staff at the YMCA after volunteering and studying for his Level 3 Youth Work diploma.
Read on to find out about the rewards and challenges of youth work, practical advice for any young person interested in a youth work career and his experience as a young person early on in his youth work career.
McKenzie, over to you……
What made you want to be a youth worker?
Originally, I started a placement at YMCA Northumberland as part of my college course. I had tried a couple of places including a care home; but they didn’t quite fit. From my first visit to the YMCA, I felt welcomed, comfortable and supported. I saw in real time that youth work was making a difference and I valued that.
Did you have any experience with youth clubs growing up?
Not one bit; I felt like a bit of an antisocial weirdo! I started volunteering for YMCA at 16 and must have liked it, as I decided to stay.
Do you wish you’d had a youth club when you were younger?
I think spending time playing pool and chatting with good role models would have calmed me down a bit earlier and given me a bit of life perspective.
Did anyone inspire you into youth work?
I had a driving factor - it was an inspiration but not a very positive one. I had a family member who was neglected and seeing the impact on their life, made me realize that if there had been some form of youth services in the area, something that was offering support to young people, it could have made a big difference. And that’s my reason for getting into youth work.
What do you think makes someone a good youth worker?
Someone who deep down wants to make a positive difference; someone who’s not trying to be anything but themselves. You must be a people person and try to get on with everyone- youth workers are there to help people at the end of the day.
Confidence, resilience and having a thick skin are all helpful attributes, as is prior experience with challenging behaviour. Youth work is often a drop-in service and we inevitably experience challenging behaviour, so it’s good to be in a position where it doesn’t shock you, you can handle it and move forward.
What are the advantages of getting into youth work when you’re young?
You can have long careers in youth work - therefore the earlier you start your career the better. I’ve been lucky to have brilliant mentors who have passed on their knowledge and wisdom to me.
Additionally, I relate to the young people better as a young person myself. We are into the same things, and we often grew up in the same environment, so I share their perspective. We have a connection and something in common; that’s a good place to start in creating positive relationships with young people.
What are the most challenging things about getting into youth work at a younger age?
It can be intimidating. I was 16 years old when I started volunteering and when people are your age, it's very hard to speak from a place of wisdom. Whereas, if someone’s 40, people assume they’ve got a lot of life experience, and you should listen to them.
You do need confidence but even if you’re not confident, after a few years of work, you’ll develop confidence. At the start, I was just sitting in the corner speaking to one or two young people out of 30, but now I’m comfortable running a session of 30. Showing up is the most important thing- if you show up even when you don’t want to, you’ll usually have a good session and you’ll gain confidence.
And it’s important to remember you’re not going to be perfect at the start, but you keep improving with every new group of young people and each session. Everyone starts somewhere, and the other youth worker staff at the YMCA are very understanding and supportive.
What are some practical steps folks can take if they’re interested in youth work?
Volunteering and gaining session experience has been the most important and useful thing for me.
Anyone can contact a youth agency and ask to volunteer. From there you can gain experience and show that you are willing to go out of your way to make a difference and improve your skills and any future employer will look at that positively.
It gives you the opportunity to try it out, go in with an open mind and learn something new. Then you can think about formal education. I did a level 3 diploma in youth work because I was interested but I didn’t necessarily think I would choose youth work as a career when I started. For me, education and youth work practice go hand in hand.
Any final thoughts?
Youth work is a great way to help people because you get to see the fruits of your labour. As long as you’re interested, just keep showing up – listening and learning from other youth workers and young people and you’ll get the rest in time.
The youth sector is beginning to get the recognition it deserves as a front-line service which is key in tackling the youth mental health crisis and provides valuable opportunities for young people wherever they live.
The government has recently pledged to fund the training of 500 new youth workers, making this a fantastic time to embark on a career in youth work.
If you’d like to follow in McKenzie’s footsteps – we suggest linking up with the following organisations: