Training needs of youth workers

According to the Estonian Youth Work Act, youth work is: the creation of conditions to promote the diverse development of young persons which enable them to be active outside their families, formal education acquired within the adult education system and work on the basis of their free will and whereby young people are considered as those between the ages of 7-26. Organisations engaged in youth work include, for instance, schools, hobby schools, youth centres, youth camps, youth police etc. In addition, young people have opportunities to participate in youth projects, school and university student boards, and voluntary work. At national level, the various youth work activities are coordinated by the Ministry of Education and Research, Estonian Youth Work Centre and SA Archimedes Youth Agency who, amongst other things, are conducting training activities. In accordance to the Youth Work Act and Local Government Organisation Act, local governments are responsible for the implementation of youth work.

Young people’s participation in youth work is at least partially affected by the quality of youth work, which depends, amongst other things, on the competence of youth workers. Participation in youth work, however, has an impact on the networking capabilities, productivity, and well-being of young people, all of which are crucial for the development of civil society, the first steps of one’s personal life, and coping with future work life. Therefore, it is paramount to put emphasis on the increasing of the quality of youth work. Here, an important role is played by the organising of youth work related training courses, and placing high value on youth workers’ profession. Consequently, the purpose of this study was to gain an overview of the competences and personal development of youth workers, as well as to identify their wider training needs. In order to achieve this, the study relied on earlier research on the training needs of youth workers, sectoral academic literature, responses to a questionnaire which was carried out among youth workers, discussions carried out with experts in this field, and interviews carried out with foreign experts. The results of the study are valuable at both national and local level, i.e. for designing a training framework for youth workers, and providing input for the development of training programs for the staff who are responsible for training youth workers.

The present study showed that the distribution of age groups, gender and language preferences (Estonian or Russian) among Estonian youth workers has remained stable during the last ten years, showing that nearly a quarter of youth workers are themselves classified as young persons, 86% of youth workers are female and 11% of youth workers prefer to use Russian language in their work. Most youth workers find application at youth centres or youth cabinets, general education schools and hobby schools, and they are mainly working as information workers, youth workers/specialists, activity leaders, heads of youth work organisations, camp leaders or directors/teachers at hobby schools. The main target group for youth workers are Estonian-speaking young people aged between 7 and 17. The fact that ca 20% of youth workers have been working in the field for up to one year and 50% have been doing so for over six years, means that there is capacity to train and support one another more than previously. One way in which this can be achieved is by mentoring, in order to increase the competence of youth workers. Based on focus group discussions and interviews with foreign experts it can be suggested that supervision and coaching are some of the most effective forms of personal development, whilst youth workers are presently able to access coaching through, for example, the ENK or Estonian ANK.

The present study focussed on the training needs for youth workers, and showed that overall, Estonian youth workers are relatively well-educated. More than 87% of the participants have acquired above upper-secondary level of education. At the same time, only about 40% of youth workers have educational or professional qualifications in youth work, and fewer than a quarter of respondents are fully or partially youth workers by vocation. The study shows that applying to become a youth worker by occupation is not widespread, the profession itself is not valued as highly as education in youth work, supporting materials related to the profession are not widely used for self-evaluation nor as a basis for development interviews, and the practice of competence assessment, including self-reflection, is not something that is practiced systematically, or is carried out in a rather superficial and subjective manner. It also appears that many youth workers do not understand the significance of the competencies that are expected from all youth workers. A lack of background in youth work can be one of the biggest obstacles to the valuing of the profession, to the even understanding of the professional competences required from youth workers and to professional development. This is confirmed by the fact that according to the results of the questionnaire, self-evaluation and personal development are areas that are more systematically addressed by those with specialised education in youth work, those who are youth workers by vocation and those with higher levels of awareness about the youth work vocation. However, there is no overarching corresponding connection which would apply everywhere. For example, among those groups, components of professional competencies can be assessed more critically. This shows that theoretical background knowledge and/or more systematic self-assessment positively affects the competencies of the youth worker and simultaneously extends the understanding of the youth worker to the broader range of competency components, leading to more critical self-assessment. The latter has a positive impact towards a more self-aware personal development.

Half of the youth workers participate in various training courses more than three times a year, whereas organisational culture has a significant impact on the types of personal development methods used and how effective these activities are considered to be. For example, youth workers who participate in career development interviews more frequently are more active in participating in training courses. Also, those who have highlighted the possibility of using coaching services place higher value on this service to their professional development. The main reasons for attending further training and, also, for applying for a professional vocation are related to internal motivation rather than the external environment: the former include the desire to keep up with the latest developments in the field, the internal need to supplement one’s knowledge and skills, but also, a genuine interest and excitement towards, and the necessity of learning about the subject of a given training course. Various methods are being applied for personal development, however, the more varied, less time-consuming, more affordable and less self-reflective methods are often considered to be the most effective. Although the majority find learning from their own experiences to be the most useful, the results of the study give reason to believe that learning from experience is rather superficial due to the understanding of the impact of their activities on young people and their low capacity for self-evaluation. Greater attention must be paid to the positive impact of completing the professional vocation application portfolio and the opportunities for organised e-learning opportunities to reach as many youth workers as possible in the most cost-effective and time-suitable way. Considering the obstacles to both, participation in the training courses and to the use of acquired knowledge, it is important to emphasise the quality of training (i.e. compliance with the pre-planned curriculum; trainer competence) and its practicality (i.e. taking into consideration the level and background of the trainees), and if possible, distribute information about the upcoming training via e-mail at least three months prior to the commencement of the training course. Organisational culture plays a crucial role in the implementation of the acquired knowledge, as it is imperative to raise awareness among employers about the necessity of professional personal development, and the opportunities that are available in the organisation to support this.

Based on self-evaluation, youth workers consider themselves as relatively competent. However, less than one third of youth workers assess their skills as “very good”. Even though 68% of the managers who responded to the questionnaire consider youth workers’ self-assessment capacities to be (rather) good, the links between the responses from various questionnaires suggest that youth workers do not always consider learning from own experience as self-analysis, nor do they always have the ability to engage in self-analysis. Therefore, it is necessary to adopt a somewhat more critical approach towards the results of self-evaluation. This is also confirmed by the fact that both managers and youth workers tend to rely on self-evaluation tools/sources that provide relatively non-systematic means of analysis.

As a conclusion, the study showed that youth work in Estonia is confronted with several issues arising from fundamental challenges, but also, challenges caused by perceptions and training needs. Although Estonian youth workers are highly motivated and see great value in higher education, they often lack special education in youth work, and hence, the theoretical background of this professional field. This affects youth workers’ understanding of their role and the importance of self-evaluation and personal development, i.e. their attitudes towards their professional duties and youth work. To improve this situation, it is essential to find a mutually understood and -valued vision of youth work, which would resonate with youth workers and link to the youth work profession. Whilst today, there exists a vision for the Youth Field Development Plan 2014-2020, the results of the study suggest that not all youth workers feel that this vision includes their activities. A new mutual vision would make it possible to engage in self-evaluation and personal development activities in a more cognisant way, and would allow making more deliberate choices amongst further training courses. Although the study discussed several challenges in the area of youth work, issues relating to the availability of self-evaluation and personal development opportunities, and the quality of training are most essential for the development and training of the field. Here, there is still significant room for improvement which, in turn, depends on effective cooperation between different actors involved in youth work (the state, local governments, trainers, employers, youth workers, the media). However, whilst working on increasing the quality of training courses and youth work, it is imperative to bear in mind that lack of time can be one of the main obstacles to personal development. It also became clear throughout the study, that one of the obstacles is youth workers’ bias towards the reasonableness of participating in further training courses. Yet, Estonia has already developed remarkably good opportunities for the youth work field, including integrated development of the training framework for youth workers, which is based on materials designed to support self-evaluation. Additionally, increasingly more attention is being paid to the development of coaching system, which is seen as one of the most effective forms of personal development. This study confirms that in the developing of the quality in the field of youth work, various communication- and training activities continue to play a key role: this applies both at the wider societal level, but also more specifically to youth work employers, youth workers themselves and to their specific development needs. It is important to increase the value of the youth work profession in the field, and turn it into a valuable tool for employers and youth workers themselves for understanding their competences, implementing these competences in their work and in their further personal development. Here, the study will underline specific starting points for planning different development activities, and will provide guidelines and proposals for addressing the most significant challenges.