Illinois Parks & Recreation
November / December 1995 • Volume 26, Number 6
Can youth agencies get away with underpaying their staff?
The Best Youth Workers Money Can't Buy
"We tell our local boards not to try to get around the salary issue. If you want quality, you have to pay for it," says John Schroeder, assistant national director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in Atlanta. Plenty of people in the youth field would echo Schroeder's words. But the fact is that youth worker salaries are often abysmal and rarely get better than "average." Cuts in social spending promised at both the federal and state level are likely to put additional downward pressure on agency budgets, snuffing already dim prospects for real wage increases. In such an environment, what can youth work managers do to attract and keep quality staff?
Some forms of non-salary compensation really are free. Supervising that rewards initiative while providing support when necessary, supervision that gives youth workers the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people, also gives the kind of job satisfaction that money can't buy. But other forms of non- salary compensation—a reasonable work load, adequate health benefits, incentives for further education, in-service training, adequate annual and holiday leave—do cost money. But if an agency's bottom line is serving youth effectively, rather than simply holding expenditures per participant to a minimum, such compensation can't be neglected. And every experienced youth worker prematurely lost to an agency may be replaced by an unqualified substitute.
Catering to Idealists
"Quality youth workers want a sense of ownership in the organization they work for. They want authority and autonomy. If you give them that, they'll perform. At the same time, since they are passionate, they are committed, they have a great tendency to bite off more than they can chew, and youth agencies have a tendency to let them do it. If people are willing to work sixteen hours a day, you can cut your personnel costs in half, right? Of
Illinois Parks & Recreation * November/December 1995 • 27
course, it doesn't work that way. The kids suffer, the staff bum out.
"Particularly in residential programs, youth workers can become absorbed by the job. It's their whole life, their whole focus. They don't do anything apart from the job site. It shouldn't be that way. If you want your people to perform well over the long haul, you've got to set boundaries for them. And do them one final favor—keep office politics and power plays to a minimum."
Kim Hefgott, director of Human Resource Development at the National Assembly of National Voluntary Health and Social Welfare Organizations in Washington, DC, says mat youth agencies "ask for very high educational requirements for new employees, considering the amount of money they're willing to pay. I think you need to pay a decent salary to attract good people. But to keep them, you've got to satisfy their sense of mission. They need good training and supervision, a reasonable work load, and adequate resources. They need what it takes to allow them to help kids. One thing that is increasingly important, unfortunately, is worker safety. Nowadays, youth workers are often going into dangerous neighborhoods and working with dangerous kids. They need protection."
Money vs. Morale
"Youth workers want a sense of ownership in the agency. They want, and deserve, to have a direct impact on the way the agency is run and on the services given to clients. They also need to know mat the administration supports them and values them. Too often there is a kind of 'colonial mentality' in youth agencies. Benefits, educational opportunities, salary increases and promotions are all reserved for supervisory personnel. The direct care workers are ignored. You can't treat you employees this way and expect to provide quality service to your clients."
Powell cites his own experience running three group homes for preadjudicated delinquents in Washington, DC, during the early 1980s. "We wanted to hire young black men as direct care workers for these kids. People told me that I wouldn't be able to find them. But I provided good salaries, inservice training, a forty-hour work week and predictable schedules. I had good people, and a waiting list. You've got to be proactive as an administrator. Build all this into the program when you're drawing up the budget. Don't think of them as frills, because they're not."
Margaret O'Donnell, who teaches at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Houston, says that agencies who provide training "are telling their people that they care about their ability and they care about the quality of services they're giving their clients." O'Donnell says that youth agencies should run program evaluations and needs assessments to determine the kinds of training their youth workers need. O'Donnell's program is affiliated with American Humanics, the national pre-service youth worker training program based in Kansas City.
"Agencies need to select the right kind of people. They need to give them training in youth work, and training in the kinds of young people they're going to be working with."
"I worked for Girl Scouts of the USA, and
the hook for me was there weren't many jobs
at the time, they were hiring and the benefit
package was excellent. That's what hooks
graduates today. As long as there's something
else to justify the low pay. If they can tell their
parents, teachers, and friends that they get
three weeks paid vacation and insurance—
"Many are still idealists and they just want
to work with kids. I am seeing more and more
students who want the work because it's what
they like to do—especially outdoor recreation.
Nearly half of my students are specializing in
—Clare Mitchell, M.S.
"Many are still idealists and they just want to work with kids. I am seeing more and more students who want the work because it's what they like to do—especially outdoor recreation. Nearly half of my students are specializing in outdoor recreation."
—Clare Mitchell, M.S.
28 * Illinois Parks & Recreation * November/December 1995
tor of the Volunteer Centers of Michigan, which is affiliated with MMR Singh has been closely connected with youth empowerment activities in Michigan. "Youth workers need to know how to write a grant proposal, how to recruit and work with volunteers, how to set clear goals for an agency. When they have the tools, they need the opportunity to show what they can do, the opportunity to build a portfolio."
Singh and Egner feel that small agencies must be willing to create career ladders that reach beyond the agency. "People are going to be moving up and out, moving laterally from one agency to another, moving up to bigger organizations,' says Singh. "People need these opportunities if they're going to stay in the field."
Robert Ashcraft, a professor at Arizona State University's College of Public Programs, another affiliate of American Humanics, says the "our graduates are very concerned with career development They tend to look for jobs with local offices of national organizations like the Boy Scouts or the Boys & Girls Clubs because they want room for advancement. They can get management experience in local agencies serving small towns and eventually work their way up to executive positions in big cities or the national organization. A small, independent agency can't offer the same kind of career path. Thinking of career development in terms of a group of area agencies is a great idea. I think agencies that could put aside their parochial concerns would do themselves and their employees a favor."
At the YMCAs
"We do believe in career development. We offer our people lots of training—a minimum of thirty hours a year— both in terms of specific skills and over-all professional development. We have tremendous job security, and opportunities for promotion. The YMCA is always looking for new program directors."
The Lattof Branch has six full-time employees, and 160 part-time. About half the part-time employees work less than twenty hours a week, and half work twenty hours or more. In addition to positions available within the Lattof Branch, staff have access to job listings for all the YMCAs across the country.
The Decatur, Illinois, YMCA also relies heavily on part-time employees. According to Executive Director Don Davis, "one secret of satisfied employees is good supervision. You've got to take the time to establish good communications with your people. Encourage them to examine their personal goals. Let them see how their goals can be matched with the organization's goals, and how training can be used to make the match work."
Davis says that he takes advantage of a number of local resources to provide benefits to his employees. "Our employees can use a local credit union. An optical company provides reduced rates for us. We have an agreement with a law firm to provide legal assistance on favorable terms. And a hospital provides counseling and referral services for employees with emotional problems. If we feel a person has a problem that's interfering with their performance at work, we can require them to use this service."
For Rick Jackson, vice president of the Seattle YMCA, salary can't be neglected. "Underpaid work is undervalued, and undervalued work is underpaid. You've got a vicious circle there that isn't going to be broken unless and until we pay youth workers better.
"At the same time there is a lot you can do to make youth work more satisfying, more meaningful, and more of a career. Don't think of teen programs as an add-on something to be given to the least experienced staff. Youth work shouldn't be just hanging out with kids. Your full-time youth workers should do different things—work with kids, work with volunteers, do fundraising, collabo-
What I Want from My Job
What My Agency Gives Me
(source: Staffing the Child Welfare Agency: Recruitment and Retention, by Kim Pawly Helfgott.)
Illinois Parks & Recreation • November/December 1995 • 29
rate with other agencies. You can make youth work a well-rounded position. Give people the opportunity to manage a budget, speak before your board. Someone who's done that kind of youth work for six or eight years can move into an executive position and have a real career in the youth field.
"One thing we almost never do, and ought to, is give a young youth worker money to develop and manage their own project. It doesn't have to be much—say $500 to $5,000. We'll spend $2,500 on a new stair climber, but we won't give a young person half that to show what they can do. We ought to be willing to empower young people. After all, the YMCA was started by a twenty-one- year-old kid, George Williams, back in 1844."
Getting an Education
However, agencies can still use educational benefits effectively. Jon Parsons, executive director of the Children's Home, a residential program in Tampa, Florida, says that he looks for people who have completed their bachelor's degrees when he hires direct care workers. "We only pay $15,000 to $20,000 a year, but I can also cover tuition for two courses a semester," he says. "That allows them to complete their education on the job." The Children's Home serves about seventy children, ages five through eighteen, grouped in small "families" of two or three. The agency gets about half its funds from private sources, and relies on the state and county for the rest.
The KEY Program serves about 3,000 youth a year in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, providing both in-home and residential services. The program has a staff of 400, most of them full-time. Recognizing that its work with troubled youth is intense, the hours long, and the turnover rate for its mostly just-out-of- college youth workers high, KEY plans for a stay of only fourteen months for its line staff.
"What I hear from new park and recreation graduates is that they are able
to do a variety of tasks right away--from budgeting to personnel to programming
whereas their friends with accounting or marketing degrees do not have that level
of challenge or responsibility. What they find when they compare notes is that,
while they don't have the extra $4,000 to $5,000 in salary, they definitely have
more variety and more responsibility in their jobs. This gives them a feeling of
respect and admiration."
--Regina B. Glover, Ph.D.
--Regina B. Glover, Ph.D.
"Good practices are the best defense," says Chuck Tremper, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Washington, DC. "Of course, agencies need to carry adequate insurance and indemnification as well."
"Agencies need to give their people good training and clear guidelines," says Susan Besharov, a psychiatric social workers and co-author of Teaching About Liability. "Good record keeping is also key. You need to document your decisions without putting down everything that may have passed through your mind. Respecting client confidentiality is also important."
"Youth agencies need to engage in aggressive risk-management as an ongo-
30 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • November/December 1995
ing process," says Bob Horowitz, assistant director of the. Center on Children at the American Bar Association. "Most of them are reactive rather than pro-active. Agencies should check with the local United Way or an insurance broker for advice. They might try getting some free assistance form a major nonprofit like a hospital or university."
What Is Important?
"Well, one thing that is important for kids is consistency. Yet we have a system that often encourages inconsistency by encouraging turnover. Youth work can offer committed people freedom they don't get in more bureaucratic surroundings. When I worked at the Girls Club, we had a number of former teachers. They wanted to work with kids, but they couldn't take the education bureaucracy. The opportunity to work in a free, committed, harmonious environment can be important to people.
"But you do need to make provision for professional development as well. Agencies need to give their people lots of support—in terms of training and also good supervision, which includes coaching and mentoring. A lot of youth workers are very isolated. They need networking opportunities through youth forums and conferences. As professionals, they should have opportunities to give presentations, to write and publish, to do training, and to be paid for it. And yet, professional development isn't a substitute for decent salaries and benefits."
Perhaps some will live to see the day when youth workers reach salary parity with public school teachers with similar educational backgrounds. But this is all the more reason for youth service managers to work diligently and creatively to make stronger youth through a stronger staff.
Alan Vanneman is a writer for Youth Today, a bimonthly newspaper published by the American Youth Work Center, a youth organization resource center headquartered at 1200 17 St. NW, Washington, DC, 20036, 202/785-0764. Originally published in the May/ June 1995 issue of Youth Today, this article was reprinted with permission granted by the publisher.
Illinois Parks & Recreation • November/December 1995 • 31
Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator