The Pitfalls of Professionalisation : Thoughts from Abroad

By twist of circumstance a number of revealing and challenging posts on the issue of professionalisation have appeared on our Facebook page. All of them are worthy of close attention, even if many within British youth work might find them troubling. Emanating from Australia, Canada and the USA the authors raise questions about the appropriateness of the concept of professionalisation when considering the intent and content of youth work. Of course the historical and even the contemporary contexts are not exactly the same. It can be argued that the journey towards being recognised as a profession is most advanced in the United Kingdom. Although Doug Nicholls, a committed advocate of  ‘youth workers as professionals’ – see his chapter of the same name in ‘For Youth Workers and Youth Work’ – points out that youth workers are still categorised as a sub-profession or para-professional occupation. The present situation is riddled with contradiction. Indeed most strikingly the ‘para-profession’ itself is under severe assault as its natural home, the Youth Service, is decimated. With this in mind some might argue it is the wrong time to discuss what we mean by ‘professional’, ‘professionalism’ and professionalisation’. However the creation of an Institute of Youth Work, membership of which requires signing up to a Code of Ethics has already placed these issues squarely on a round  table. Whatever our opinions we should not be afraid of a critical dialogue. After all it is what we claim youth work is all about.


Three pieces from Aaron Garth from Australia:

One of the reasons we have found professionalism so hard to  implement is the difficulty of centrality. We don’t have a central definition and code of ethics in Australia and we have a number of different approaches and frameworks which guide our field. It is this vitality which we should be looking to develop in our quest for professionalism not just aiming to become another cookie cutter “profession.”


Is youth work languishing? In the shadow of inferior frameworks of professionalism

Is youth work suffering the death of a thousand cuts?

The stupidity of calling youth work science will limit our effectiveness


Hans Skott-Myhre writing passionately from Canada,

Finally, I would argue that our field of practice has a long history of resisting and opposing the ways s in which our society has dealt with young people. We have posited our selves as offering young people  a different set of relations where they might be met as fellow travelers rather than social pariahs. I might refer to this aspect of our field as the tradition of revolutionary love. Love, I would define as an encounter that maximizes the capacities of all parties involved. Such love is revolutionary, because the social norm of the current regime of capitalist domination does anything but maximize our capacities. To jointly work together to see how we might creatively maximize what each of our bodies and minds has the capacity to do is to resist and revolt against the constraints of global capitalism. This is not the work of a professional trained to think and practice within the confines of standards, common beliefs and restricted practice. It is an open field of experimentation unconstrained by common adherence to an abstract common definition of who we are. Instead, who we are is defined by our day-to-day encounters and our rewards are sought in the work itself.

Tilting at Windmills : The Professionalization of Youth and Child Care


Dana Fusco writing from the States draws our attention to a specific edition of the journal Child and Youth Services, Professionalization Deconstructed: Implications for the Field of Youth Work, which she has edited together with Michael Baizerman.

Here, we hope to deconstruct the underlying beliefs and narratives on professiona­lization in youth work and in related human service fields by examining the arguments for and against professionalization, by looking at the historically situated evidence within and outside of the field of youth work, and by exploring alternate conceptions of professionalization. It is always our goal to have young people and youth workers in the forefront of our mind; thus, our framing of the issues always rests on the questions: Is this good for young people and youth workers? Who decides and why?

Dana’s own eloquent final chapter,Is Youth Work Being Courted by the Appropriate Suitor, examines a range of understandings of the professional.

Specifically, the privileging of science and epistemic culture as the foundation for profession is questioned as the best suitor for a practice of working with young people that values meaning over truth, dialogue over evidence, and reflexivity over certainty


  1. From Magnuson & Baldwin, A defense of professionalism: a response to Fusco and Baizerman, Child & Youth Services, 35(1), pp 4-15.

    Fusco and Baizerman (2013) criticized professionalization efforts for assumptions about improved outcomes, “reducing” youth work to skills, “controlling behavior,” bureaucratization, depersonalized services, a neoliberal focus, removing practice wisdom, and a “telos of …scientifically based youth work” (p. 189). They do not provide evidence or arguments for these claims. Academics benefit from professionalization, and it is curious to oppose efforts to provide those benefits to others. We believe that they and their colleagues, in the same issue, have misread other authors on key ideas and present an incomplete and rather one-sided representation. They conflate professionalization and professionalism. They conflate the industrial aspects of professionalization with the ethical aspects. They have overestimated the potential harm of professionalization and underestimated the harm being done by uninformed youth work practices. They misinterpreted social history—and Aristotle. They have incompletely cited other writers about professionalization. Professionalization and professionalism are not guarantees of anything, but our critique of them needs to be coherent, consistent, and based on arguments and evidence.

    • Doug – Thanks very much for responding. However, for most folk your response will be received as you asserting against Dana and Michael’s alleged assertions. It would be excellent if you could point me to a piece that illuminates your perspective. I can’t access your chapter in Child and Youth services as I/We can’t afford a subscription. Obviously I can link to an article that is available on the Web or if you could send me an attachment, I can upload to this site. I’ll cross my fingers that this is possible. Thus the debate can continue and develop.

  2. I rather believe that anyone who has spent any time with a degree of awareness within the ‘sector’ would entirely agree with Fusco & Baizerman.

  3. No other discussion in the sector has divided us as much as the discussion on professionalism. There is no doubt that as a sector we need to be more professional. The question is what this will look like. In Australia this currently seems to be a push towards a more case management focused service sector with a push for higher qualifications and registration of some description. As a degree qualified youth worker who has gone on to a master of social work this trend towards professionalism is straight from the social work playbook. Youth work should not allow itself to become just another social work.

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