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Each quarter, our peer reviewed journal publishes up to six research- and practice-based articles on Australian youth. Find out more.

YSA September cover (thumbnail)

YSA September cover

September 2009 edition
Feature articles

Why youth workers need to collectively organise

by Tim Corney, Robyn Broadbent & Lisa Darmanin

Youth Studies Australia, v.28, n.3, 2009, pp.41-46.

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The collective identity of youth workers and their capacity to industrially organise is being eroded by deskilling, via the introduction of 'semi skilled specialisation' in TAFE training. There are also implications for the quality of service delivery, particularly for those young people most at risk. Recent attempts at professionalising the youth sector have focused on 'codes of ethics' and left pay and conditions issues to community sector unions. The history of nursing provides a case example of the benefits of combining professional aspirations with industrial organisation. If the professional and industrial interests of the community services sector are combined, the collective voice of youth workers will be strengthened and the quality of service provision will be enhanced.

There are many factors that contribute to the current erosion of the collective identity of youth workers. To date, the disparate nature of the industry and the competitive nature of government funding to the sector are important factors. Agencies are in competition to gain government funding to deliver services, which discourages ongoing sector-wide collaboration between youth workers. Funding is often short term, which means that developing a continuity of professional practice, networks and outcomes that build collective industrial strength and history in a lasting manner is difficult.

The current government's training agenda, delivered through industry training boards, deconstructs the practice of "generalist" youth work. The introduction of "semi skilled specialisation" in TAFE training leads to "deskilling" and the subsequent eroding of pay and conditions. In the community services sector, there are approximately 50 qualifications, from work experience and entry level to advanced practice qualifications, endorsed through a framework aligned with the Australian Qualifications Framework (Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council (CSHISC) 2007). While some argue that these new, "specialist" (narrower) qualifications have been introduced to recognise the increasing complexity involved in the delivery of quality services, the reality is that these qualifications become a substitute for an undergraduate degree in many instances, and allow employers and government to employ and pay less qualified staff to perform what is recognised as highly complex and skilled youth work. This is essentially deskilling.

The Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVic), in their report Who's carrying the can? (2006), agrees. The report argues strongly that the holistic wellbeing of young people is supported by generalist youth work and not an issues-based response undertaken through the lens of a "specialist". What is required is generalist youth work that facilitates an integrated system of support for young people. Such a model provides a sound framework on which to base the provision of other services and ensures timely responses as young people transition from adolescence to adulthood (YACVic 2006).

Deskilling the youth work industry

The definition and practice of generalist "youth work" is being eroded ,via semi-skilled specialisation, and this leads to "deskilling", segmentation of work and the loss of pay and conditions. The only way that workers can protect the uniqueness of their occupation and enhance their pay and conditions is by coming together and collectively organising to regain what has been lost. However, the depoliticising of workers largely through the implementation of "value free" competency-based training (Corney 2004; Corney & Broadbent 2007), combined with contestable and competitive tendering, has pitted workers against each other and weakened youth workers' ability to collectively bargain. This sector-wide amnesia regarding the role and history of industrial struggles to protect the rights of workers has been encouraged by governments and employers keen to decentralise the industry, and agreeing to minimum standards for employment, thereby effectively devaluing higher qualifications and deskilling youth work.

Deskilling and Taylorism

Deskilling or Taylorism is a central concept in labour theory. Braverman's (1974) criticism of modern Taylorist forms of capitalist production was that it "deskilled" highly skilled workers by dividing their skills into numerous smaller and independent tasks. This division of skills reorganised the way skilled work was undertaken so that less skilled and less well paid workers could do the task. This he argued had the effect of taking away a worker's "craftsmanship" and their sense of identity as a worker with a particular and specialised skill. This had the further effect of weakening the broader collective identity of workers with the same identifiable skill or knowledge and placed that skill or knowledge in the hands of a much smaller number of highly paid managers.

Wood (1982), building on Braverman, describes Taylorism in terms of three principles:

...the rendering of the labour process independent of craft, tradition or workers' knowledge...the separation of conception from executions and the use of the managerial monopoly over knowledge to control the labour process in detail (p.76).

Littler (1982) adds three further processes to Wood's definition: 1) the process whereby the shopfloor loses the right to design and plan; i.e. separation of planning and doing; 2) the fragmentation of work into meaningless segments; 3) the redistribution of tasks amongst unskilled and semi-skilled labour, associated with labour cheapening (p.25).

As such, employers and governments, using the methods of Taylorism, have deskilled the work of university-trained "generalist" youth workers, by dividing their work among the less well-trained "specialists". This has had several so-called "advantages" for employers, boards of management and governments, in particular the lowering of labour costs, but little or no advantage for generalist university-trained youth workers.

Deskilling has also given management greater control over the workforce as it is easier to monitor one generalist university-trained youth worker, who then monitors the semi-skilled, who then monitor the unskilled workers and so on. As such, segmentation acts against the notion of occupational solidarity in which workers come together to protect their common interests. There is also concern among youth workers about the effect of this division on service delivery, particularly for those young people most at risk (YACVic 2006).

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