Get the Right People on the Bus: Attracting, Hiring and Retaining Youth Development Staff

This module provides an overview of the importance of creating targeted and intentional practices to attract and retain skilled, and qualified youth development workers. Recent findings regarding the profile of the youth development workforce will be explored as well as tools and strategies for supporting youth development professionals.


  • Identify core youth worker competencies to develop in staff
  • Identify effective recruitment strategies for hiring youth development staff
  • Understand the factors that support retention of youth workers

Overview of the Importance of Intentional Practices in Developing Youth Program Staff

Promoting positive youth development is an intentional, deliberate process. Frequently noted in the research of successful youth development programs is the critical importance of positive relationships with skilled, caring, committed staff3,6. Youth’s perceived quality of relationships with staff is often the most significant factor in youth’s choice to continue to attend youth programs10,4. These findings highlight the importance of selecting and supporting skilled and effective staff in youth programs to create a supportive environment for youth. Building a staff of effective and skilled youth workers involves a combination of intentionally designed recruitment, hiring and staff development and support processes.

Recruitment, Hiring and Staff Development for Retention

A variety of practices can be used to recruit staff for youth programs. Each program must develop a staff recruitment strategy that meets the program’s needs. For example, if a program serves mostly Haitian immigrant youth, advertising in local Creole language publications or radio may be an effective method to attract staff from the Haitian community. Activities the program offers are also an important factor to consider. In a program with a fine arts focus, skill, talent and background in fine arts may be desirable qualities of staff. Possible recruitment sources for such a program may be college fine arts programs or artist communities. Effective programs take time to think through the needs of the program, and develop an intentional strategy to identify and recruit possible staff through a variety of targeted methods.

Solid hiring practices include several important elements. A formal application, structured and documented interview process and background checks are the concrete elements of the hiring process. There are other elements that are important to consider in the hiring process. Examples of these include assessment of a candidate’s fit with the team and organization, sense of humor, dedication, and a willingness to learn and grow professionally, among others. While no process is foolproof, taking the time to be as thorough as possible can prevent future challenges.

Following the recruitment and hiring processes, retaining youth development staff is an ongoing effort. Access to opportunities for ongoing professional development is one of the most significant predictors of staff’s intent to continue to work with youth5. When staff feel competent in their skill as youth workers, they are more likely to express their intent to continue to work with young people. A variety of options and methods can be used to support staff to develop competence and skills in youth development work. Attending training sessions, receiving mentoring from more senior staff, receiving ongoing supervision, coaching and support, and having an involvement in program decision-making are several options programs utilize successfully to keep youth development staff engaged.

Identifying Essential Competencies

Before you begin the staff recruitment process for your youth program, determine the competencies and skills that are necessary for someone to be successful in the position and in the program. Many frameworks of youth worker core competencies are available as guiding examples to assist you to identify the essential skills that staff must possess when hired, and those which are important to develop on the job. Commonly agreed upon youth worker competencies include professionalism, and ability to create developmentally appropriate youth activity programming. Some frameworks of youth development competencies include progressive levels of knowledge and skill for each competency, creating a clear pathway for learning and future skill development. Consider this example from the Kansas and Missouri Core Competencies for Youth Development Professionals:

  • Level 1: includes the knowledge and skills of a practitioner new to the youth development field, with minimal specialized training or education
  • Level 2: includes level 1 plus the knowledge and skills commensurate with a Youth Development Credential, a certificate in youth development, or equivalent training/education
  • Level 3: includes levels 1 and 2 plus knowledge and skills commensurate with an associate’s degree in child/adolescent development or related field
  • Level 4: includes levels 1, 2, and 3 plus knowledge and skills commensurate with a bachelor’s degree in child/adolescent development or related fields
  • Level 5: includes levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 plus knowledge and skills commensurate with an advanced degree in child/adolescent development or related fields

Developing Effective Recruitment Strategies

One of the most important components of afterschool and youth development programs is the availability of positive role models and consistent adult support11. Since, most afterschool youth programs have limited resources to invest in the recruitment of qualified staff, developing a targeted, intentional plan that includes a variety of strategies to recruit possible candidates for the program is essential. While rigorous research is limited in the area of effective recruitment strategies for youth programs, researchers and others have surveyed successful youth programs to learn more about the strategies they have found effective in recruiting staff7. Below are descriptions of some of the strategies programs identified as successful.

Many programs have found this approach to be the best way to attract new staff. Current staff often have friends they can refer, and former youth participants may be a great resource of committed, caring staff for the program. Consider offering incentives for staff who successfully refer friends. Create a volunteer program for older youth to begin to prepare them for learning more about the program from the operations perspective. Once they reach the desired employment age, they can easily transition to paid employment with a strong background and familiarity with organization procedures and policies.

It pays to be strategic, since this is likely where most of your program’s available resources will be used. Consider the population, community and special skills or talents that would be useful for your program. Use a variety of media, however, make sure that they are outlets that your potential staff are likely to see. Does your organization have a Facebook page? Post your openings using social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, all no-cost options for broad exposure to your audience. Use advertising dollars in local online venues or local print publications that are read by the community members you are attempting to reach. Consider advertising in local college and university papers, or the weekly local community paper. Does your program serve bilingual youth, or youth from recently immigrated families? Advertise in bilingual publications that are popular in the community. Most importantly, consider the group you are targeting, and advertise where they are likely to see your message.

Partner with other youth-serving organizations to get your message out. Consider placing joint or group advertisements in larger media outlets with other well-respected youth organizations also seeking volunteers and paid staff. Develop a recruitment campaign in the community asking businesses your organization works with (local restaurants, banks, suppliers) to help get the message out to the community that the organization is seeking committed, caring adults to work or volunteer in the youth program.

In addition to the strategies described above, creating partnerships with local colleges and universities for internships and work/study programs may also be an effective strategy to attract interested and qualified staff for your program. Consider Human Services, Education, and Family Studies as possible departments to approach to create mutually beneficial partnerships.

Developing Effective Hiring Practices

Young people deserve to have safe, supportive and committed adults to guide them in their development, especially during the hours in which they are out of school and participating in organized programs. Creating sound hiring practices is one way to ensure that the best role models are available for the youth you serve. The following elements should always be included in the hiring process. Additional measures may also be included.

  • A written application
  • A written, consistent interview format for all applicants
  • Background checks for applicants prior to hire
  • Reference checks
  • Education verification

Application and Interview

Every potential candidate for paid employment or volunteer position should complete an application, kept on file in the organization in a secure location.

A variety of interview methods have been used by youth programs, including phone, in-person and writing samples (e.g. developing an activity plan based upon given scenarios) to determine the best person for the position. In all situations, it is important to create a comfortable atmosphere for the interviewee. This can be established with a friendly, welcoming attitude from all staff, creating a comfortable space for the interview that has adequate lighting, seating and temperature, and through creating rapport with the interviewee to help put them at ease.

Develop interview questions based upon the skills and competencies that are required for the position and the organization. Some commonly agreed upon youth worker competencies include the ability to develop positive relationships with youth, and demonstration of qualities and characteristics of a positive role model. Sample interview questions for each of these competencies include:

Ability to develop positive relationships with youth

  • Describe your approach in developing relationships with youth.
  • What are the keys to successful relationship building?

Demonstration of qualities and characteristics of a positive role model

  • Describe how you see yourself as a role model for youth. What are your most important assets as a role model?
  • Think of a time when a teen approached you with a personal problem. How did you handle it?

Explore Further

Learn more about developing sample interview questions that address youth worker competencies in this E-Newsletter from the National Youth Development Learning Network

Selecting Staff for Hire

Determining the best candidate for the job includes gathering information about the candidate’s skills and experience, but also about their potential ‘fit’ with your team and organization. Look for cues that will help you to make that determination, including attitude, sense of humor, enthusiasm and where possible, include young people’s assessment of the applicant.

Ensure that references checks are completed as well as background checks prior to extending an offer for paid or volunteer employment. This takes a bit of additional time, but the importance of these steps is very important toward assuring both the safety of youth and a beneficial experience for them in the program. Reference checks may be completed through a variety of ways (telephone, email, letter) however, being able to have a direct conversation and listen to tone of voice, ask additional or follow up questions, and to note the reference’s enthusiasm or reluctance to endorse a candidate is often preferable. Follow both the requirements for your state regarding background check information, and additional measures that are important for your program.

Criminal history background checks are often available through the state Department of Law Enforcement for a fee. Fees for background checks vary by state, and the degree of check also varies. The most complete option for a criminal background check is a fingerprint-based search processed through the Federal Bureau of Investigations database. Less comprehensive checks are those that are name-based searches only, and are often less expensive to obtain and are more quickly processed. For all of your organization’s hiring practices, be sure to consult with professional experts in your area to ensure that you are following the appropriate local, state and federal employment laws.

Program Tip: Partner with your local police department to roll fingerprint cards for applicants at no charge, and be sure to send the card to the appropriate law enforcement agency designated in your state to obtain the full report from the FBI. Most local police department databases have access only to records within their jurisdiction.


Promoting Youth Worker Success on the Job

Enthusiasm, commitment, and ability to work well with youth are great assets for youth workers, but they aren’t enough to ensure ongoing success in the job. Several important factors that support youth worker success include1,7,12,13,2,5:

  • Adequate compensation and opportunities for advancement
  • Opportunities for professional development and training
  • Supportive work environment, including adequate supervision and a collaborative atmosphere with co-workers
  • Clear description of their role and a sense of competence to meet the demands of the job
  • Sense that staff members’ work is valued
  • Opportunities for professional networking

Professional development and training opportunities are one of the most important features of quality youth development programming identified by program directors3. When staff do not feel competent to implement elements of the youth program well, burnout increases, and staff turnover is more likely. When the time and costs of outside training for staff are prohibitive, it is necessary to be creative in order to meet this important need for staff.

Creating Professional Development Within the Organization

Youth programs have found a variety of ways to ensure that staff develop increased levels of confidence, skill, and support within the organization. This section explores some of these strategies.

New Hire Orientation

Help to ensure a new staff member’s success from the beginning by offering a new hire orientation process. In addition to the usual review of policies and procedures of the organization, spend time focusing on the mission and vision of the organization, explaining what each department does, and how that contributes to the overall organization.

Complete administrative details ahead of time. Ensure that the computer, email, employee ID and other items are set up for staff before they arrive on their first day. Send the necessary new hire paperwork, including benefits information and other items ahead of the start date so that they can be reviewed at home. Unanswered questions about benefits or paperwork can be addressed when the staff member arrives to work.

As the supervisor, be involved in the employee orientation process, and engage additional staff as well. Pair a new staff member with another more experienced team member in a similar role for the first couple of days. As they learn more about their role, they can begin getting comfortable with the work. Give new staff an opportunity to learn about the organization by participating in ongoing workgroups without handing over project management duties right away. This creates an opportunity to learn about the work styles of colleagues, the culture of the organization and to begin to know how to best contribute skills and experience.

Finally, check in with staff throughout the orientation process to assess their acclimation to the job and the organization, and to address questions and ensure their comfort and fit in the program. Make this process relatively low-key, and keep the focus on how new staff are assimilating the new information. Formally evaluate the orientation goals at the end of 30 or 60 days with the employee to provide performance feedback.

Attracting, Hiring and Retaining Youth Workers

Workplace Mentoring

Creating professional mentoring relationships has been found to be an effective strategy for supporting new staff in a variety of workplace settings, including youth development programs. Youth development organizations report several benefits of implementing workplace mentoring programs including9:

  • Higher quality of programming
  • Increased staff retention
  • Increased staff morale and sense of belonging to the organization
  • Well prepared staff with effective job skills
  • Creation of a network of support for youth workers

Workplace mentoring programs are effective when they are intentionally designed with clear goals, mentors are trained, and guidelines are in place for both mentors and protégés.

Explore Further

For more information about how to create a workplace mentoring program, check out this resource:
Mentoring the Next Generation of Non-Profit Leaders from AED Center for Leadership Development

Expand the Definition of In-Service Training

Get creative about how information, networking and support for youth development staff are delivered within your organization by expanding the usual all-staff session to offer other ongoing opportunities to share information, offer coaching, and support staff efforts.

Maximize Staff Meetings

Add time to the staff meeting agenda for activities that will engage the group’s critical thinking skills, introduce a new concept, or allow for exploration of a new competency. The REACH professional development modules include activities that are designed to be used in group settings. Check them out in the Positive Youth Development Training Modules.

Create Informal Learning Opportunities

Brown-bag lunch sessions are a great way to provide professional development in a low-key environment. These can be structured in a variety of ways, including presentation and discussion, or a facilitated discussion of a particular topic to promote networking among youth development professionals. Host a quarterly networking meeting for youth development professionals with a guided agenda that maximizes opportunities to learn from other professionals and develop new partnerships.

Leverage Online Learning

Webinars, online self-paced modules, and virtual communities of practice are easily accessible options to stay informed of the latest trends and research in the field, and frequently may be accessed without additional training expenses for the organization. Stay connected by using the resources of Military REACH, sign up for field-specific email notification lists, and get the most out of professional organization memberships by subscribing to those which have professional development opportunities built in as a member benefit.

Additional Resources

National Afterschool Association

National Institute on Out-of-School Time

The Forum for Youth Investment

Supervision and Support

Youth workers frequently report that they are drawn to employment in the field by a broad variety of reasons, including wanting to pay back what adults did for them, to be advocates for youth in their community, or for the flexibility of a temporary job that helps meet college expenses13. Factors that influence youth workers’ decision to stay in the field include support from their supervisor, voice in decision-making in the organization, and a sense that the organization’s environment is one in which all staff members have valued input.

Creating a supportive and inclusive environment includes ongoing one-on-one supervision meetings with staff, and clear acknowledgement and feedback regarding staff performance. In supervision meetings with staff, foster a comfortable environment by creating a two-way discussion that offers an opportunity for staff to share their successes as well as ask for assistance to improve or develop further competency. Offer feedback that is supportive and specific. (The Coaching for Performance module offers more information about how to provide effective supervision and feedback). Establish regular and ongoing individual and group supervision meetings with staff members as a way to continue to build strong working relationships and provide coaching and feedback.

Demonstrate Appreciation for Staff Efforts

Be sure that your staff and volunteers know that their efforts are valued. Communicate this in formal ways, during supervision, staff meetings, recognition events, and in informal ways such as acknowledgements of good work as it’s happening through a comment or simple and sincere expression of thanks. Staff appreciation doesn’t have to be a grand effort, but sincerity is essential. Some tactics that organizations have successfully used for staff recognition include:

  • Provide opportunities for cross-training in another department or area within the organization
  • Paid time off for outstanding service
  • Bring treats to recognize staff efforts, and create time for celebration
  • Create notes with encouraging messages for staff

No matter what recognition efforts you choose, consider the following guiding principles:


Module Review

This module covered several key issues related to recruiting, hiring and retaining staff in youth development programs including:

  • Attracting the right staff for your program begins with identifying the essential competencies workers must possess to be successful in the position
  • Developing targeted and intentional recruitment strategies, creating a formalized application and interview process and determining an applicant’s potential ‘fit’ in the organization are essential features of strong and successful hiring practices
  • Ongoing support and professional development is an important key to the retention of youth workers, as it helps to develop their competence, and therefore, confidence in their ability to perform the job well, and make a meaningful difference in the lives of youth—the top reason cited for workers’ intentions to continue in the field.

Get the Right People on the Bus Quiz


Download Module Materials from Get the Right People on the Bus: Attracting, Hiring and Retaining Youth Development Staff

Youth Work Core Competencies: A Review of Existing Frameworks and Purposes

New York City Core Competencies for Youth Work

National Collaboration for Youth—Youth Worker Competencies

E-Newsletter from the National Youth Development Learning Network

Mentoring the Next Generation of Non-Profit Leaders from AED Center for Leadership Development


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2 Bednar, S. G. (January 01, 2003). Elements of satisfying organizational climates in child welfare agencies. Families in Society, 84(1), 7-12.

3 Bouffard, S., & Little, P. M. D. (2004). Promoting quality through professional development: A framework for evaluation (Issues and Opportunities in Out-of-School Time Evaluation Brief No. 8). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project

4 Gambone, M. A. & Arbreton, A. J. A. (1997). Safe havens: The contributions of youth organizations to healthy adolescent development. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

5 Hartje, J., Evans, W., Killian, E., & Brown, R. (January 01, 2008). Youth worker characteristics and self-reported competency as predictors of intent to continue working with youth. Child and Youth Care Forum, 37(1), 27-41.

6 Hirsch, B. J. (2005). A place to call home: After-school programs for urban youth. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

7 National Collaboration for Youth. (2006, April). Capturing promising practices in recruitment and retention of frontline youth workers. Retrieved from

8 Nee, J., Howe, P., Schmidt, C. & Cole, P. (2006) Understanding the afterschool workforce: Opportunities and challenges for an emerging profession. A report of the National Afterschool Association for Cornerstones for Kids. Houston, TX: Cornerstones for Kids. Retrieved from

9 NYLDN. (2004, October). Mentoring youth work professionals. Retrieved from

10 Perkins, D. F., Borden, L. M., Villarruel, F. A., Carleton-Hug, A., Stone, M. R., & Keith, J. G. (June 01, 2007). Participation in structured youth programs: Why ethnic minority urban youth choose to participate—or not to participate. Youth & Society, 38(4), 420-442.

11 Vaden-Kiernan, M., Jones, D. H., Rudo, Z., Fitzgerald, R., Hartry, A., Chambers, B., Smith, D., Muller, P. & Moss, M. A. (2008). The National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning randomized controlled trial studies of promising afterschool programs: Summary of findings. Afterschool research brief. Issue no. 3. Austin, TX: SEDL.

12 Vinokur-Kaplan D. (1991). Job satisfaction among social workers in public and voluntary child welfare agencies. Child Welfare, 70(1), 81-91.

13 Walker J. (2003). The essential youth worker: Supports and opportunities for professional success. In Villarruel, F. A., Perkins, D. F., Borden, L. M. & Keith, J. G. (Eds.), Community youth development: Programs, policies, and practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Module Acknowledgements

Author: Leslie Langbert, MSW, RYT  

Reviewers: Bryna Koch, MPH, Christine Bracamonte Wiggs, MPH, MS and Lynne Borden, Ph.D

Formatting Editors: Sandra Fletcher, MS, Pranav Gidwani and Kaustubh Khole

Web Developers:  Troy Dean and Will Simpson