Q&A: Youthworker Exchanges

Cynthia Hay is Director of Management/Personnel at the Key Program in Framingham, Mass. The Key Program has hosted about 200 foreign trainees since 1986, most of them from Great Britain. The 450-employee agency runs outreach, residential and shelters programs in Mass., N.H., and R.I. Other New England agencies involved in the AYWC’s youthworker exchange program include YOU, Inc., St. Ann’s Home, Devereux, and Justice Resource Institute. Key was the first program in the country to sign on. We interviewed her in October 2000.

Q: Is the program meant to be a cultural exchange or a recruiting mechanism?
A: Bill Treanor’s intent was to set up an exchange of training and job ideas from one country to another. He’d done a lot of traveling and looking at youth-serving agencies in Britain and had made a lot of connections, and discovered there was a lot we could learn about some of things they were doing, for instance in juvenile justice and child welfare. And they could learn from us, too. They hadn’t begun community-based services; the idea of working with clients and families in the community hadn’t been developed yet in Great Britain.

Q: What do you look for in a foreign trainee?
A: In the beginning, we were looking for people who had some experience in youthwork. That’s changed over time, based on what we’ve learned since 1986. The people I find to be most successful have a four-year degree in the field or a related field and are people who may have been to the US through some other experience – people who worked in summer camps here, for instance. We also require a driver’s license now. If you get here and don’t drive, you can’t do the job.

Q: Was the process more complicated than you expected?
A: The bureaucratic process was never an issue, because that’s AYWC’s job. They handle all the administrative aspects: getting applications, screening them, setting up the interviews, notifying people who have been rejected.

Q: So what have the most serious issues been?
A: The biggest issues are cultural – just because we both speak English, the nuances are not the same. Very basic things come up – how you open up a checking account and even write a check. They have a very different banking system in Great Britain. Even though you think people are self-sufficient and can manage on their own, you have to put a very strong orientation program in place. We expanded our orientation from two weeks to four weeks. Trainees live with a person we call a host – a Key employee – for a month. We pay the host $700 to cover the trainee’s living there, and then the host is responsible for working with the trainee to find an apartment and an automobile, for introducing them to the area, and actually being their transportation back and forth to work. It’s about making it easier for them to acclimate.

We also give trainees $500 in relocation assistance and $500 toward an automobile. We provide housing assistance, too – $500 toward a deposit on an apartment. If they stay at least a year, they don’t pay it back; if they leave before that, we recoup that money.

Q: It sounds a bit expensive.
A: It’s really not. When I look at what it costs to put an ad in the Sunday paper, it’s approximately $6,000, and without any guarantee of applicants. The placement fee is 7 percent of the salary for 18 months, but you don’t pay any social security for practical trainees. So it really is a wash. And I would caution that the more support you provide up front – even if it’s just taking up a collection of pots and pans – the greater the chance that you’ll keep them for the whole placement.

Q: Do your foreign trainees seem substantially different from other employees?
A: It’s not always that they do things differently. Some things, they don’t quite understand. They don’t understand the non-voluntary nature of some of our services, for instance. If DSS says a child is coming to the Key Program for six months, that child doesn’t have a choice. That’s not the way it works in Great Britain. There services are voluntary. And the fact that you may think a child needs something that the state doesn’t want to pay for or do – they have a real hard time understanding that as well. They also have a real difficulty with physical restraint: in Great Britain, they don’t touch kids. Many applicants will tell you they don’t want to come if they have to do restraints. When I’m doing interviewing with them, I spell out all these things very clearly.

Q: Do overseas hires have something unique to offer clients?
A: It’s world of difference in terms of culture and travel experience, and the kids find it fascinating. They love it, and the staff loves it too. We have one woman now who did a whole year working in India with poverty-stricken people. Our staff, in their whole lifetimes, have never lived in a dirt hut like she did.

Q: Do your own employees participate in the exchange with Great Britain?
A: We have encouraged employees of ours to go over there, but unlike the Europeans, Americans aren’t as willing to pick up and go. And depending on the dollar exchange, if you’re just out of school and are paying back your college loans, you’re not going to be as willing to spend 18 months in London making less than you were making here, perhaps.

There’s also an extra incentive for them to come over here. The big difference between the US and the European education system is that a lot of their programs are two-year programs. And a lot of people can’t get a job in human services until they have experience. Coming to the US, they get 18 months of experience, which makes them stronger in the job market when they go back.