Never too young to mentor
Israh Shafi, a 23-year-old youth worker in Luton, knows all about difficult cases. He was one himself, forever in trouble at school. Suspensions, triggered by outbursts of anger and the urge to lash out, were commonplace.
He was unhappy at home too. "I wasn't getting any support and used to bring all that into school," he said.
But Israh escaped the spiral towards self-destruction. Some years ago, a teacher introduced him to the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. Suddenly, the teenager, who had been going off the rails, found better things to do. A guiding hand and a sense of purpose arrived just in time.
"I learned how to control my temper and plan things for other people," he said. "It was a massive turning point."
By the time he left and moved to sixth-form college, he had a well-developed sense of social responsibility. Soon he was representing fellow students, sitting on the youth council. A slight figure, who could be mistaken for a teenager, Israh is now helping sort out problem youngsters and bringing badly-needed facilities to some of Luton's bleakest estates.
After a false start when a computer studies course in London failed to work out, he came back home and threw himself into voluntary work with youth organisations.
He learned about the real world of getting things done, making funding applications for various schemes to keep young Pakistanis off the streets. In time, he was encouraged to apply for a paid job with the council and to enrol on the diploma in youth and community studies at Luton University, much of which is work-based.
Some sceptics in the youth and community service doubt whether people of Israh's age are up to the job. But, before they jump to too many conclusions, they should look at past successes in the youth field - not least Ivan Lewis, the government minister responsible for Connexions.
Lewis quit school at 16, intent on a career in voluntary work and by 19 he was running Contact, a community group he created. And it was this, not higher education, that set him on the path to a successful political career. He told The TES during his first media interview as minister: "It was very exciting developing an organisation from scratch at 19."
Fiona Factor, the course director at Luton University, has no doubt that Israh will also see considerable further success in his field. She is particular about who she takes on to the course.
"We look for people who have taken on leadership roles by the time they're 18; who have done a lot of in-house training with some voluntary organisation," she said. "We would not just take on 18-year-olds who happen to have three A-levels."
As the Connexions service starts trawling for personal advisers from untapped sectors of the labour market, what's happening in Luton offers food for thought. Some people pack much more than others into a few years.
Shahed Koyes is 20, but looks five years older. His involvement in youth work began at the age of nine with a project organised by the Bangladeshi Youth League. He soon grew used to being regarded as a leader.
"I started organising carnivals, youth clubs and educational trips, and getting involved in a summer school. That was to keep young children off the streets - a lot to do with social education about drugs," he said. By his early teens he was on the executive committee of the Bangladeshi Youth League.
Shahed comes from a prosperous background. His family has a printing business and a restaurant. Alongside commitments to youth work and his course, he plays a part in running them.
"I've got transferable skills and have built up a lot of confidence," he said.
The trappings of Shahed's success include an expensive car. He can see the irony of so conspicuous a status symbol in his line of work.
"There are drug dealers in town my age who have big cars bought with drugs money," he said. "I can show you don't have to be involved in drugs to do that. Recently I talked for more than two hours to people about the world of business; the tax system. It's all education."
Although Israh and Shahed grew up doing youth work in Asian communities they have had success with white people. Israh is proud of his efforts to rehabilitate a 12-year-old boy excluded from school, whose father was in prison, and who, living in an Asian area, felt alienated from the world.
"The turning point came when we sat down with the school and started getting him involved with various projects," said Israh. "He now attends regularly and has a mentor. At youth club, he no longer runs around shouting and he's helped set up some trips."
Shahed, meanwhile, found that a way of connecting with disaffected white youths on the Lea Manor estate was to take part in pool competitions and five-aside football. The colour of his skin was, he says, disregarded.
Boredom at school gave Gaynor Jamieson, now 21, the incentive to discover voluntary work. Another of the youngest students, she arrived at Luton having been Anglia region representative for the National Youth Action Group, helping organise such diverse events as national dance festivals and fishing weekends. She has also set up drop-in centres at a foyer (local rehabilitation centre for the homeless) and a YMCA.
"I had no confidence at all before I started doing this," she said. "But when you see the results of some of the work you've done, it makes you feel better about yourself."
All three have experienced being patronised by their elders - whether senior youth workers, councillors or people from other agencies. But they remain unfazed. Having a finger on the pulse and knowing what young people want allows them, they reckon, to reach people with whom their seniors failed to connect.
"Often younger people don't have that much respect for the older workers," said Gaynor.
Yet Gaynor, Shahed and Israh sense that age matters when management positions in youth work are dished out, and that, for them, early advancement is unlikely. However, such is their job satisfaction none plan to abandon ship.
"I would like to pass on my experience," said Shahed. "I will always be involved in youth work even if I am running the family business."