YOUTH workers are all too used to their role of foot soldiers in a downtrodden service. Its ambiguous status, recognised as a requirement yet lacking a legal framework, has long made it a soft touch for spending cuts.
But in Wales, which is moving towards statutory provision, youth work is no longer the poor relation.
Cynics may regard the Welsh Assembly as an expensive talking shop but this model, set out in the policy document Extending Entitlement, is a first in the UK and evidence of autonomy at work.
It reflects the preoccupations of two senior figures, former first secretary Alun Michael and current education minister Jane Davidson. Both are former youth workers anxious to draw in the 12,000 or so 16 to 18-year-olds cut off from work, education and training.
Clauses in the Learning and Skills Bill specific to Wales helped to get things under way. "The move towards statutory services was the first major proposal that went through the assembly with all-party support," said Ms Davidson.
Last autumn it approved spending of pound;57 million over three years. The priorities are to train more youth workers, increase support to the voluntary sector and develop information services for young people.
But there's a lot of catching up to do. "Almost every year, I saw centres having to be closed because local authorities were being squeezed financially," said Ms Davidson.
Mark Edwards, head of youth and community training at University of Wales College, Newport, looked on helplessly as the service was allowed to drift. "Some authorities had no full-time youth workers - we've been 300 short in Wales," he said. "This is now changing rapidly."
Youth service leaders in England have no doubt that Wales is stealing a march on the rest of the UK. "In Wales, the assembly is giving a lead, creating a new policy framework by employing properly qualified youth workers supported by a structure of professional development," said Doug Nicholls, Community and Youth Workers Union general secretary.
"That compares with the lack of policy in England and ad hoc development based on tracking and advising young people rather than seeking to address their holistic developmental needs. There has been little care about the quality of staff or support for those working with them. We will seek to do all we can to help Wales implement its policies from paper into practice."
In Wales, local authorities have been given money to build up partnerships with the voluntary sector and make an audit of existing provision. Meanwhile, Ms Davidson spreads the message in person, touring schools.
"We are developing an initiative called Young Voice," she said. "We want to look at ways in which everyone can participate. It is about engaging with schools; getting school councils in place."
Although it's early days, there has been some impact at street level. "Money from the assembly has enabled us to go around alienated young people who may be living rough and give health advice," said David Allen, national secretary of Wales YMCA. New money has also enhanced the YMCA's capability to offer some training at its centres in Cardiff and Port Talbot and at its crash and emergency unit at Mountain Ash.
But, while applauding the youth initiative, Mr Allen is uneasy about the sway held by local authorities. "We hoped there would be an equal partnership," he said. "But in practice that doesn't always work out."
Youth work is now starting to look like a career with prospects. "There has been huge support in terms of money and at Newport we have benefited as an HE institution because recruitment numbers are up," said Mark Edwards.
"Agencies are coming together - social workers will employ youth workers to do some jobs - and Gwent careers office is sponsoring three staff to do a youth worker qualification. Newport is the first university in Wales to obtain professional recognition of its degree in youth and community work.
"Whereas youth workers used to be isolated, students now talk far more about how they've been collaborating, for instance with social services. There is more recognition of each other's expertise and how people can complement each other."
Tapping into what young people want isn't straightforward. Rather than just hearing the voices of articulate, well-rehearsed, middle-class youngsters, Ms Davidson wants to reach the fourth generation unemployed; those who feel isolated. "We can find training opportunities through the social care sector - Save the Children, Voices from Care and Children in Wales - that could also become gateways for young people to have a voice in social policy," she said.
Information about services and opportunities is available through a national computer service, Canllaw On-line. An entitlement to know is at the core of the policy, as is the right for young people to be heard.
While this may sound like a lot of warm words, the creation of a children's commissioner, Peter Clarke, to review the workings of all assembly departments on this front suggests serious intent.