taking the helm in training
Organized labor once led the way in preparing American workers for well-paying jobs. Now, decimated unions are looking to reclaim their role with innovative partnerships.
Four men approached the controls of the bridge deck, taking command of the dials and buttons with some hesitance. The lights were dim, with faint ultraviolet rays illuminating white shirts and sneakers; the floor squeaked beneath them.¶ “Let’s start at say, 8 knots,” said a tinny voice from overhead. The water slowly moved by outside, under a quiet sky. ¶ “You guys used these before?” said a tall, bald man, pointing to their radar. “The course for this channel is 288.” ¶ It felt like a voyage, but it wasn’t: The bridge is perched in the middle of a 70-foot-high bowl on dry land in Linthicum Heights, Md., with projectors casting imagery 360 degrees around to simulate conditions on the open ocean. It’s a training session run by the seamen’s union — something that’s become rare as labor’s reach has contracted, even as the need for vocational training has grown. ¶ Minutes pass. “Right 30,” said the self-appointed captain, calmly. “Right 30,” his mates chorused back, shifting direction. The sky darkened, the moon rose. The sun came back up, but clouds gathered. Oil rigs appeared on the
horizon, approaching rapidly. “Should I dodge it?” the captain asked the bald man. “Yeah, see what you can do,” he said.
“Left 30!” the captain, said, more urgently this time. “Left 30!” “Midships!” “Midships!” The seas were rough, and rain pelted down outside. The horizon rose and fell wildly. Tall glaciers emerged on either side. The ship ran into one, and flames sprung up from the fore decks.
“Little too much, sorry about that,” the tinny voice came back on.
“All right, about time for lunch, gentlemen?” the bald guy asked.
The lights came back up and the men filed out. They’re members of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, the 5,000-member trade union that crews the U.S. merchant marine fleet. Members come here every year or so to gain new skills and keep certifications up to date.
There aren’t nearly as many of them as there used to be, though, after dramatic decline in the U.S.-flagged fleet that makes up the union’s employer base, sped along by the disappearance of subsidies and the wartime business for which they’re required.
“We got beat up pretty good, and now we’re struggling for survival,” said Don Marcus, president of the Masters, Mates and Pilots. The organization is not educating as many of the people who steer ships in and out of U.S. ports — even as the profession overall is projected to expand at a faster-than-average pace through 2022, mostly on inland routes where the union has lost membership, and the overseas-based shipping lines where it never had it.
The predicament illustrates the challenge for organized labor across the country: For decades, unions offered high-quality educational pipelines to well-paying jobs in cooperation with employers. As those programs vanish, businesses in vast sectors of the economy are struggling to meet their workforce needs through piecemeal job training programs and partnerships with community colleges.
“What is sorely needed are forums for scaling,” Brookings Institution scholar Mark Muro said. “And that’s where there’s possibly a really important role for other intermediaries, including labor unions.”
Along decline in training
A quick history lesson: The declining relevance of unions in workforce development dates to the 1930s, according to Dan Jacoby, a University of Washington history professor. That’s when craft unions— which had an organizing model of limiting the labor supply to highly skilled professionals — gave way to industrial unions, which emphasized size, solidarity and militancy over training as a way to win higher wages and workers’ rights.
Then in recent decades, college, rather than vocational training, became the key to advancement, eroding the unions’ role in career development.
“Higher education delivered an assault on workers’ control of the skilling process,” Jacoby said. “People are readying themselves on their own dime, creating different loyalties, different notions of solidarity that weaken the labor movement.”
The 1980s kicked up something of a revival. To help employers cope with overseas competition, the United Auto Workers developed joint training programs with the Big Three automakers. That system spread to steel, health care, hospitality and aerospace, as companies paid into a common pot of money to develop a talent pool for the industry— solving the collective action problem when one employer fears its investments will be squandered if a newly trained employee is poached by a rival.
The cooperative model had several other advantages, unions say. First, it makes better use of a worker’s downtime and allows for flexibility and mobility. The training system helps workers throughout their careers, unlike a one-off certification.
“When people are on the bench because the job market’s bad, they do training and are able to gear back up,” said Dan Marschall, a workforce specialist at the AFLCIO. “And if there are jobs in another market, they can go there.”
In addition, supporters argue that giving workers a voice in the process makes for a more effective training program than anything a community college might devise.
“There are things that workers knowabout their jobs that nobody else knows,” said Brad Markell, executive director of the Industrial Union Council at the AFLCIO.
Union-trained workers, however, generally demand higher wages and better benefits— which led manufactures to look elsewhere. They started to locate in Southern right-to-work states, looking to avoid unions altogether.
Over the years, that has shifted costs to workers and the public education system. Companies in general have spent less on training as jobs have grown more transitory. So as manufacturing requires ever-more-sophisticated knowledge, the companies have found themselves without a base of trained workers, leading to complaints about a “skills gap.”
“The decline in union density left a hole, in that there was no way to get employers to work collectively,” said Andy Van Kleunen, chief executive of the National Skills Coalition.
In the absence of those joint labor-management programs, companies and communities have struggled to funnel people who need jobs into the areas of greatest demand. Frequently, these take the form of “sector partnerships” where an industry, school districts and the local government recruit and train for available positions. There are even tech-enabled matching services, like Work America, where community college students connect with employers.
Nobody has figured out the perfect model. And at the moment, unions aren’t very active in some of the-most-in-demand-fields, such as lab technicians and software engineers. Business associations have urged their members to step up and fill the void.
“What has been missing is enough employer involvement to make sure educational institutions are getting it right in the fast-changing world that businesses are all dealing with,” says John R. McKernan Jr. of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Unions tout their expertise
Until recently, unions had a formal way of participating in the discussion around vocational training: something called Working for America Institute, a nonprofit housed within the AFL-CIO. With funding having dried up, it’s gone dormant. At the same time, federal legislation passed in 1998 governing the distribution of job training funds sharply limited the ability of unions to participate.
“It really shut down labor’s voice in using some of these public monies,” said Debbie King, executive director of the Service Employees International Union’s Training and Employment Funds in New York City. “Certainly there’s not been big pressure to say labor should be at the table, and that labor has experience.” (A newversion of the law, which goes into effect on July 1, requires slightly higher union representation.)
Nevertheless, unions have started piping up to showcase their expertise in training the workforce of the future. Last November, they threwa summit with wonks and top Obama administration officials, talking about new — and old — ways to match workers with work. They point to some good examples of constructive labor-management partnerships, such as SEIU’s training programs in the health-care industries, which educate local residents as well as their own members.
“As the economy is recovering, and the union movement is realizing that they have something to offer,” Van Kleunen said, “I think you’re going to see more of them talking as one voice.”
But in one area — apprenticeships — there is still a measure of distrust.
In recent years, this on-the-job training, which usually comes with guaranteed employment at the end, has been the hottest trend in workforce development. The Labor Department is putting $100 million into apprenticeship programs. Presidential candidates as diverse as Marco Rubio and Hillary Rodham Clinton want to give companies incentives to offer them. Even Wal-Mart is working on a program to help funnel entry-level employees into careers.
Unions have facilitated apprenticeships for decades, and they account for the bulk of the registered 410,000 apprentices in the United States today. In trying to expand the franchise, federal officials have sought to re-brand apprenticeships.
“I don’t think there’s the intention to leave the unions behind,” said Maria Flynn, senior vice president with the workforce think tank Jobs for the Future. “But I think they’re trying to balance the importance of the historical strength that the unions have had, while also making clear the other opportunities that are out there.”
That makes unions nervous. There already is an incentive for employers to use apprentices in industries like construction, where prevailing wage rates allow them to be paid less than someone who’s fully trained. Sean McGarvey, president of the Building Trades Unions, worries that the White House might end up creating a bubble of low-quality programs that leave people without much to show for their money.
“There are good technical schools, but there’s lots of fly-by-nights out there that are willing to take your money,” McGarvey said. “We have a model that works very well, and we don’t want to see it damaged. We don’t want to see every Tom, Dick and Harry all of a sudden starting a for-profit apprenticeship operation, because we’re not-for-profit.”
Given their druthers, labor leaders would rather more people join unions and have free access to their employer-paid training programs, like the simulator outside Baltimore for union seafarers. This time, veteran pilot Aaron Golczynski had come back for a course on disaster response, to prepare for those situations during his runs on the Alaska Marine Highway that one can never predict.
“It’s two-tenths of a mile visibility. There was an island a half mile off, we couldn’t see it,” Golczynski recalled, over lunch at the training center’s cafeteria. “I could hear an outboard motor, driving out there lost, which is the worst thing. So I’m sounding the fog signal, and I could hear him, and he’s coming closer. I blew the whistle, and he veered off at the last minute. He could’ve just easily run into the side of the boat, and it would’ve been bad for everybody.”
Next time, if it does crash into him, Golczynski will know what to do.
“We have a model that works very well, and we don’t want to see it damaged.” Sean McGarvey, president of the Building Trades Unions,
on union apprenticeship and training programs
The simulator operated by the International Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots in Linthicum, Md., uses 360-degree imagery to mimic everything from a hurricane to a terrorist attack.
ABOVE: Veteran ship pilot Aaron Golczynski, left, third mate Blake Armand and chiefmate/relief captain Jon Cornelius experience simulated rough seas and a pitching deck as they train on a simulator operated by the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots in Linthicum, Md. BELOW: The simulator can provide images of ports and waterways around the world.