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.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY LY­DIA DEPILLIS

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

J.M. ED­DINS JR. FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

PHOTOS BY J.M. ED­DINS JR. FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

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