Labor-Management Partnerships Boost Training

By Sunoo, Brenda Paik | Workforce, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Labor-Management Partnerships Boost Training


Sunoo, Brenda Paik, Workforce


Collective bargaining agreements have spawned effective workplace training programs.

American businesses are estimated to lose more than $60 billion in productivity each year due to employees' lack of basic skills, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute for Literacy. Yet a mail survey conducted in 1994 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that only 2.2 percent of all establishments in the United States were providing training in basic reading, writing, math and English language skills in the previous year.

"The percentage is dismal," says Tony R. Sarmiento, director, Worker Center Learning, a division of the AFL-CIO Working For America Institute in Washington, D.C. "What we have is a lack of opportunity for adults to add to their skills-- not a lack of interest," he says. By working together, however, unions and management are creating effective learning environments where adults can take their next steps toward literacy and career development.

HR helps make the partnership possible.

Although joint union-management training efforts aren't new, many labor organizations have made training and worker development top priorities at the bargaining table. "These kinds of programs gained steam in the '80s, but the '90s brought it to a critical mass," says Marshall Goldberg, director of the New York City-based Association of Joint Labor/Management Educational Program. The partnerships ensure that both sides are held more accountable.

As high skill levels and versatility become increasingly important in a service-oriented, technology-based global economy, HR professionals in union settings (and non-union settings) will have to develop programs in a variety of forms. Programs can vary in cost, governance, design, curriculum and location. Each will depend on the industry and the needs of workers and employers.

The good news is that workplace literacy programs don't have to be expensive. In fact, federal and state grants and tax credits are available to make the incentives more palatable. Below are some examples of labor and management partnerships that have successfully tackled the training issue.

Cooperation is the key to effective training.

In most cases of cooperative training and education efforts, a joint board composed of equal union and management representatives has been involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of various programs. According to the AFL-CIO, this approach ensures that a consensus is reached among the two parties. Funding to the programs is most often negotiated in the union contract, although some of the more established and successful programs have received government funding to extend their services to more workers.

John Dietsch is an example of a worker who stretched his potential. A high school dropout at age 17, he entered the military service. Later, he became a truck driver before embarking on a 22-year career as a steelworker at Bethlehem's Sparrows Point facility in Baltimore.

But when Bethlehem announced plans to open a new cold sheet mill, Dietsch, then 52, was forced to reconsider the importance of an education. He had to pass an entrance exam that established a baseline of basic skills for work in the new mill. He turned to the Merrillville, Indiana-based Institute for Career Development (ICD) for help.

ICD is a workforce training program for eligible members of the Steelworkers Union. It was created in 1989 as a result of contract negotiations between the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and major steel companies. Today, the joint labormanagement initiative oversees the Career Development programs, which includes GED preparation to graduate-level college courses.

Approximately 85 percent of the courses are customized, says Andy Smith, spokeman for ICD. Instructors are hired to teach classes specifically to steelworkers. Access to other courses is made available through a tuition-assistance program that provides up to $1,800 annually to each worker for tuition, books and fees at accredited institutions of higher learning. …

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