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Labor Unions and the “Double-Helix” of America’s Workforce Development Future

Niskanen Center

January 19, 2023

The role of labor unions in the future of American workforce development depends largely on how we conceive of the needs and demands facing workers and the economy. Traditionally, we’ve thought of workforce development in terms of formal, technical skill development and the so-called “skills gap,” the difference between the credentials and skills our training and workforce development programs produce and what business and industry needs.

But formal skills are only half of the challenge we face. The true picture of our workforce development needs is like a double-helix that weaves together both formal technical skills and the noncognitive soft skills that help ease workflow and underpin education and training broadly. Labor unions have an important role to play in both regards.

First, the technical-skill side.

Rapidly advancing technology continues to accelerate technical-skill demands. Whether it’s turning wrenches on an assembly, making dumplings, or checking groceries, new combinations of artificial intelligence and robotic processes are combining to reduce the amount of human labor required to produce products and services dominated by routine skills. New business models are reengineering tasks and entire chains of production and delivery, replacing both human technical understanding and labor with algorithmic management and robotics. To stay ahead of the curve, workers need to find ways to move up the value chain, away from easier-to-automate routine and repetitive tasks toward more bespoke and human-facing tasks.

Economists argue that technological change is a plus for growth and income since it boosts productivity. Higher productivity brings higher wages, and higher wages increase aggregate demand for new products and services that create new tasks and jobs. This new demand means that the future of work is unstable and, to a large degree, unknowable. For instance, in 2018, the Institute for the Future estimated that 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 had not yet been invented and even among the jobs that remain, the skill mix required to do them is likely to change dramatically as elements of the work are automated. 

But even this relatively hopeful and historically grounded view has significant gaps. To say we shouldn’t worry about worker displacement because innovation will generate new, higher-paying jobs in information technology overlooks the transition costs that fall mainly on workers. For instance, a grocery store clerk replaced by computerized checkout cannot automatically become qualified to work in back-office IT. If we assume the clerk in this scenario has interest and predisposition to become an IT designer or manager, what institutions can provide the training conduits to help them gain the needed skills and, equally important, how will the training be financed? If they lack interest and disposition to become programmers, the question remains: How will this worker find their way to new employment?

Unions can be an important part of the answers to these questions. We are in the midst of an explosion of apprenticeship training opportunities, both traditional, registered apprenticeships and industry-recognized apprenticeship programs. In the year that just ended, 214,000 people aged 16 to 24 were enrolled in apprenticeships, more than double the number from just a decade ago. These programs cost money to design and operate but, because they pay wages during training, they significantly ease the transition costs for workers by letting them earn while they train. Unions, especially those in the trades (e.g., electrical, carpentry, and plumbing) have always played a significant role in shaping and delivering registered apprenticeship programs. As investment in apprenticeship programs grows, the importance of unions in delivering those programs will also grow.

As noted above, however, technical skills are only one strand of the workforce development helix. When business owners and managers are asked about what they see as the deficits in the American workforce, they usually provide a list of social capacities and behaviors that relate only loosely (and sometimes not at all) to the technical skills needed for a particular job. These noncognitive or soft skills (which also go by a number of other names like portable skills, professional skills, social-emotional skills, and interpersonal skills) include behavioral assets like conscientiousness, perseverance, collaboration, and empathy that form the foundation of technical skill development. 

Generic skills competency model

These are the kinds of skills that are more likely to be “caught” than “taught” and some of the important institutions for their “transmission” are the “little platoons” of American society — the faith, voluntary, and civil society organizations that help people develop and maintain connections to one another and their communities. Such organizations, including labor unions, help to aggregate social and economic interests, mediate between the individual and government, generate social capital in local communities, and foster the so-called “weak ties” – the friend-of-a-friend connections – that help link people to new jobs, training, and careers. A union hall and the professional and social activities they deliver help to build these kinds of ties.

For the past 70 years, American participation in civil society has been “thinning out”, with many civil society institutions – everything from houses of worship to PTAs to bowling leagues – seeing sharp drops in participation. The American Enterprise Institute’s recent survey found that a minority of American workers ever attend religious services, volunteer with civic organizations, take part in reading or hobby groups, or participate in community athletic teams. 

Though they are not always thought of this way, unions are part of the web of nongovernmental institutions that bind communities together and teach sociability to their members. These socializing mechanisms and the noncognitive skills they both impart and strengthen have always been critical to effective learning, workforce development, and on-the-job performance. This is doubly true as the premium on skill development rises along with the demand for non-routine, human-facing, noncognitive skills. The main challenge we face is not from automation, but in helping workers to gain both the technical and soft skills new and emerging occupations require. The services and support that unions provide are vital elements in preparing workers for this new social workplace. 

The role of labor unions in the future of American workforce development is crucial in terms of providing workers with both formal technical skills and noncognitive soft-skills that are essential for success in the workforce. Potential legislation that could support this role could include measures that support the development and expansion of apprenticeship programs, provide funding for training and education programs, and protect the rights of workers to organize and form unions. This type of legislation could help to ensure that labor unions have the resources and support they need to help strengthen both their economic and social missions.