The role of unions in developing a skilled workforce

by Randi Weingarten
President, American Federation of Teachers

As we slowly recover from the worst economic recession since the 1920s, labour markets around the world remain turbulent. We are facing more social and economic inequality with wages stagnating and many people dropping out of the workforce entirely.

How can the American Federation of Teachers and other trade unions around the world help?

First, unions should be viewed as part of the solution, not as something to overcome. Labour-management collaboration is essential to developing skilled workers and, in turn, to creating better jobs and higher salaries. Workers need to be represented at the bargaining table and—regardless of the trade or profession—unions can be an important partner. That is the key to developing a flexible, smart workforce ready and equipped to be full partners with management.

If our workforce is going to thrive in the 21st century, we need to begin by changing much about our approach to education—from inside the classroom and larger school environment, to how we care for children, to how labour and management work together across the world.

In every country, a flourishing economy requires a strong education foundation as well as the ability to innovate and to communicate. It also requires teachers who are prepared and supported on every level and who are invested in helping students succeed in school and in life.

In Singapore, for example, where I spent time with teachers and students earlier this year, schools are focused on growth and achievement. However, as I observed numerous diverse groups of children deeply engaged in learning, I saw nothing that could be construed as “teaching to the test”—something that educators in the United States continue to contend with. In Singapore and in other countries with high-performing education systems, schools have listened to their teachers and collaborated with them to ensure the best education practices are implemented.

Additionally, the OECD can work with education unions to collaborate on important skills-developing issues, including:

  • Global teaching standards—These include guidelines to ensure high-functioning, well-prepared, continuously improving teachers in every classroom. However, teachers cannot do this alone. They should be given the continuous support and respect they deserve –which, in large part, means treating education as a shared responsibility.
  • Educational  equality—We can address issues of educational inequality worldwide through expanding and enhancing the successful efforts of countries in which every child receives a good education regardless of economic status. We also need to level the playing field for poor children by ensuring the availability of early childhood education and wrap-around services. We can address these issues before they become significant obstacles to learning.
  • Curriculum—Ensuring a well-rounded, robust curriculum that prepares students for the future is essential to advancing workforce preparation. A child’s studies should focus on accessing and sorting information to solve complex problems and develop higher-level thinking skills, as opposed to finding answers to simple questions learned by rote. Businesses can help prepare students through mentoring and internships, while at school we can offer more project-based learning to ensure the mastery of skills sets.
  • Models of collaboration—The OECD and unions can disseminate examples of labour and management working together to solve problems. Sharing best practices and successful partnerships can help lead to greater and more effective co-operation.

Education by itself will not address the jobs crisis, nor can education by itself address inequality. But without education, the fight for jobs and fair societies cannot be won. We’re excited to take part in the process.

Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC)
American Federation of Teachers
See also: OECD Skills Strategy

Visit our interactive portal on skills:

More blogs with Randi Weingarten:
‘An obligation to systematise success’
‘Internationalist, not isolationist’
Photo credit: Child hands on top of each other / Shutterstock

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