Career: Labor Relations Specialist
Labor relations specialists negotiate contracts, including compensation rates, benefits, working conditions, and rates of advancement, between workers and managers. “If you’re doing your job right, no one likes you, but everyone is happy with the deal,” said one ten-year veteran of labor relations. This ability to act as the lodestone for others’ discontent is important to the success of eventual agreements. Those who are most successful in this occupation are able to see creative alternatives that satisfy the needs of one group without eroding the needs of another. In some cases, these “win/win” scenarios are difficult or impossible to achieve; the smart labor relations specialist enlists both sides in the quest for such solutions. Labor relations experts trade on their reputation and integrity, which can bring disparate groups together, and their ability to conclude deals. Everything else is secondary.
Most of the work a labor relations specialist does happens before anyone sits down at a table. A labor relations specialist is an educator on behalf of either the labor or management side and occasionally both. Education about the needs and abilities of either side is critical to not only the successful completion of single negotiations, but also for the long-term relationship between negotiating parties. Current thoughts on negotiation see most ongoing relationships as long-term “partnerships” that need to be maintained and nurtured. Labor relations specialists review documents and meet with members of other parties daily to assess their needs and abilities. A significant 45 percent of time at the office is spent on the telephone, discussing details, histories, and possible alternatives. Face-to-face meetings are less common than telephone consultations.
Labor relations experts analyze compensation rates, labor needs, and market research, and examine prior contracts between employers and employees. They must be skilled at seeing both details of the specific negotiations and the larger context into which these negotiations must be placed. This bifocal vision takes time to develop; over half the professional labor relationship experts we surveyed mentioned that given the opportunity, they would redo most of the negotiations they handled in the first five years of their careers.
In few other careers are the requirements for entry so debated. Some feel that an undergraduate background in personnel relations, labor economics, industrial psychology, or sociology are critical to success in this field. Others think that an M.B.A. and legal training are the best preparation. A third group feels that the industry should model itself more on apprenticeship programs and people should learn by sitting in on negotiations and discussions, and reviewing past negotiations and solutions. All agree that an undergraduate degree which demonstrates the ability to communicate clearly and argue persuasively is an advantage. For those entering government labor relations, coursework in government issues would be helpful. Graduate-level coursework in industrial relations, economics, law, or history can be advantageous. While you may feel that all this studying should prepare you for serious responsibilities right away, you must realize that competitive entry-level positions may entail fairly lowly work, including library research, computer analysis, and general assistant duties, from scheduling lunches to “ordering office furniture,” as one respondent mentioned.
Labor relations specialists have to become experts in a variety of industries to do their jobs properly; once experts, many choose to assume more certain, and less acrimonious, roles as advisors in those professions. A number go into government service, and a large portion who are attorneys return to practice in labor litigation on either the managers’ or workers’ side. Some become authors, lecturers, and teachers in the field of industrial relations.