Attracting the Best (Young) Teachers

Article by Daniel Barwick

Attracting the Best (Young) Teachers

In other posts, I’ll discuss different ways in which Independence Community College attracts and retains the best talent (and the reasons why it has trouble doing so). In this post, I’ll focus on one of the most vexing problems that (a) receives little attention, (b) is technically not very difficult, (c) it nearly completely within the control of the organization and its components, and (d) has turned out to be darned difficult.

That problem is reconciling the traditional interests of labor unions with the interests of young recruits.

Standard disclaimer: this post isn’t about preferring younger employees or encouraging age discrimination. Rather, it’s about the ways in which organizations are making themselves less appealing to younger workers.

The media is fascinated with the overall decline in unions. This lamentable decline is well documented, and the reasons for this change our widely discussed. I do not celebrate this decline – in fact, I think that there is compelling evidence that unions contribute to overall economic and industrial strength, industrial and personal economic wealth, and economic equity.

There is general consensus that there are several reasons for the decline. The collective wisdom is generally described by attributing the decline to a number of factors, of which this explanation by the Economist in late 2015 is a typical example:

“The decline is largely due to structural changes in advanced economies. Total manufacturing employment in America has fallen from nearly 20m in 1979 to 12m today. The kind of workers who have lost out—in particular, unskilled men—were precisely those most likely to be in a union in the first place. And what has sprung up to replace them crimps unions further. If you went to a factory in the 1970s, you would have seen assembly lines of people. Such workers were much more amenable to the idea of “class consciousness”. Go to a factory today and you might you get a few people monitoring robots and other whizzy bits of machinery. Add to the mix globalisation, which makes it harder for unions to regulate work, the rise of a more flexible service sector, and government policies (such as those imposed by a Conservative-led government in Britain in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher) and the loss of union clout seems inevitable. More recent reforms to minimum wages and workplace discrimination have also reduced the need to be in one.”

The discussion overlooks a significant reason for the decline in unions in the last five years, particularly in the service sectors. Put very generally, an entity declines when it is seen as less valuable. The people who manage unions or do the union negotiating see unions as just as valuable as ever. So who is it among the population who sees unions as less valuable? One answer is young people, whose values can be very different than what organized labor stands for. For example, on the the podcast The James Altucher Show, LinkedIn CEO Bob Roth stated that their internal review of their own data shows that people 24 and under care about workplace culture and workplace relationships far more than they care about workplace benefits.

Anyone who has participated in union negotiations knows that they typically stand or fall based on whether negotiations reach agreement regarding compensation; typically salary and benefits. And because of the increase in cost and complexity of benefits, increasingly the conversation centers around benefits. But if traditional benefits do not critically interest young people, then what the union is advocating for does not interest young people. So increasing numbers of young people are becoming indifferent to what the union provides. But more importantly, the union position that focuses nearly entirely on salary and benefits may actually be driving young people away. If we assume that everything the company provides requires some resources to provide, it means that the organization that has given all it feels it can give in negotiations (which the union has requested to be in the form of salary and traditional benefits), then there will be less resources left to devote to the kinds of cultural shifts that the younger union members value. So if the younger union member then attempts to advocate for workplace practices that, say, provide social interaction, if those interactions require resources (either in the form of time or money) the company will truthfully say that those resources are not available.

This dichotomy between the desires of the younger union members and the older unit members is, in many cases, codified. For example, state statutes that list mandatory negotiated items never talk about the kinds of benefits in the workplace that younger workers are typically seeking, but they always mention the kind of benefits that older workers favor. Likewise, when unions survey members, the survey language typically already draws a box around the kinds of things that the union is interested in or willing to advocate for. The union will ask questions like how much of a raise do you want? How much of a deductible are you willing to pay for your health insurance? How much of a 403B match should we seek? These are familiar topics. But how often does a union ask its members whether it should hold firm on asking for Friday afternoons off? Or for the company to allocate specific amount of money strictly to pay for social opportunities between employees? Or anything else that might fall into the general heading of negotiating for more “fun” in the workplace?

The result is that while the younger person certainly intellectually appreciates a higher salary or good health care coverage, it’s simply not what they are yearning for. There are two results. The first is that they try working somewhere else, someplace where they hope that their yearning will be satisfied. But the more important consequence is that they become less enthusiastic about (or perhaps indifferent to) the role of the union in the workplace. This is fundamentally different than what the media focuses on when they report on the general decline of unions. The media focuses on those people or groups that are hostile to unions. But I would suggest that in an era where there is genuine hostility toward unions, a bulwark against that hostility will be the enthusiasm that workers have for unions. Simply put, the workers who are enthusiastic about unions are aging out of the workforce. This process continues because the people who are typically negotiating on behalf of the unions are either representing the interests of the older union members who are more active in the unions, or actually drawn from the ranks of the older union members.

Further driving this destructive cycle is the culture that has been created, which suggests that unions are primarily about workload and compensation, and this culture is imbedded not only in the unions themselves but in the larger context, which includes the people who create the statutes that govern negotiations. Compounding this issue is that once the companies themselves have defined compensation primarily in terms of financial resources transferred to the employee, rather than modification of the work experience itself, then the companies themselves have an incentive to negotiate only on those items to which they are already devoting resources.

I have participated personally in negotiations at least a half dozen times. In all cases the team of faculty negotiators consisted of about 2/3 older faculty and 1/3 younger faculty, and the older faculty do nearly all the talking. (Often, the younger faculty are participating in their first negotiation.) The average age of the negotiator is 45, but the average age of the union member they are representing is 36.

What other evidence appears to confirm that this dichotomy and subsequent shift is occurring? One of the best places to look is companies whose benefits did not come about through collective bargaining. Take Google for instance. Here is’s list of just SOME of the benefits of working at Google:

1. Google employees are extremely well fed, getting healthy and varied breakfast, lunch, and even dinner if they stay late — for free. There are also coffee and juice bars scattered throughout the campuses.

One Googler commented that they loved the food perk because, “it saves me time and money, and helps me build relationships with my colleagues.” (Obviously, I’m including that last quote for a reason!)

2. Working at Google, you’re exposed to amazing people and great thinkers.

One Googler said that the company is a great place to see, listen to, and meet with people who he grew up reading about (“Never in my life have I met so many people with a Wikipedia page than in the last year!” he writes).

Another Googler also had only great things to say about his coworkers:

We are surrounded by smart, driven people who provide the best environment for learning I’ve ever experienced. I don’t mean through tech talks and formal training programs, I mean through working with awesome colleagues — even the non-famous ones.

I’ve worked at several other .coms and have never been more challenged and energized professionally from my colleagues than at Google. People are generally happy to work there, they come from diverse backgrounds, and almost always have an interesting story to share. Besides being exposed to tech leaders, there are often talks with celebrities and other thought leaders.

3. Dogs are welcome!

Googlers are free to bring their pets to work. A former Googler describes why bringing his dog to work is so great. He says that it not only helped keep his energy up, but brought spontaneous joy to his coworkers and helped him meet people he probably would not have otherwise. (Again, noting that for a reason!)

4. Googlers at the Mountain View campus get a free ride to and from work. Even though Google’s buses have become controversial, they’re still an amazing resource for its employees. All the buses are equipped with Wi-Fi, so not only can employees live anywhere in San Francisco without needing a car to get to work, but they can relax, have fun, or get work done on the way there.

5. Free “massage credits.”

Employees can give each other “massage credits” for a job well done on projects. The massage credits can be redeemed for a free one-hour massage on campus.

6. New parents get the break they deserve.

It’s typical for mothers to get time off from work for up to six weeks after having a child in the US, but at Google it’s another story. New dads receive six weeks of paid leave, and moms can take 18 weeks, and employees’ stock continues to vest (and they continue to receive bonuses) while they are on leave. When parents return to work, there are free on-site daycares for children.

7. The 80/20 rule gives Googlers plenty of opportunity for creativity.

The 80/20 rule allows Googlers to dedicate 80% of time to their primary job and 20% working on passion projects that they believe will help the company.

8. Google employees can get extended time off to follow their passions.

In addition to vacations, Google’s leave policies give workers more opportunities to explore life outside of the workplace. Googlers can take a three-month leave of unpaid time off, under specific circumstances. Healthcare benefits continue for unpaid leaves of up to three months. Googlers can use their time off to work with nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, and other community-oriented projects they’re interested in.

There are many more benefits to working at Google – this is just a partial list. Did these appealing benefits come about through union negotiation? No. In fact if we look at the list of the top five companies in the United States to work for, all of them are either unionized or primarily non-union. So the appeal of these companies is both a symptom of the problem and the cause. It is a symptom in the sense that these companies are largely free from the cultural and legislative context that governs our union environment and produces typical union–negotiated results, and it is a cause in the sense that young people migrate to these companies and away from union shops, weakening the unions in two ways: lessening their current ranks, and setting the stage for future decline by reducing the ranks of younger, mobile people in union shops who might advocate for what they value in the workplace.