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Unions 21
| Blog post

Can unions meet the private sector and professionalisation challenge?

By Sue Ferns, Senior Deputy General Secretary Prospect | 5 min

Arguably the biggest single change in the UK labour market this century has been the steady growth in professional and semi-professional roles. Over the past two decades the proportion of jobs typically requiring a degree or higher level vocational qualification has grown from under a third to almost four in ten. The forecasts that form the basis of the new Unions 21 report indicate that these trends will continue.

It’s a diverse group of workers spread across many sectors and industries. Over 3 million work in public services – as teachers, lecturers, doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers and related support roles such as teaching assistants, paramedics and PCSOs. The expansion of this section of the workforce has made an important contribution to stabilising total union membership over recent years – while also exacerbating its concentration in the public sector.

Looking to the private sector, three broad groups of professional and “associate professional” workers can be distinguished. Around 1 million work in creative, cultural or communications-focused roles, from advertising and graphic design to areas like film production and the performing arts where Bectu plays an important role alongside sister unions like Equity and the Musicians Union.

Another 2.5 million work in “science, research, engineering and technology” roles. Growing employment in science and engineering – including in manufacturing and utility sectors where the number of “craft” and lower-qualified jobs is falling – continues to offer recruitment opportunities for Prospect as well as other unions. But within this broad grouping the biggest and fastest growing segment are the one million now working in “Information Technology and Telecommunications”, for whom Prospect has recently launched a new tech workers sector.

The third and biggest group of all are the more than three million “business professionals” and semi-professionals working in areas like finance, accounting, law, HR, marketing, procurement, project management, and management consultancy. This is the group that might seem farthest from union membership – but there are numerous exceptions to this rule, particularly in organisations and industries where unions already have a presence, that suggest there need be no “no go areas” for us as a movement.

The intertwined history of trade unions and professional associations – but also the fact that unions can do things for its members that a pure professional association never can – suggests that we should see the growing professional workforce as an opportunity, not a threat. But to be able to benefit we will need to work hard – to keep in touch with these workers’ experiences and aspirations, and to keep up with the forces that are shaping their working lives.

For example, survey evidence suggests that a key issue for private sector professionals is quality of work and career development. Prospect has sought to learn from Sweden’s professional union Unionen, who saw a step-change in recruitment after in-depth research taught them that that selling the union as a safety net or “emergency service” for people with problems simply wasn’t compelling enough for many workers who, rightly or wrongly, felt positive and confident about their jobs and futures. Instead they developed fresh messaging from the motto that “everything can be improved” – and every worker can benefit from the enhanced power and influence over their working life that union membership can bring.

Related to this is the importance of developing an offer that works for self-employed or freelance workers. The growth in self-employment seen over recent decades took a hit during the pandemic, but official forecasts point to a resumption of the underlying trend over recent years. Under-regulation and new “gig” platforms are part of this story, but so are growing numbers of professionally skilled workers who value the autonomy and flexibility that self-employment can bring. Bectu has shown that union membership can and does work for creative sector freelancers looking to build their careers and boost their bargaining power – Prospect is finding ways to do the same for engineers, tech workers, project managers and others.

A third key area are the technological changes that are transforming working life, many of them accelerated by the disruptions of the pandemic. Professionals are typically accustomed to working with cutting-edge technologies, and optimistic about their potential to improve both their experience and effectiveness at work. But they also expect to be informed and in control. That is why Prospect has developed a leading role in debates around issues like the Right To Disconnect, data rights, and the accountability of AI and algorithmic management techniques. Workers are increasingly concerned that the unchecked infiltration of data-driven and automated technologies into business practices and working relationships could prove isolating, dehumanising and disempowering, and the job for unions is to show that we can be part of the solution.

Historically the notion of a profession has been associated with the pride and independence that a valued skill-set or area of expertise can bring, and a sense of connection with a wider community of colleagues that reaches beyond the immediate workplace. These are things that increasing numbers of workers value and aspire to today. Trade unions can welcome this. Our challenge is to ensure that the prospect of increasing professionalisation of the British workforce lives up to its promise.

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