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Unions 21
| Blog post

Talent And How To Keep It

By Simon Sapper | 5 min

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Hmm....not that sort of talent!

We may not be able to define what “talent” means in trade unions terms, but I bet we all know it when we see it. The new rep with great oratory. The new member with a taste for organising. A long-standing, passive member shaken by a workplace injustice that compels them to activism. The community or political soul who imports their skills – and contacts!

After an initial buzz of excitement, of almost not being able to believe our good luck, we start to think a bit more strategically. Don’t push our new wonder-rep too far or too fast. Harness their energy and skill for sure, but expand the envelope of their comfort zone with care. There is sometimes resistance from longer established reps to overcome, who feel their place in the queue for reward and recognition has slipped. Employers may not be willing (or in some case, able) to release our rep with out significant special pleading – if the rep is in a recognised workplace to start with .

We invest in this release, in building up our reps’ experience and knowledge. Our training courses are a vital part of the picture – and WonderRep zips through them with verve and good humour. We introduce them to the wider trade union world - our international confederations, the TUC, and so on.

We anticipate and prevent some of the usual pitfalls – reps who can do the difficult things easily, but the simple things (like submitting reports) not at all. We sort our internal problems borne of misunderstanding or (sometimes) envy. We provide mentoring – sometimes formally sometimes just because it is what we do.

And then they leave us.

They leave their job. Or they are sacked. Or they are forced into a choice between promotion and the union, and go for the former. Or worse still forced into a choice between employment and the union. Or their life just changes.

But also, sometimes we leave them. Our WonderReps exhaust everything we can give them. The outlets and development opportunities of paid employment as an official or service on a national executive are mostly not available.

There are many different reasons why our brightest and best suddenly stop. Younger workers in particular have far more precarious forms of employment and much less certainty in their lifestyles. I believe that there are still some employers who effectively bully people out of trade union activism. So what’s to be done?

In my view the old organising maxim applies - we need to go to where people are rather than where we would wish them to be.

There are some things – like philosophically bad employers - we cannot immediately control, so let’s not waste time trying to, especially when there is so much we could do to retain expertise and enthusiasm in our movement. We also cannot realistically look to expand the numbers employed by trade unions, and NEC places are (rightly) subject to democracy.

No - we need to find other ways to maintain contact and involvement. Things like support for further training or academic study. Looking hard for new opportunities to serve (like on a panel of reps specially trained in Employment Tribunal representation). Secondment and work shadowing, with reciprocal arrangements amongst unions. A look at short term genuine project work that carries with it some status – like becoming an Associate” of the organisation that you are working for. Many of these things already happen - but I would argue a more systematic, collaborative approach would improve the yield, as it were.

Ultimately, we have to recognise that there is no fool-proof way to retain talented individuals in our organisations. We could argue that even when people leave us, the “good” we have been able to cultivate in them remains. They will take trade union values and great practical skills with them and hopefully continue to deploy them in a new context.

We could indeed argue that - and there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest this happens at least some of the time. But it is of limited comfort. And so the only sure-fire way to prevent our pool of talent being drained is to continually top it up.

Our search for new talent must be unending. Youth engagement is a stand-out priority, as it is the effective sharing and support that unions must give each other in this area. With such a low density of under 30s in unions or in recognised workplaces, or with “regular” contracts, we need to be flexible and innovative.

When WonderReps leave us, we should wish them well, do our best to keep in touch with them, and make sure we use the experience we have gained from the relationship to recruit, nurture and retain the next cohort.

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