Labour relations profession faces challenges: Survey

Practitioners feel they lack knowledge, training to address demand for ‘soft skills’
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 05/02/2012

Many labour relations professionals in Canada feel they lack the expertise needed to meet the future demands of their changing profession, according to a new survey.

That future will see greater focus on collaboration and partnerships, rather than more traditional negotiation and collective bargaining, according to the report by researchers at Queen’s University’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) in Kingston, Ont. The November 2011 study had 184 respondents from across the country.

This means labour relations professionals will need to acquire soft skills, says Karla Thorpe, director of leadership and human resources research at The Conference Board of Canada.

“It means more active listening, communicating, being able to collaborate with others to find solutions,” she says. “A lot of it is about developing trust by doing things between negotiations, like getting together just to talk.”

More than 80 per cent of respondents listed active listening, relationship building and communication as “essential” for their day-to-day work, followed by collective agreement interpretation (60 per cent), and coaching and consulting (52 per cent).

However, when asked to rate their current level of skill in these areas, most ranked the top three as about four out of five, with five being “expert.” They gave themselves a lower mark, between three and four, in areas such as dispute resolution, negotiation and conflict analysis.

Some of the lack of confidence may stem from the changing role of labour relations within organizations, says Thorpe.

Traditionally, it was subsumed in the HR function and is only just becoming its own “function” with a greater strategic role, especially in more heavily unionized environments.

“There are more challenging and complex issues for LR (labour relations) to deal with,” Thorpe says. “They also have to deal with more departments in house, such as occupational health and safety and human resources.”

Labour relations issues are more complicated than they used to be, and that calls for a different skill set as identified by the respondents, says Paul Juniper, one of the study’s co-authors and director of the IRC. Queen’s uses facilitator-led learning to teach softer skills, such as active listening, he says.

Education itself may also be a contributing factor, according to Derek February, a labour relations advisor at the website CanadianLabourRelations.com.

In Canada, unlike the United States and some other countries, few universities offer specialized post-graduate degrees in labour relations, he notes.

“Their qualifications and training are more HR-centred rather than LR- centred,” February says. “Many LR professionals have HR academic qualifications with some LR courses being part of their degree, but HR is the dominant course of study.”

Juniper was recently at a meeting with six labour relations professionals who had received, in total, about 13 weeks’ worth of labour relations training, he says, noting some provinces do not require students in human resources take a course specific to labour relations.

With unionization rates shrinking in some provinces and in the private sector, it could be difficult for educational institutions to make the case for creating labour relations focused programs, he says.

Even in the workplace, February says job postings for labour relations managers often list duties that include HR functions.

“I guess two for the price of one may make sense to some companies, but that may lead to under-utilizing their LR expertise,” he says.

That could prove costly for employers, according to Juniper.

“A major mistake on a labour relations contract should make employers cautious to have someone with the right qualifications,” he says. “If there’s a misunderstanding on a cost of living allowance, for example, that costs a lot.”

While labour relations professionals have a desire to improve their skills, the survey found many of them are also under much heavier workloads since the economic downturn.

Globalization is also putting pressure on labour relations professionals to develop expertise outside of Canada, February says.

“There is a need for LR professionals to be skilled not only in Canadian labour relations but also knowledgeable in how global trends in labour relations can impact on how labour relations in Canada are conducted,” he says.

Succession planning will also demand more of seasoned labour relations professionals as they train the next generation while still doing their own jobs, according to Thorpe.

“A lot of those skills and competencies are learned over long periods of time after being exposed to different situations,” she says. “Even after 20 or 30 years, they’ll come across things they haven’t seen before.”

Meanwhile, the study has exposed a missing piece in the profession, Thorpe says: professional networks, such as forums, organizations and courses or certification processes where they can enhance their education, experience and connections.

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