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Where Vocational Training Meets Labor Literature

April 4, 2008
Related Topics: Career Development, Labor Relations, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
A new breed of educated worker is being minted at a small college outside Washington, D.C., in an innovative program that mixes vocational training with academics.

    The National Labor College, brainchild of the AFL-CIO and run by leaders of the American labor movement, specializes in college-degree programs and graduate studies for working adults. The difference is that these students are union members, blue and white collar alike, working toward accredited college degrees with a union bent, like a bachelor’s degree in the political economy of labor.

    The National Labor College offers courses in reading, composition and literature at its 47-acre campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, but the education that its 2,500 students receive comes with the union label. There’s Shakespeare, of course, but also classes such as "Labor in American Literature," which includes the work of muckraker Upton Sinclair, whose early 20th century exposé on meatpacking led to major reforms of the industry.

    Then there are courses by and for labor: contract law, mathematics for ironworkers and labor history. The curriculum also features more broad-based subjects, like leadership and training in hot new career fields like combating bioterrorism, disaster response and computer-aided design.

    "We were created with the belief that the labor movement needed to do more to be technologically literate in a global economy," NLC spokesman Matt Losak says.

    While policymakers and educators fret about the rising cost of higher education increasingly shutting out blue-collar workers and the working poor, Losak says, the Labor College aims to help working-class students overcome some of the obstacles blocking their path to a degree. The college has awarded more than 1,000 degrees in the last decade.

    "We’re filling a gap for union workers. We create more valuable citizens, with the ability to do research, to write clearly, to analyze information," Losak says.

    Many public and private technical training schools and community colleges train skilled workers and offer degrees and certifications for various traditional blue-collar workers, such as pipe fitters, ironworkers and other trades and craft workers, but those schools don’t generally confer baccalaureate degrees. The public institutions are also at the mercy of the ever-changing fortunes of state and federal government investment to keep running, so going beyond the traditional limits of degree-granting for those fields would be costly. The nonprofit Labor College, by contrast, relies on union dues and student tuition, which remains low—about $150 per credit, similar to a state college.

    For more than 25 years, American Federation of Labor leaders have been working to take collective workplace issues to a higher level through a college-level program specializing in subjects near and dear to labor. The Labor College started under the academic wing of Antioch College, a prestigious private liberal arts school in Ohio. By 1997, the program blossomed into a destination campus of its own, with the full accreditation seal of approval. The college also offers distance learning via the Web.

    The college offers course credit to workers for what they have learned and practiced on the job—what’s called "experiential learning" in education lingo. For example, the college takes the work that a plumber or pipe fitter does in the field and casts it as the equivalent of a college-level course in fluid mechanics. While unionized skilled trades workers can make good salaries—more than $50,000 per year—Losak says that they should have an avenue to earn academic recognition for their skills.

    "If you have credit-worthy experience and skill, we want to see you get academic credit for it," Losak says.

    He says there used to be two career tracks in the U.S.—white collar, with the college degree, and blue collar, where there was no expectation the worker would ever complete any sort of higher education.

    "That is an outmoded model," he says. "In the global economy, everyone needs to know what is going on."

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