January 2012

North of 49°
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First District Engages Next Generation of
Electrical Workers

In the United States and Canada, the IBEW has made outreach to young workers a top priority. Heading up the effort in the First District is Kate Walsh, who was hired in 2011 as strategic coordinator for NextGen, a district-wide initiative launched by International Vice President Phil Flemming to make the organization more responsive to the needs of up-and-coming IBEW activists and attract younger workers to the Brotherhood.

The Electrical Worker asked Walsh to discuss NextGen and what IBEW members can do to help the effort.

EW: What is NextGen and why is it a priority for the First District?

Kate: The IBEW in Canada is facing a growing leadership generation gap, all the while more young electrical workers are going nonunion than ever before. The goal of the NextGen initiative is to figure out how to make our organization representative of all of its members in order to increase youth engagement and grow the union.

The First District hired a generational research specialist to conduct surveys, one-on-one interviews and group discussions to gauge the attitudes and opinions of all four generations of IBEW members and we plan to use the findings to move forward.

EW: What economic challenges do young people face in Canada? What do they think about unions?

Kate: The national unemployment rate is 7.1 percent, but among workers aged 15-24, it is more like 14. Overall, young workers today face lower wages and a more aggressively anti-union federal government than previous generations — making it harder than ever to be a union member.

Our research shows that Gen Ys [those born after 1982] have little knowledge about the economic benefits of unions. The role labour played in creating and continuing to fight for the middle class is not taught in schools and too many business leaders and elected officials prefer to scapegoat and demonize organized labour. This constant negative bombardment leaves the general public — and Gen Y — with little else to go on when it comes to unions.

EW: What obstacles do younger IBEW members face? What can be done to get them more active in their locals?

Kate: Our polling finds that Gen Ys feel that there isn't the space within our organization for them to develop as leaders and promote union activism in a way that is relevant and rewarding for them and their peers.

The research also shows that there is widespread ignorance about what the IBEW actually does.

The IBEW has many things to be proud of and we need to take every opportunity to educate members about the fundamentals and positive attributes of our organization. And we have to communicate those messages in a way younger people can relate to: using social media with direct and concise messaging.

EW: What can the older generation do to encourage newer members to get active in the union?

Kate:: Newer members respect the experiences and knowledge of the older generation of union leaders, but believe that as young people, they have a unique perspective that can also be used to support the work of the labour movement. Seasoned leaders should provide guidance and opportunities for younger workers to get involved, giving them the space to take on leadership roles.

EW: What are NextGen's next steps? What can business managers do to support NextGen?

Kate: We are working to develop NextGen committees in each local union across the First District to help create a space for IBEW members under the age of 35 to get involved — a place where they can discuss issues relevant to them in their workplace and their community and learn more about the structures and culture of the IBEW. NextGen committees can also provide leaders with a direct link to a huge portion of their membership so they can ensure that the needs and interests of younger members are properly understood and represented. Business managers can support the NextGen initiative by starting a NextGen committee in their local, including younger workers when hosting meetings, training opportunities or attending conferences and gather input and feedback to demonstrate to new members that their involvement is important.

With social media, we have a greater opportunity to ensure that the IBEW's voice is heard and can compete with the misleading stories about unions. We have to share our positive stories, positioning the IBEW as a leader in safety, training and education, good careers and equal rights.