Trade union research officers inform the activities and strategic development of trade unions by collecting, analysing and circulating information on social, economic and political issues.
Their research supports three key aims:
- recognition of unions as bargaining units;
- recruitment of new members;
- representation of members on issues that affect working people.
The role combines:
- research and writing;
- presentations to key decision makers;
- networking with other unions and academics;
- using specialist media.
Trade union research officers also work on joint projects with other agencies, dealing with common issues that affect working life and social justice. The role provides an opportunity for people with a strong political commitment to support workers' rights in various sectors such as engineering, retail and education.
A researcher's role spans the whole process of identifying issues to explore, gathering information, analysis, writing up results, delivering a report or briefing, and circulating information within and outside the union.
- applying qualitative and quantitative methodologies to research projects for the union on economic, social, political and industrial issues;
- interviewing members of the public, union workers and trade union officials;
- networking with other unions and external organisations in the UK and abroad;
- keeping up to date with industry and union developments;
- providing statistical data and other information to shop stewards for negotiations;
- analysing official documentation and legislation (recent and historical) to assess the impact on union activities and interests;
- working with other union staff, management and industry members to produce research information;
- collating information and producing reports and briefings to inform and create union policy;
- writing speeches, press releases and articles, e.g. for union journals and policy documents;
- preparing presentations for union committees and conferences;
- writing recruitment and publicity leaflets and assisting in developing publicity campaigns;
- responding to internal and external research enquiries;
- organising conferences and seminars;
- lobbying the government and advising branches;
- working with the media and other key influencers such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
- Starting salaries for trade union research officers vary according to region and can range from £18,000 to £22,000. Starting salaries in London may reach £29,000.
- With a few years' experience, researchers can expect to earn in the region of £30,000+.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are usually 9am to 5pm, 35 to 40 hours a week full time, although flexibility is expected. Some evening and weekend work may be required for events such as branch meetings or conferences, especially in smaller unions where there are fewer staff to provide cover.
What to expect
- Work is mainly office-based and undertaken in small teams or independently. Some travel may be required to complete primary research and conduct interviews. In more sizeable unions you may be part of a large but loose team structure that also includes policy officers and information managers. An increasing amount of work may be done from home.
- There is a high level of independence while researching. There are ad hoc day-to-day enquiries that need to be juggled alongside longer-term projects.
- Work may be stressful at busy times, such as before Trades Union Congress (TUC) meetings and other major union events.
- Jobs are available in restricted locations, with most opportunities arising in London and the South East. A few smaller unions are regionally based and these may contract work out to independent researchers.
- Travel within a working day, absence from home overnight, and overseas work or travel are all occasional and depend on union interests.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates, your chances may be increased with a degree in:
A degree related to the union's area of work may also be useful.
Entry without a degree is not usually possible. A postgraduate qualification may benefit your application, especially if your first degree doesn't cover statistics or quantitative methods. Relevant postgraduate subjects include:
- industrial relations;
- labour law;
- development studies;
- research methods or statistics.
Search for postgraduate courses in industrial relations.
You will need to show:
- commitment to the aims and objectives of trade unions, as well as a strong interest in political systems;
- knowledge of the key issues that affect specific trade unions and social, economic and political issues;
- excellent research skills - the ability to understand and interpret complex material and produce clear and concise written information and oral briefings;
- strong communication, interpersonal and networking skills;
- ability to analyse statistics and produce tables and graphs;
- good time management skills to handle projects alongside day-to-day tasks;
- the ability to use databases, online and web-based systems. Knowledge of specialist research software such as SPSS is an advantage.
Some unions are becoming more involved abroad, with offices in places like Brussels and East Asia, so language skills and cultural knowledge may be in demand.
Pre-entry experience is essential, ideally some prior involvement in trade union activities. Any work with a political slant is relevant, such as working in student union or society positions or as an MP's research assistant. If you have undertaken research related to union work, it may improve your prospects.
Experience in the voluntary sector, local government, a charity or a non-governmental organisation (NGO) may also be helpful.
Try to get involved in trade union or political party work. Contacts are useful and networking is important. Some trade unions take on work experience staff and it may be possible to start in an administrative role and move into research and policy later.
Competition is keen because job vacancies are rare and creation of new posts is unlikely as unions merge and membership falls. Numbers of vacancies may fluctuate, with a high turnover after an election.
An initial research position is likely to be with one of the larger trade unions, many of which are affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC). For information on the range of different unions affiliated to the TUC see TUC: Britain's Unions.
Some of the biggest unions include:
- Unite - the largest union in Britain with 1.4 million members. It covers main trades and industries, manufacturing and health sector, transport, construction, public services, vehicle building and more
- UNISON - serves more than 1.3 million members and represents staff who provide public services (Civil Service, education, utilities, government, health, voluntary sector).
- GMB - a general union open to all with over 600,000 members working in every part of the UK economy.
- Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) - covers a range of areas including food processing and manufacturing, catering, shop workers, pharmaceutical, call centres and home shopping.
- National Union of Teachers (NUT) and NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers) - the two largest trade unions representing teachers.
- Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) - covers government departments and agencies, public bodies, private sector IT and other services companies.
While TUC unions represent the majority of trade unionists in Britain, there are several unions that are not affiliated. These are mainly small organisations representing specialist staff.
There are also some substantial organisations outside the TUC, such as the Police Federation of England & Wales.
A list of all unions and employers' organisations is maintained by the government appointed Certification Officer.
Look for job vacancies at:
- National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)
- Research Job Finder
- Social Research Association Jobs
- TUC: Britain's Unions - for links to individual union websites.
Larger trade unions may advertise vacancies through their websites. Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
Training is mainly on the job and larger unions often have their own in-house training programmes.
As a research officer, you need to be proactive in identifying your own training and development needs, which are also related to the priorities and interests of your union. For example, an officer within a transport trade union may need knowledge of logistics management.
Additional areas of training may include:
- IT packages and databases;
- human resource management issues and industrial relations policy;
- company structures and how to analyse company reports and accounts;
- language skills;
- presentation skills.
If you need to improve your research skills you should investigate university courses in research methodologies, which are often at postgraduate level.
The Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University is home to the Trade Union Research Unit (TURU), which offers work based learning courses.
Training in social research may also be undertaken through attendance at events, conferences and seminars provided by specialist organisations, such as:
- Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
- National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)
- Social Research Association (SRA)
You should try to keep up to date with news and developments in the industry and this can be helped by accessing resources and attending events through the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Generally, it is your responsibility to seek out training opportunities that allow you to diversify your skills and maintain your employability for future jobs.
You may enter the field as a research assistant then progress to research officer. Following that, you can progress to senior research officer or head of research. Job titles vary and these roles are sometimes called senior policy officer.
Many research departments have fairly flat management structures and unions generally tend to have slower staff turnover than other organisations. This means that career progression prospects may be limited.
However, with the in-depth organisational knowledge that you develop as a researcher, it is possible to progress into other areas of union work, although this depends on the size and scope of the union.
Larger organisations are more likely to have research officer posts and dedicated departments, allowing more scope for career progression.
Most research officers move into other careers after a few years in post. Some go into other positions within the union, such as political adviser, but others move into another sector, perhaps relating to their specialist knowledge.
For example, if you have worked on transport policies, you may want to move into transport and logistics as a transport policy adviser.
It is also possible to use your skills from the researcher post to move into roles in areas such as:
- public relations;
- parliamentary advice;
Research is an expanding area. There are numerous opportunities within academia and private and voluntary sector organisations. The academic research route may lead to a career as a research fellow and lecturer. Think-tanks (research centres and institutes) provide numerous opportunities nationwide, see the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).