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A Day in the Life of a Labor Relations Specialist

Labor relations specialists negotiate contracts, including compensation rates, benefits, working conditions, and rates of advancement, between workers and managers. “If you’re doing your job right, no one likes you, but everyone is happy with the deal,” said one ten-year veteran of labor relations. This ability to act as the lodestone for others’ discontent is important to the success of eventual agreements. Those who are most successful in this occupation are able to see creative alternatives that satisfy the needs of one group without eroding the needs of another. In some cases, these “win/win” scenarios are difficult or impossible to achieve; the smart labor relations specialist enlists both sides in the quest for such solutions. Labor relations experts trade on their reputation and integrity, which can bring disparate groups together, and their ability to conclude deals. Everything else is secondary. Most of the work a labor relations specialist does happens before anyone sits down at a table. A labor relations specialist is an educator on behalf of either the labor or management side and occasionally both. Education about the needs and abilities of either side is critical to not only the successful completion of single negotiations, but also for the long-term relationship between negotiating parties. Current thoughts on negotiation see most ongoing relationships as long-term “partnerships” that need to be maintained and nurtured. Labor relations specialists review documents and meet with members of other parties daily to assess their needs and abilities. A significant 45 percent of time at the office is spent on the telephone, discussing details, histories, and possible alternatives. Face-to-face meetings are less common than telephone consultations. Labor relations experts analyze compensation rates, labor needs, and market research, and examine prior contracts between employers and employees. They must be skilled at seeing both details of the specific negotiations and the larger context into which these negotiations must be placed. This bifocal vision takes time to develop; over half the professional labor relationship experts we surveyed mentioned that given the opportunity, they would redo most of the negotiations they handled in the first five years of their careers.

Paying Your Dues

In few other careers are the requirements for entry so debated. Some feel that an undergraduate background in personnel relations, labor economics, industrial psychology, or sociology are critical to success in this field. Others think that an M.B.A. and legal training are the best preparation. A third group feels that the industry should model itself more on apprenticeship programs and people should learn by sitting in on negotiations and discussions, and reviewing past negotiations and solutions. All agree that an undergraduate degree which demonstrates the ability to communicate clearly and argue persuasively is an advantage. For those entering government labor relations, coursework in government issues would be helpful. Graduate-level coursework in industrial relations, economics, law, or history can be advantageous. While you may feel that all this studying should prepare you for serious responsibilities right away, you must realize that competitive entry-level positions may entail fairly lowly work, including library research, computer analysis, and general assistant duties, from scheduling lunches to “ordering office furniture,” as one respondent mentioned.

Present and Future

Unions came into their own in the 1930s, after decades of fighting to address the powerlessness of America’s workers. Workers were inclined to distrust management and management was inclined to respond to their own economic needs without consideration for the workers. This gap in communication created the need for the labor relations specialist, a third party who could identify the needs of the two groups and communicate those needs in positive, forward-looking terms. Among significant figures in labor relations are Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL-CIO, and Jimmy Hoffa, who turned the Teamsters into the nation’s largest union. Personnel issues will become more important for both large and small companies in the future. Consulting firms which mediate between smaller firms and their employees are growing in importance and reputation. Shifting labor national headquarters and the general migration of labor will move the labor job market more to the West from the East and Northeast.

Quality of Life


Most beginning labor relations specialists learn under the guidance of a mentor or a group. The first few years are a period of education. Responsibilities are limited but hours are long; many professionals do research, review documents, and write summary reports. Pay is small, as is input to the negotiations-most prefer to be silent, watch, and listen. Successful labor relations specialists cite lessons learned in the early years, such as how to ask productive questions, how to disarm opponents’ negotiating ploys, and how to set initial bid levels, as key to their future achievements.


Five years into the profession, many labor relations specialists choose one side-labor or management-to represent. Some act as independent arbiters for private organizations, such as the American Arbitration Association, and hone their listening and judgment skills. Client contact, which in years one through three was minimal, becomes important. Specialists define discrete areas of responsibility for themselves, and many take a place at the negotiation table. Those who are successful build up their resumes by working on different deals. Others who are not yet successful stay in the background to learn the profession more carefully. Professionals assume the role of lead negotiator between four and ten years into their careers.


A strange phenomenon comes over a number of labor relations specialists in years ten through twelve-a number switch from their original side of negotiations to the other (i.e., from management’s side to labor’s side, or vice versa). Salaries rise dramatically, as do client expectations. Hours and responsibilities increase, but more on a supervisory level than on a day-to-day negotiation management level. Communication skills and client skills are critical to continued success at this point. Those who cannot complete sound, sensible deals will find themselves moving to other professions.