‘How being a Prospect rep helped me get a new job’

Being a Prospect rep can be rewarding in all sorts of ways: you learn new skills, meet lots of people and get the satisfaction of helping your colleagues. For George Ryall, it has even helped him get a new job. He tells Boc Ly how his career has benefitted from being involved with Prospect.

It is a common misconception that being in a trade union, much less being an active rep, might be harmful to your career. Early on in his career, George Ryall, a software engineer at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, thought the same himself.

“I think I was concerned to some degree at the start about what getting involved with a union might mean for my career. I was aware that some people might think it’s a negative thing,” he says now.

“But I was bloody minded enough to just do it, and figured that I was junior enough and wouldn’t be noticed anyway.”

Now, George has good reason to be thankful that he has been, and still is, an active Prospect rep in his workplace.

Recently, he has taken up a new role as the Ada Lovelace Centre’s Collaboration Manager, working within the Scientific Computing Department at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and acting as a liaison point between all the other large facilities on site, such as the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

“Stakeholder engagement and management are the kind of skills that you pick up while doing things like pay negotiations.”

It was an opportunity, he says, that came largely through the skills he has learnt from his union activities.

“I was able to negotiate a new role for myself in my department on the basis of some of the soft skills I’ve learned from my trade union work, such as influencing and working with people.

“Stakeholder engagement and management are the kind of skills that you pick up while doing things like pay negotiations, or terms and conditions at work. Without all that, I wouldn’t be doing the new role I’m in today.”

The very ethos of Prospect has also helped to shape George’s career development.

“For the large part, as a union we tend to be pragmatists. We tend to be working with management, certainly at my branch, and I think other Prospect branches, to persuade them that what they’re doing is a bad idea. They should do it this way instead, and this is why it would benefit them.

“It’s about persuasion and influence rather than about threats and table-banging. We’re more likely to be seen as allies and people trying to help, rather than people who are causing problems. That helps us as Prospect reps.”

Training and soft skills

George has attended several Prospect courses, such as negotiation skills and employment law, but the greater benefit, or those soft skills, has been learnt through just carrying out his union duties.

“The other thing that being a rep has given me is a wide perspective of the whole organisation. We are an organisation of about 7,500, and I just sit in one small corner of one large corner of one even larger corner of the organisation,” he says.

“My trade union work has given me an insight to the whole organisation that I don’t think many people actually have.”

“There is also a network of reps who tell you things about the rest of the organisation. It’s really why I am now in my new role, which is largely about building relationships with people in different parts of my site, and my council.”

George is testament to the fact that union reps will often know more about what’s going on inside an organisation than their own line managers. Colleagues are quick to ask him questions about various things going on, HR policies or the latest on this year’s pay award.

“There are some skills and insights I’m picking up that other people in my area don’t have, and it’s only because of my trade union work.”

His readiness to embrace union activities, and use it as a catalyst for his own professional self-development, was definitely noticed by his managers.

“We have an annual appraisal system,” he says.

“It’s been recognised for the last couple of years that there are some skills I’m picking up that other people in my area don’t have, and it’s only because of my trade union work.”

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As George explains, being active in Prospect can give you more benefits than you might have thought of. Could you benefit from some of the skills and experience George mentions?
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Union roles

George is a Physics graduate and has a Masters in Astrophysics. After his studies, he earned a place on the graduate scheme at the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

At the end of the scheme he moved into a software development role within the Scientific Computing Department, working on a web service that supports the particle physics community around the world to run the computing systems, which store and process the data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

It was very early on at his time at the STFC that he joined Prospect, out of nothing more than a “belief that you should join a trade union.”

He says: “It’s just my general philosophy that if you’re in a large employer, then you need someone who’s going to represent you. Just to be part of a collective voice.”

Initially though, being a Prospect member didn’t make the greatest impression on him. For the first year of his membership no-one got in touch to tell him anything about what was going on at the STFC.

It soon transpired that the local section had lost some key people to retirement, and the remaining members were fully stretched just doing the bare minimum.

“They didn’t have time to think about recruitment, talking to new starters, or even really communicating with the membership at large,” says George.

“They were just about managing to do the negotiation side of it, and I suspect that was as much Prospect’s full-time officers as it was them.”

The experience illustrates that you can’t have a successful branch without Prospect HQ but you also can’t have successful a branch without active lay reps, says George.

Since that rocky start though, George has been heavily involved.

His attitude was: “Someone needed to do it and it sounded interesting. I couldn’t really complain about it not functioning, if I wasn’t willing to have a go at it myself.”

George recently stood down, following a two-year stint since its formation, as the chair of the UK Research & Innovation Trade Union Side – this is the collective body that represents all eight of the recognised trade unions across UKRI.

Stepping down from this role, which gave him 50% facility time, was also a factor in allowing him to explore the opportunities that ultimately led him to take on his new role.

Prospect NEC

One role that George will not be relinquishing is his spot on Prospect’s National Executive Committee. He has just been successfully re-elected for a second term.

“I was enjoying a lot of what I was doing on the national UKRI Trade Union Side, and I had joined Prospect’s public sector executive as well. I was interested in where Prospect was going and why, and having some influence in that.”

By his own admission, the first two years on the NEC has been a “steep learning curve.”

George is looking forward to being more involved in his second term now that he’s equipped with a “wide enough understanding to be a critical friend and to ask more questions.”

Sounds like more opportunities for him to deploy those soft skills.

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