Flexibility and autonomy during VET. Apprentices’ sense-making and the place of creativity
Based on a current sociological research in VET schools, this presentation discusses what kinds of subjectivities retail clerk apprentices develop and how they position themselves within new “managerial” values and practices of flexibility, autonomy and creativity at work (Voss, 2002, Mercure, 2011, de Gaulejac, 2012, Du Gay, 1996).
Since the 1980s, and especially in the 90s in Switzerland, there has been a restructuring of the labor market in general, which profoundly changes the relationship of individuals to employment and occupation (Voss 2002). This is a general evolution of the labor world in recent decades, which is often referred to as the transition to a post-Fordist system of organization (Sallaz, 2015).
The VET is defined as an “arranged transition” from school education to the labour market (Chaix, 1993).Therefore, during their training, apprentices are familiarized with the economic rationales of the retail sector impacting on their working and learning experiences (Brockmann, 2013, Fuller, 2009). First, they have to stand intense working days (ex. standing most of the time, long days due to shop opening times, and multiple tasks) and flexible working times (ex. work plan changes every week). Second, they are not only perceived as apprentices expected to learn but also as productive and efficient workers, leading to an ambiguous position within the company (Cohen-Scali, 2003). Moreover, they are sometimes responsible for basic tasks and lack recognition of their capacities.
Apprentices’ discourses will be analyzed in regards to the different ways they experience the challenges and company’s expectations to fulfil demands of flexibility, autonomy, and will to professional development. Thus, beyond the companies’ expectations and the social norm of subjective involvement in work, we will reflect on the subjective place of creativity during VET education. Therefore, the notion of creativity at work (Oldham, 1996), and its place during the VET education is important. In a psycho-sociological perspective, creativity is not just finding an original way of “doing well” (Lhuilier, 2015), but rather a way of singularizing activities, and of subjectively appropriating activity and working context (various working interactions and tasks). Such subjective appropriation can be observed in three key domains: a) the interactions with clients and “esthetic” tasks, b) the working activities such as organizing and management task, c) the handling of interactions with colleagues and managers.
Our research focuses specifically on apprentices in the field of retail trade. Retail-clerk apprenticeship is the second-largest VET program chosen by young people in Switzerland, second to the commercial program. Thus, 5603 apprentices started their vocational training in this area in 2012 (FSO, 2009). There is a majority of women (about 2/3), and a 29% of young people are of foreign nationality, which corresponds with the percentage of their age group. This apprenticeship requires average school qualifications, but it often suffers from low prestige, related among others to the image of a rather low level of qualification.
Our current research focuses specifically on the professional socialization and the development of occupational identities of apprentices. Using qualitative methods and observations in first-year classes (and one third year class), we conducted 35 interviews with young people in training, but also with supervising professionals within VET schools (school-directors, teachers, psychologists) in two French-speaking and one German-speaking cantons in Switzerland. Observations were conducted in classes for 8-10 weeks (a full day per week). Finally focus groups were conducted in each class.
The empirical material was transcribed, and is still being analyzed according to the methodology of Grounded Theory (Charmaz, 2001; Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The inductive method presents an advantage of being closer to the concerns of the participants and their subjective experiences. The first two lines of our analysis concerned working conditions and strategies of apprentices in dealing with the low prestige of their occupation.
First, we will discuss some main demands in retail domain in terms of autonomy and flexibility, concerning more specifically the apprentices during VET. The detailing of the subjective experiences of these demands and the diverse responses, will lead us to the aspects of creativity. Our approach to creativity is a psycho-sociological, considering subjective appropriation of activity and working context (various working interactions and tasks) as essential for the sense-making of the apprentices. Our preliminary results show such subjective appropriation mainly in three domains.
a) The interactions with clients and some “esthetic” tasks are experienced by some apprentices as a source of playing (Winnicott, 1971). They are sometimes staged and “acted” in a theatrical way, which generates a feeling of pleasure and capability in the occupation.
b) The working activities, such as notably organizing and management tasks are put in a greater context, and support the sense-making processes of the apprentices since they generate, sometimes outside the job, specific competences or shape the apprentices’ personality.
c) The deal with interactions with colleagues and managers is another aspect of creative appropriation of the working context. This handling is a learning process which provides a feeling of growing up and become a part of adult’s world.
Thus, by analyzing the apprentices’ experiences in terms of creativity, we will show that creativity is not just a method of serving the economic efficiency. The experience of "subjective manners of doing work” is important for young professionals’ well-being and the identification process with their occupation. Doing research about creativity and well-being during VET therefore becomes an integral component of quality construction in education and training.
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