Retail apprentices’ everyday creativity: Sense-making of training experiences and professional identities
The creativity of employees has become an important contribution for companies to innovate and adapt to constant market fluctuations and global competition (Madjar, Oldham, and Pratt 2002). The expansion of the service and knowledge economy as well as the development of new technologies and forms of work organization do not only require a qualified and engaged workforce but also workers who contribute with their creativity to company’s needs (Vultur and Mercure 2011, Voss 2002). There is a great deal of research that is interested in how the creativity of employees can be encouraged at the workplace (Amabile 2013, Ryhammar and Brolin 1999). The presentation suggests focusing on an often neglected aspect of creativity that personally serves individuals in finding personal meaning in their everyday work and training experience. Based on a study with retail apprentices, we show that everyday personal creativity does not stand in contrast to company’s needs and that companies and apprentices can both benefit from an environment that supports it.
We follow a sociological and sociocultural perspective on learning processes which focuses on apprentices’ professional socialization and the development of their professional identities. During an apprenticeship, apprentices do not only have to acquire theoretical knowledge, develop practical skills and familiarize with the more implicit work norms, rules, codes and values to become professional workers (Dubar 1998). They also have to make sense of this knowledge and find personal meaning in their working and learning experience (Zittoun 2016). Becoming a professional is a creative process because apprentices do not smoothly adapt to the learning and working requirements but actively appropriate activities, values, roles or positions (Colley et al. 2003). Finding personal sense in their work and training contribute to the development of apprentices’ professional identities.
Within educational and developmental psychological sciences, this type of everyday personal creativity has been also called “mini c” creativity defined as a “novel and personally meaningful interpretation of experiences, actions, and events” (Kaufmann and Beghetto 2009, 3). This concept allows recognizing apprentices’ creative potential in developing personally meaningful insights and interpretations while they learn and work in a new trade. It builds on Vygotskys (1990) understanding of creativity according to creative acts are not always physical but also mental or emotional constructs. However, we also draw on Winnicotts (1971) understanding of creativity, according to everyday personal creativity can be observed, in particular in individual acts, expressions and attitudes that play with the external reality and allow an own vision of that reality. For instance, possibility thinking (Craft 2000) is a way of playing with reality, instead of asking ‘what something does’ (convergent thinking) an individual develops his/her creative potential while asking ‘what can I do with that’ (divergent thinking).
In order to study the creative potential of retail apprentices when they make sense of their learning and working experiences, we draw on a qualitative research project initially interested in the development of apprentices’ professional identities. The presented analysis builds mainly on semi-directed interviews that were conducted with 25 apprentices in three VET schools, two of them in a French-speaking canton and one in a German-speaking canton in Switzerland. The empirical material also includes focus groups and observations in schools and was transcribed and analyzed according to the coding procedure developed within the methodologies of Grounded Theory (Charmaz 2014). We first coded open and very closely to the data, and later developed more abstract categories and the links between them. It is an inductive method that aims at being close to the experiences and perceptions of the participants. While analyzing, we became aware of the creative potential that the apprentices unleashed when interpreting their working and learning experiences or when reporting how they found solutions to various problems that occurred during the apprenticeship.
Studying these questions among retail apprentices enriches our understanding of creativity at the workplace at least for two reasons. First, retail work is known for its repetitive tasks (e.g. working as cashier or shocking selves) and not considered ‘knowledge work’ which explicitly require ‘being creative’ (Florida 2002). Second, creativity and innovation are often studied among elites or highly qualified workers. It is often overlooked that newcomers still learning an occupation might also be creative. Uncovering the creative potential of retail apprentices might thus question commonplace understandings of creativity.
For the presentation of the results, we concentrate in-depth on three distinctive cases that represent how apprentices’ everyday creativity serves them to adopt work activities and contexts. We show how apprentices ‘play’ with their work activities while developing their own original ways of executing tasks and finding solutions to everyday problems or open-ended work tasks. Interestingly, apprentices are able to express their creativity even in contexts that are less supportive, for instance less supportive for autonomy and initiative. However, as Lhuilier (2015) argues, constraints are often at the heart of creativity, as being creative means freeing oneself from constraints, appropriating the situation and establishing one’s way own of doing. Thus, even unsupportive contexts can give apprentices space to be creative.
We particularly show on behalf of the three selected cases (Myriam, Sandra, Amandine) how apprentices’ creative potential serves them to find personal meaning in their work and learning experience and develop their professional identities. These meanings and identities vary depending on the apprentices’ biographies and experiences made before the apprenticeship: Myriam for instance, who have had many conflicts with teachers in school and family members, finds meaning in her retail apprenticeship because she can get involved within respectable relationships to clients. Sandra, who would like to take over her father’s shop one day, finds personal meaning because of the autonomy and independence she gains in executing work tasks in her company. Amandine, who has always struggled in schools for not being underestimated, finds sense in her apprenticeship in achieving the companies selling targets and be recognized for her engagement. The apprentices’ everyday personal creativity strongly resonates with the company’s needs. Thus, companies as much as apprentices could benefit from an environment that support everyday creativity.
Amabile, T.M. 2013. "Componential theory of creativity." In Encyclopedia of Management Theory., edited by E.H. Kessler. Palgrave: Sage.
Charmaz, Kathy. 2014. Constructing Grounded Theory. Los Angeles: Sage.
Colley, Helen, David James, Kim Diment, and Michael Tedder. 2003. "Learning as becoming in vocational education and training: class, gender and the role of vocational habitus." Journal of Vocational Education & Training 55 (4):471-498. doi: 10.1080/13636820300200240.
Craft, Anna. 2000. Creativity Across the Primary Curriculum. London: Routledge.
Dubar, Claude. 1998. La socialisation. Construction des identités sociales et professionnelles. Paris: Armand Colin.
Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York: Perseus Book Group.
Kaufmann, James C., and Ronald A. Beghetto. 2009. "Beyong big and little: The Four C Model of Creativity." Review of General Psychology 13 (1):1-12.
Lhuilier, D. 2015. "Puissance normative et créative de la vulnérabilité." Education permanente. Travail et créativité 202 (1):101-116.
Madjar, Nora, Greg R. Oldham, and Michael G. Pratt. 2002. "There’s no place like home? The contributions of work and nonwork creativity support to employees’ creative performance." Academy of Management journal 45 (4):757-787.
Ryhammar, L., and C. Brolin. 1999. "Creativity research: historical considerations and main lines of development’." Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 43 (3):259-273.
Voss, Günter. 2002. "Auf dem Weg zum Individualberuf? Zur Beruflichkeit des Arbeitskraftunternehmers." In Der Beruf in der Moderne, edited by Th. Kurz, 287-314. Opladen: Leske und Budrich.
Vultur, Mircea, and Daniel Mercure. 2011. Perspectives internationales sur le travail des jeunes. Quebec: Presses de l'Université de Laval.
Vygotsky, L. S. 1990. "Imagination and Creativity in Childhood." Soviet Psychology 28 (1):84-96. doi: 10.2753/RPO1061-0405280184.
Winnicott, Donald Woods. 1971. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.
Zittoun, Tania. 2016. "A sociocultural psychology of the life-course." Social Psychological Review 18 (1):6-17.