Inside microenterprises. Strategies to overcome the tension between production and training.
After the financial crisis 2008, dual VET systems were praised for their low youth unemployment rates, which drew interest from policymakers from Europe and overseas. Despite strong international interest, not much is known about the everyday training practices of training companies. The proposed paper takes a closer look at the case of Switzerland.
In Switzerland, at the age of 16, about two-thirds of young people enrol in an upper-secondary level VET programme, and a majority (approx. 80%) opt for dual-track VET programmes, which combine classroom instruction with apprenticeship training in host companies. In 2008, nearly one in every five companies in Switzerland trained at least one apprentice (Müller & Schweri, 2012). Companies are important actors in dual-track VET systems. They voluntarily provide apprenticeship places on the apprenticeship market, select apprentices and influence their professional socialization as well as their future career via the workplace training they offer (Schweri, 2010).
However, this training activity is unevenly distributed by company size. Swiss dual-track VET system relies heavily on the participation of small and medium-size enterprises. In total, around 70% of all apprentices were trained in companies with fewer than 50 employees, yet 40% in microenterprises with fewer than ten employees.
From the theoretical perspective of organisational sociology, all companies are coined by their context and depend on the institutions, norms and ideas that exist in society (Mikl-Horke, 2011). Workplaces can take many forms. The different contexts the companies are situated in influence the learning opportunities they provide. Important contextual factors are the wider political, economic and social environment, sectoral as well as organisational characteristics such as size, ownership, organisational history and culture (Fuller & Unwin, 2004; Unwin et al., 2007). All companies are faced with tension between production and training. However, strategies to deal with this conflict vary according to company size and industry, but also the company’s training tradition and the space it gives to its formative activity (Bahl et al., 2012). In the proposed paper, we will especially deal with company size as a core contextual factor.
With regards to the influence of company size on education and training, differences between small and large employers have already been reported (Culpepper, 2008; Culpepper, 2007; Wagner, 1999). For example, small employers are more cost sensitive than large ones, tend to provide fewer learning and career opportunities and have a lower retention rate for their apprentices. Furthermore, large companies are more likely to have separate training facilities and tend to keep apprentices out of the production process for a longer period of time. In contrast, small companies arrange their workplace training around their daily work or when there are pauses in production.
Companies also differ in terms of the person assigned to work as a workplace trainer (Unwin et al., 2007). Large companies offer a greater division of labour, whereby a full-time workplace trainer often delegates the daily training tasks to other colleagues and supervises them. In contrast, small companies cannot afford full-time training staff.
A specificity of Swiss dual-track VET system is the major involvement of microenterprises, where about 40% of the apprentices are trained. Typical examples are hairdressers, painters, and car mechanics. Despite the importance of microenterprises as educational agents, not much is known about the everyday challenges they face when fulfilling their double mission of production and training. Therefore, we ask the following research question: How do microenterprises deal with the tension of production and training? In particular, we are interested in the different strategies that microenterprises adopt to fulfil their training mission.
We explore our research question by analysing data from nine different learning sites in microenterprises to capture everyday workplace learning. We choose microenterprises because it is the predominant organisational form of companies that offer apprenticeship training the Swiss VET system.
We use qualitative case studies of these learning sites in order to identify the everyday challenges of training young people within the context of economic pressure. With the help of semi-structured interviews with workplace trainers, we were able to analyse everyday training. The interviews were conducted with a comprehensive posture (Rogel, 2004), fully transcribed and subjected to thematic content analysis (Bardin, 1986; Blanchet & Gotman, 2001). Transcription and thematic coding was made with the help of NVivo software.
This approach has allowed for identification of the everyday strategies that microenterprises choose to fulfil their double mission, i.e. to be productive and train young people. In our sample, we have microenterprises in the fields of hairdressing, butchery, painting, car mechanics, and retail business. Each of these companies normally has one apprentice at a time. Some of these companies have been training apprentices for decades. The accounts represent experiences with approximately 40 apprentices. In order to identify strategies of the analysed microenterprises, we selected three cases (hairdressing, car mechanic, and painting), which we analysed in-depth.
In general, microenterprises face major challenges when it comes to reconciling production and training. Preliminary results indicate a wide range of strategies that companies adopt to deal with this challenge. All strategies have in common that they organise the training around their daily business. However, they differ in terms of how training is organised.
A first identified strategy A is labelled as “time filler” and is practiced at a learning site in hairdressing. This company subjects its training sequences to its day-to-day business and trains the apprentice only when there are no customers around.
Another strategy B is labelled as “compulsory extra training” and is practiced at a learning site in car mechanics. Because there is nearly no time during daily work, the apprentice is required to appear on Saturday morning to receive extra training from the workplace trainer, which also includes school topics. The willingness of the apprentice to spend some more time in the company is a condition of being recruited. This is an informal practice since it violates the legal requirements regarding maximum apprentice working time.
The third strategy C is labelled as “train yourself” and is practiced at a learning site in painting. Here, training responsibility is more or less delegated to the apprentice himself/herself. Productive tasks are given to the apprentice, which are merely controlled by the workplace trainer.
Finally, we will discuss the differences between the identified strategies with reference to the presented theoretical framework.
Bahl, A., Blötz, U., Brandes, D., Lachmann, B., Schweri, C., & Witz, E-M. (2012). Die Situation des ausbildenden Personals in der betrieblichen Bildung (SIAP). Bonn: BIBB.
Bardin, L. (1986). L'analyse de contenu. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Blanchet, A., & Gotman, A. (2001). L'enquête et ses méthodes: l'entretien. Paris: Nathan.
Culpepper, P. D. (2007). Small states and skill specificity. Austria, Switzerland, and interemployer cleavages in coordinated capitalism. Comparative Political Studies. 40. 6. 611-637.
Culpepper, P. & Thelen, K. (2008). Institutions and collective actors in the provision of training: Historical and cross-national comparisons. In K- U. Mayer & H. Solga (Eds.). Skill Formation: Interdisciplinary and Cross-National Perspectives (pp. 21-49). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fuller, A. & Unwin, L. (2004). Expansive learning environments: Integrating personal and organisational development. In: H. Rainbird, A. Fuller, & A. Munro (Eds.). Workplace Learning in Context (pp. 126–144). London: Routledge.
Mikl-Horke, G. (2011). Wirtschaftssoziologische und gesellschaftstheoretische Perspektiven der Unternehmung. In G. Mikl-Horke, R. Pirker, & A. Resch (Eds.). Theorie der Firma: Interdisziplinär (pp. 75-104). Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
Müller, B. & Schweri, J. (2012). Die Betriebe in der dualen Berufsbildung: Entwicklungen 1985 bis 2008. Neuchâtel: BFS.
Rogel, T. (2004). Introduction impertinente à la sociologie. Paris: Liris.
Schweri, J. (2010). Die Betriebe im dualen Berufsbildungssystem - eine politökonomische Sichtweise. In P. Schlögl, & K. Dér (Eds.). Berufsbildungsforschung - alte und neue Fragen eines Forschungsfeldes (pp. 147-158). Bielefeld: Transcript.
Unwin, L., Felstead, A., Fuller, A., Bishop, D., Lee; T., Jewson, N., & Butler, P. (2007). Looking inside the Russian doll: the interconnections between context, learning and pedagogy in the workplace. Pedagogy, Culture & Society. 15. 3. 333-348.
Wagner, K. (1999). The German apprenticeship system under strain. In Culpepper, P. D. & Finegood, D. (Eds.). The German Skills Machine. Sustaining Comparative Advantage in a Global Economy (pp. 37-76). New York: Berghahn Books.