Changing priorities? Positioning welfare vocationalism in a changing society

This paper draws on a recent empirical project to explore the positioning and possibilities for the predominantly female students pursuing programmes designated as ‘welfare vocationalism’ (Esmond and Atkins, 2020, 2022) as they navigate their transitions from school to work in a time of social and geo-political upheaval. In doing this, the paper conceptualises data within a framework informed by concepts of social justice, drawing on work by, for example, Bourdieu (1990), Bourdieu and Passeron (1990), and Sen (2009) as well as feminist scholars such as Colley (e.g. 2006).

The study, which adopted a case study methodology, investigated the impact of work-based learning on vocational FE students and utilised a range of qualitative methods, including, but not restricted to, interviews and observation. Ethical approval was sought from, and granted by, University of Derby.

The paper argues that both FE programmes leading to occupations marked by low pay, precarity, and welfare dependency and those which lead to occupations within the broader welfare sector might be characterised as forms of welfare vocationalism. Such occupations are argued to include traditional ‘care’ occupations as well as those such as hairdressing and beauty therapy, which offer ‘wellness’ and ‘self-care’ in the context of post-pandemic public narratives heavily focussed on mental health and wellbeing. Both categories are argued to have considerable overlap, being heavily classed and gendered, pursued principally by working class young women and characterised by a high degree of emotional labour (see Colley, 2006).  In addition, some such programmes lead to occupations requiring high levels of credential, and characterised as professional, but which are nonetheless associated with low pay and precarity. This includes occupations such as, for example, nursing and social work, where precarity might include issues such as zero hours contracts, but might also be understood to encompass stress, ill health and ‘burnout’, potentially leading to career change and/or welfare dependency. Analysis suggests that this position is reflective of many continuities from early analyses of vocational education, but that the disruption caused by the pandemic, and other global upheavals, may be argued to demonstrate a re-ordering of the neo-liberal order, with space for critical change. The paper concludes that within this space lie opportunities for greater acknowledgement of the need for, and value of, the young women making transitions into occupations associated with welfare vocationalism.