Case studies in TAFE curriculum [ Contents ]

Chapter 9
Retraining and conflicting work styles

Bob Funnell
Department of Employment Vocational Education and Training, Queensland

Approximately 700 workers at General Motors Holden (GMH) plant at Acacia Ridge, Brisbane, had their employment terminated in October 1984. The Federal Government made its Labour Adjustment Training Arrangement (LATA) program available for the retraining of all workers over a period of 12 months immediately after the shutdown. Fourteen of the retrenched workers eventually began a retraining program in landscape gardening eight months into this period. The course they entered, CN A66 Basic Landscape Construction, was proposed by Grovely TAFE Centre in response to requests from the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations (DEIR) for a course in the area of landscape gardening.

This paper reports part of an evaluation of this LATA retraining course. [1] The main focus is on a period towards the end of the course when conflicts in the trainees' old and new work styles brought the nature of the retraining into question as they attempted to change their identities from car manufacturers to landscape gardeners. One of the conclusions reached by the evaluation was that greater consideration should be given to incorporating different work styles into the initial curriculum design. This case study is an exploration of the issues which led to that conclusion.

Scope and overview of the study

An evaluation of the course was requested by the Officer-in-Charge at the Grovely TAFE Centre two months into the course. Evaluation questions set by LATA and the college were similar. These questions were aimed at ascertaining the value of the syllabus in providing work skills and personal development, and to learn something from the Grovely context about how pre-employment curriculum development might be adapted to the processes of retraining. Overall, the evaluation pieced together people's interpretations of events relating to course organisation and coordination, syllabus implementation, the use of live-work projects and LATA's handling of the retraining program.

The course had been running for nine weeks when the evaluation began. This posed some problems in producing a complete description of the total course without turning the study into what Rist (1980) calls "blitzkrieg ethnography". I decided to spend as much time as possible with the course participants and to improvise a methodology as I went and hope that a grounded theory of the LATA program at Grovely would emerge. [2]

From the first visit to the college it became apparent that the evaluation questions could be answered only by moving continually between the course itself and the original situations which helped shape it - GMH closing down, the LATA retraining scheme and the eight months spent out of employment before the course began. Most, if not all conversations and interviews with students and staff, moved across these contexts, It is from this longitudinal dimension that the appropriateness of the Grovely course in retraining and preparation for later occupational careers should be judged. [3]

The student group

Fourteen students commenced the course on 1 July. The timing of the LATA program had worked against this particular group of GMH employees. The retraining "year" ran from October 1984 until October 1985, but the commencement of the course was delayed by end of year examinations and the summer vacation. Moreover, there was also a considerable delay in policy implementation. The nature of and funding for LATA courses was still being negotiated between Federal and State governments and within divisions of the education department. Meanwhile potential students remained on the dole. Some were given "filler" courses, obtaining truck and other vehicle licences, whilst others periodically filled out forms stating they were still interested in retraining. The period was one of personal isolation when marriages were put at risk and accepted social identities were brought into question.

The men who began the course were not typical of students who usually enter the Basic Landscape Construction course. The group ranged in age from 22 to 54 years. Many were about the same age or older than their teachers and had as much or more experience in the world of work. The group also shared a common previous work situation with some carry-over of the workshop hierarchy from GMH into the course. This is illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1 Student profile

Student Age Sex Position at GMH Years with the Company

1 51 M Supervisor 34
2 47 M Fitter and Turner 17
3 40 M Quality Control 16
4 37 M Welder 15
5 42 M Spot Welder 12
6 34 M Line Worker 12
7 38 M Quality Control 11
8 51 M Spray Painting 10
9 28 M Trades Assistant 9
10 30 M Trades Assistant 8
11 26 M Welder 7
12 22 M Assembly Line 2.5
13 35 M (left course in July 1985)
14 54 M (left course on 25 July 1985 for Storeman and Packer position)

Student expectations were to gain skills with plants and gardens, to benefit from being in a formal educational situation and to gain some clear direction on how to move from GMH specialities into another employment sector. Reasons for entering the course ranged from tentative reasons such as, "Liked gardening and wanted to know more about it" and "Didn't want to work in a factory again", to more specific reasons like, "I wanted to learn about green-keeping" and "LATA told me machines would be used in landscaping and that I would learn to use them". Most of the students stated in some way that "It was hard to tell what was going to happen" and that they; "... didn't know what to expect". The statement of one man, "Not so sure at first, but happy I joined" probably sums up the way these expectations were met.

A further set of expectations related to a hope that some means would be available through which they could gain some control over what was a major life transition. Feelings of loss of status, of being "redundant", of being "too old to do this type of work" and not being as useful as before were most apparent with the men over 35. Many of the students had built homes, reared children and established a network of friends in the vicinity of the GMH plant. Those who had achieved a supervisory position in GMH were concerned that they would "have to lower their expectations". As one man stated,

I thought the course would outline, in layman's terms, how being put off would affect my life ... show me how to move from being a welder to a labourer.

Course organisation and coordination

A combination of factors influenced the way in which the course was organised and implemented. The landscaping association argued that the course would produce unqualified competitors. For this reason, two experienced landscapers were employed to coordinate and teach in the live-work aspects of the course. One was employed full-time, the other part-time. The course was run in two phases leading from foundation skills and theory into live-work projects in three areas. The initial five to six weeks were devoted to learning basic skills in landscaping (eg, site preparation, wood construction, stone and brick walls, plant identification and lawn propagation). The aim of this phase was to turn the students from rank amateurs to beginning landscapers. The second phase was spent on site, applying these landscaping skills in the three projects. With this experience the students would be capable of entering the industry on their own merits.

The syllabus was interpreted and implemented on these criteria. For both landscapers and TAFE teachers, the syllabus was seen at best to be a rough starting point for devising lesson content and processes for the retraining group. Lesson preparation proved to be a challenge to the teachers. Some "had to throw out a lot of what they would normally do and start all over again". The main limitation of the syllabus in terms of retraining was seen as its tight focus on content. It was intended that the course would be done "the way landscapers go about their tasks on the job".

Adaptations to the existing syllabus content and the planning of the work projects followed this rationale. The approach is sound. It allows for a realistic merging of work and theory and was considered most likely to foster competence in practical landscaping. The next section provides some examples of this mode of curriculum design in action and raises some questions on how it might be better implemented.

Work projects and conflicts of occupational style

The live-work projects exposed an aspect of retraining which would have been difficult to anticipate before the course began. The course had been organised around the concept that all content would be learned in the context of the way landscapers go about their tasks on the job. This approach worked well in the initial skills learning phase and in the first project where the pace of work was leisurely and much attention was given to detailed teaching and learning. What emerged in the later projects was that the way landscapers go about their jobs conflicted at times with the way GMH workers go about their jobs. Differences in style appeared most markedly when mistakes were found in a section of work. They evolved out of issues of quality control and problem solving in the car industry which were quite different from those in landscaping.

Most of the criticisms of the projects stemmed from instances where a fault had been located in the work (eg, a run of pavers was out of line or the layer of bedding sand was too thin). The students argued that at such times "inspectors (teachers) should come in" and "if it is wrong, then rip it up and do it again". They felt there should be "more time to make it right" because the job "should be spot on". Working around a problem area was not considered acceptable. For these students, the important thing was not "how fast you can do the job". Learning for purposes of retraining meant time to practise and, if needed, time to dismantle a whole job or part of job and start again.

In car manufacturing, even a minor defect can cause major problems. Faults need to be found and remedied quickly. In contrast, landscapers claim to strive for aesthetic effect. They also have to be alert to identify small mistakes quickly, but they have to make decisions not so much on correcting the fault itself but on whether it will distract from the visual appearance of the total design. This point is important. Redoing a task (eg, a run of paving) is time consuming and can mean the difference between losing money or making a profit on a job. Moreover, soil surfaces, for instance, are not always predictable and there is no guarantee that the finished job will be any better for the redoing.

It is of some significance that some of the men who felt unhappy with this approach were quality controllers and supervisors at GMH. It appears that instances where project work was criticised were those situations in landscaping which conflicted most with the way a person at GMH would approach a job with a fault in it. In the car industry, the reputation of the product and the company requires that strict controls are kept. Faults have to be found and remedied as closely as possible to the point of the mistake being made. Quick spotting of mistakes and redoing the task is essentially cost effective. Landscapers, on the other hand, try to avoid redoing tasks wherever possible and in fact find it cost ineffective to do so. For this reason, they try to instil an adaptability and independence in their assistants to work around and through small trouble spots and thus become their own quality controllers.

Difference in outlook on how live-work projects should be best used to teach landscaping techniques became most apparent in the third project. The college staff had planned for the final project to be done as closely as possible to the speed and conditions on a typical site. In line with this decision, and in response to an imposed deadline from the school, the coordinator became more a site supervisor than a teacher, and he treated the men more as workers than as students. When decisions had to be made about what to do about small mistakes at this stage, the project coordinator had begun, in the students' opinion, "to teach as a boss", that is, as a foreman. To complicate the issue, his performance as a teacher/foreman was judged on GMH criteria - more on the quality of the completed task than on efficient use of time, labour and materials. Most criticisms came in the form of comparing time spent on "learning" with time spent on "working" (eg, on physical labour).

I didn't expect to work so hard ... I thought there would be more gardening, working with plants, rather than pushing barrows and digging.

Not learning as much as we should; we're only getting work skills.

Plant ID interesting; work side not so good.

If I had known what the course was - hard work - I wouldn't have started.

Lot of things we are doing just because they are in the projects.

We didn't do the course to be landscape construction workers; out of 12, perhaps one will.

Best part of the course has been the practical learning, but far too much physical labour; feel that we've been used to do the work.

These comments came mid-way through the final project. Even though there had been some repetition of tasks such as paving and an increase in the amount of physical labour, the comments came as a surprise. The students all approached their tasks conscientiously, in a friendly and joking manner. There was no absenteeism. Their criticisms were not essentially of people or of the course. They were on good terms with both. The main problem stemmed from their inability to draw on their own resources in planning how the projects should proceed. In this situation, the students came to see themselves more as workers than learners. The course seemed to be placing "more emphasis on doing the job than on learning the skills". They were also "not sure on why we were cutting corners" and whether they were learning the right way to "get around" mistakes.

The above discussion suggests issues for further consideration in courses designed for retraining. One issue relates to probable conflicts in work style rewarded in the previous industry and those favoured in the area of retraining. The other issue concerns the lack of theoretical framework for planning and evaluating retraining in schemes such as LATA and, to a lesser extent, in educational institutions.

Implications for curriculum design and teaching

The first impressions which college staff had of the group led to a situation where teachers re-organised their programs so that they could assist the students. What had been lost, to some extent, was the way that students' background experiences could be helpful to them in organising the direction of their own retraining program. That the students wanted to be part of this decision making process is apparent in interviews and in a brainstorming session held near the conclusion of the course. In both situations an alternative approach to planning the projects was suggested.4 The students made a variety of suggestions.

The course should be moulded around students' backgrounds and the likely positions the student will fulfil in the industry.

More time be spent on theory, possibly after one project ... review, plan and start on the next project so everybody knows what they are doing.

Clearer communications between teachers and students; students could be more involved in the content and make-up of the course.

These ideas had been discussed in an earlier interview where some of the students explained an alternative approach. "On these jobs we often don't know what we are going to do until we are told". They thought that this was probably necessary as a beginning. In later stages, the men would have liked to have been more involved in planning. For example, one participant said that "they could give us details and ideas on what to do ... so that we could work it out ourselves". If this was allowed, then it would be possible to "let a team set out" and construct a landscaped site which would then be evaluated in terms of design, technique, costing, ordering of materials and efficiency. The suggested changes are based on sound notions of course design and teaching and learning practices. The ideas put forward could be the basis for the running of other retraining courses.

Theoretical implications

Retraining between two diverse work sectors involves both skills development and some form of transformation in personal identity. The LATA scheme focused essentially on work skills and on work skills alone. For example, no counsel was given on what retraining was, or what they should expect. The only contact they had had for eight months of their retraining "year" arose either when a "filler" skills course arose or a check was made on who still remained in the scheme.

In an ideal situation, retraining would progress through a number of stages which I have adapted from Harre's (1983) work on identity formation. The stages are 1) appropriation of skills and some elements of a theory of oneself in a new work situation, 2) transformation of one's own theory of work into that required in the new sector, 3) presentation of an experimenting with the new skills and theory in actual work situations and, 4) accomplishment, or an acceptance of oneself in the conventions of the new occupational sphere. If we apply this model, it can be seen that the former GMH workers, while learning new skills, had not been retrained. They had not accommodated the philosophy, theory or know-how required in the new employment sector.

In the Grovely context some retraining had been effected in that the men had added to the repertoire of work skills which they had at GMH. However, the course concluded when they were at a stage where they wanted to transform their theories of work (quality control and redoing a task until it passed an accepted standard) into that of practising landscapers (aesthetic appeal, cost effectiveness and crisis management). This was apparent in later stages of the course when they resented the landscaping teacher "being the boss" and forcing them prematurely into the role of landscape worker. A sense of not having time to work through this transition emerged again in their wanting some control over the curriculum processes in order to come to grips with the theory in their own way. As it was, most of the group concluded their retraining at this point and still considered themselves more as ex-GMH workers who knew something about landscaping rather than as men ready to enter the landscaping field.

To conclude, it is hoped that curriculum practitioners will gain from the many positive aspects of the Grovely retraining course and be challenged to deal with unanticipated problems realistically. Finally, policy makers need to be kept aware that their decisions can dramatically change individual lives and relationships, a fact which the men in this scheme are well aware.


  1. The complete study is reported in Funnell (1986).
  2. The approach to case study taken in this research is influenced by cultural theories of anthropologists such as Geertz (1957; 1973) and interactionists such as Glazer and Strauss (1957) and Denzin (1986). The purpose of research is to take the time to search out and analyse ways which people use to represent themselves to themselves and to one another, and how this contributes to a shared culture and also to sub-cultural barriers between groups of people.
  3. Details of the research methodology can be found in Appendix A of Funnell's (1986) evaluation document.
  4. These points were outlined in a "nominal group technique" session held with students and two teachers in the final week of the course.


Denzin, N. (1986). Interpreting the lives of ordinary people. Sartre, Heidegger and Faulkner. Submitted for publication in forthcoming Oral History.

Funnell, R. (1986). Assembly line to landscaping: A case study of a landscape construction course for retrenched car manufacturing workers. Brisbane: TAFE Curriculum Branch, Department of Education.

Geertz, C. (1957). Ritual and social change: A Javanese example. American Anthropologists, 61, 991-1012.

Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (] 967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Harre, R. (1983). Personal being. England: Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited.

Rist, R. (1983). Blitzkrieg ethnography. Educational Researcher, 9(2), 8-10.

Cite as: Funnell, B. (1988). Retraining and conflicting work styles. In C. McBeath, (Ed), Case studies in TAFE curriculum, p.65-70. Perth, WA: West Australian Social Science Education Consortium, Curtin University of Technology.

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