5pm or 5am… eh, never mind

June 3, 2010 at 5:14 am (education, essays)

another essay. a week’s extension granted at the end of the class that started when the essay was due, then an extra day’s extension to go and get special consideration when i didn’t get it in or even show up to class. then three weeks of special consideration, just to be generous to myself, hoping to not fill up every last moment. then an arrangement after class, the night before it’s due, to put one of the two reviews in on time, then be asked to resubmit which will give me time to work on the second on an entirely new article i was given. so. it was due 5pm today, err last night now. i just got it in at 4.57am. eh. i’m usually bad, but frankly not this bad. i don’t really know what’s wrong, it’s not even that challenging an assignment. at least it’s done. this one.

Wasted skills: The hospitality industry and its young chefs

McDermott, R., 2008, ‘Wasted skills: the hospitality industry and its young chefs’, VocEd Highlights, May.

I chose this article because it addresses questions of training and conditions in the hospitality industry, which relates to topics I am preparing to research. It also offers considerations on the directions taken by TAFE, which are of concern in my voluntary life.

1. What is the problematic that is addressed in the research?

As an Interpretivist study, the research described in this article concerns itself with interpretation of the interaction of various parties in the social world, their opinions, needs and understandings. The problematic considers Vocational Education and Training (VET) in Australia, particularly a three-way mismatch within the hospitality industry and commercial cookery training, between available formal training and the expectations of both employers and trainees. Also considered are the effects of this on a climate of industry changes, skills shortages and a high staff turnover.

The primary stated research question is “Does the current training of chefs impact their high turnover and if so, can training offer solutions to this high turnover?” (McDermott, 2008 p2) This developed into a second question, “Can vocational education offer more relevance to the trainee and what part does the industry play in the attrition of young chefs?” (p2).

However the research is also declared to address “how large training organisations, such as TAFE and industry have responded to government reports on critical skills shortages within the industry” (p1), “what can be done to stem the high turnover of young chefs” (p1), “the composition and effectiveness of both formal and informal learning of the trainee” (p1), “the industry and training organisation’s capacity to produce long term employment prospects for the trainee to meet the industry’s need to retain skilled, productive employees” (p1), and “how practitioners understand the learning needs of trainees in the current climate” (p2)

As could be expected of an interpretivist study, the methods used are equipped to consider attitudes, opinions, expectations, possibilities and ways of understanding, but are of dubious applicability for the more concrete questions, including the stated research question, regarding effectiveness and large groups and systems. In fact, though this paper poses many questions, it does not claim findings for the more positivist-styled ones, sticking to “the quality and effectiveness of the situated workplace learning for trainees and its connection to the required knowledge and skills to deliver contextual learning” (p1), while providing some context about “current liberal practices in vocational education” (p1) and “changing socio-cultural requirements of trainees” (p1).

2. What are the outcomes from the research and how/why are they significant?

Several outcomes are discussed, although it is unclear whether many are a result of the research, or merely commentary produced by a literature review. Points that claim to be derived from the research include:

* The quality and effectiveness of workplace learning is extremely important (p3)
* Employers may often evaluate trainees based on their own training (p3)
* Workplaces are not always appropriate learning environments as there may not be competent, trained staff available with time to assist (p4)
* Difficult working conditions including long, late hours and low pay discourage some from staying in the industry (p8)

These points contribute very little to answering the research questions or addressing the problematic at all. They do, however, touch on some compelling points. The paper paints a picture of an industry which is not valuing its essential components, and is suffering for it. The suggestion that wages and conditions are prompting serious attrition from the industry, if founded, will be of serious concern to employers, who could hope to improve retention of skilled staff by accepting higher costs and improving what conditions they can. It will also be of significance to employees, who could potentially hold far more power than they currently do within the industry, recast as valuable, skilled and in demand rather than inadequate, short term and casual.

As for training and apprenticeships, the picture is of workplaces being seen as the ideal learning environment but not often enough fulfilling this promise, while TAFE, though important, can’t pick up the slack. This is partly through the perceived limitations of classroom based rather than workplace based learning, and partly because of the directions they take. It is suggested that TAFE is overlooking the students as stakeholders in their own training, and listening to short-sighted employer demands for shorter and cheaper training, rather than addressing their actual needs and the needs of the whole industry and the students themselves, for broadly skilled, happy trainees.

Such kinds of Interpretivist understandings could be very valuable at many points throughout these large, bureaucratic structures which are not known for prioritising reflexivity, or apparently, taking account of the needs and workings of their partners and generally seeing others’ points of view. If correct, these insights have noteworthy significance for employers’ groups who ought to re-evaluate their training needs, for VET providers who should consider other directions, and for students and employees who should take any chance to make their own needs known.

3. What evidence does the researcher present in support of the conclusions? What has been included and what has been omitted in this report of the research, and how does this represent strengths and weaknesses in the author’s knowledge claims?

This paper was written to present at a conference on VET research. It discusses a body of research that was still in progress, and explores some issues that had arisen to that point. Its format and purpose therefore differs from those of a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. It would have benefited from the ability to ask the author questions, which would have been available at the original presentation. Presumably the presentation would not have been limited as the text is, by the ambiguity of the ungrammatical writing and the lack of coherence between the discussion and the quotes meant to illustrate it, all of which makes unclear exactly what is being said and who is saying it at many points and does not engender confidence in assertions made. Unfortunately all that remains now is the imperfect text version, at least until the next stage of research is published.

There are other issues however, that appear to go beyond the writing up. As it should be in an Interpretivist study (FASS, 2010 p66), context is emphasised. The responses are claimed to be “grounded in practice” (McDermott, 2008 p2) by dint of the interviewees having experience in the situation, and much of this paper is devoted to discussing current issues in Australian VET. This concern, however, does not follow through to the presentation of the actual research. No picture is painted of the interviewees to allow the reader to further interpret the findings, no details are given of why they were chosen further than them being “a broad range” (p2) and “interesting” (p2). No information is offered about what organisations or roles the interviewees come from, beyond the bare fact that some recent graduated trainees have been included (p2). While it is impossible to know if they have been included, the paper does not mention the role of stakeholders such as any unions or employers’ groups. No explanation is offered for why an unknown number of interviewees are in the UK when the project is firmly embedded in the Australian context, educationally, politically and economically. The participants are so decontextualised that all that is presented is thirteen bare quotes, coded by a system that remains unexplained to the untrained reader.

Although the author describes the research as empirical (p3), the number of participants appears much too small to answer the questions about the effectiveness of an entire industry and educational sector. The questions regarding opinions have yielded “points of consideration” (p8) yet with no idea who the participants are and what they represent, it is difficult to assess the significance of these ideas. As an interpretivist study it could be expected to focus on a specific case (Candy 1991 in FASS, 2010 p67), but with a small number of diverse participants within a large set of systems, it instead seems to fall between the two poles of case and generalisability.

There are many issues that appear due to the lack of explanation about the interviewees, that could be either omission in reporting or serious problem for the research. From the evidence presented, it appears no distinction is made between criticism of systems and criticism of such elements as the resourcing of the system, which is a frequent concern in the quotes; whether something is deemed to not work in the interviewee’s experience or to not be able to work at all can be important in assessing solutions. Further, not addressing aspects of TAFE such as workplace delivery or practice in on-campus restaurants, both of which combine VET and functional workplaces, encourages the assumption that the class-based learning discussed is universal, where the existence of these initiatives prove this untrue. Hopefully the further research does have more than this to draw on when exploring possibilities for change.

4. What kinds of theoretical assumptions are embedded in the article?

No mention is made of the relationship between researcher and subject. The interviewees were chosen and the questionnaire developed by the researcher.

Nothing about the researcher is disclosed, no acknowledgement is made of any effect of the researcher on the interviews, and even the interpretation involved in the analysis is not emphasised. The questions asked have also not been provided. The language of the article suggests it is epistemologically objectivist, although it is probably not true considering the emphasis on Interpretivist questions and heavy use of personal opinions. Ontologically, too, the language and methods seem to suggest that there is a common reality, where the opinions of a small number of people, when suitably analysed, will be able to answer quite concrete questions about the world. In a rare admission of personal beliefs, however, a more subjectivist approach is indicated by the insistence on the importance of context, despite failings to use it, and in the assertion that “this information cannot be described through a linear cause and effect” (McDermott, 2008 p2) which can possibly be interpreted, as Candy (1991 in FASS, 2010 p67) states of interpretivism, that cause and effect are not linear.

The article comes close to touching on power relations as it discusses the different expectations of trainees and employers, but as it is not critical research, this is understandably not emphasised. One aspect of the lack of context of interviewees is that focus seems to be entirely on large entities – the government, TAFE and large employers with multiple trainees. Comment is not made as to whether this is intentional, whether results are expected to be relevant to all contexts, or only in other large organisations. In the same way, all the omissions of information about the interviewees indicate the absence of parameters.

Supplementary Reference:

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, 2010, 013952 Research Perspectives Learning Guide, University of Technology, Sydney, Sydney.

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