Schofield, Darren (2020) Learning on and off the job: vocational education and training in the UK food and grocery retail buying occupation. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

This thesis sheds new light upon a socially significant, complex and multi-dimensional occupation largely hidden from public view. UK food and grocery retail buyers influence our consumer choices, what we eat, our finances, and the wider environment from which the products they select and buy on behalf of UK food and grocery retailers originate. Little has been written about their occupation and the vocational education and training (VET) which educates these key employees in a sector of the UK economy estimated to be worth £190.3 billion (IGD, 2018).

This thesis analyses factors of on and off the job learning that might inform occupational knowledge, standards, and competencies for the education and training needs of UK food and grocery retail buyers. It draws from the perceptions and lived experiences of a unique sample of thirteen practising and former buyers from top 10 UK retailers. Documentary analysis further supports a research design including an original conceptual framework combining human capital theory with conceptualisations of on and off the job learning (Sfard, 1998), performance (Appelbaum, 2000), and pedagogy (Nind, et al., 2016) used to thematically analyse data from semi-structured interviews.

Key findings reveal the differing relevance of on and off the job learning to buyer performance which evolves over the working lives and changing career statuses of buyers. The findings extend from participant perceptions that depict contradictory notions to conventions of post-16 education and qualifications yet paradoxically suggest, post-16 qualifications may become a necessity for future entry to the buying occupation. The common ground of a two-year period of, “learning to survive” initial buyer training is defined by participants and linked to notions of self-interest, achievement (McClelland, 1961) and expectancy (Vroom, 1964) that may underpin early-career buyers’ motivation not to choose off the job learning activities, and which may shape enduring on the job learning mindsets. Further key findings expose a highly competitive occupation fuelled by perceptions of the relative economic status of different product ranges buyers buy and which may be viewed as a proxy for buyer competency. Contrasting ideas of the buyer as an enthusiast and the buyer as caretaker of the product ranges they buy are also advanced as indicative notions of what makes a good buyer. Additionally, the use of social learning methods by retail organisations to offset mid-career buyer learning motivations, largely dismissive of off the job learning is advanced alongside evidence of why attaining managerial status as a buyer is marked by greater levels of buyer engagement with off the job learning opportunities.

This thesis identifies extensive opportunities to better understand, accelerate and enhance buyer learning, especially in the areas of corporate social responsibility and pre-entry occupational knowledge and curriculum development. It introduces a conceptual framework that may offer a useful method for investigating VET in comparable competitive, fast-moving occupational environments. This thesis also makes the case for greater cooperation between competing individual, organisational and state actors to further develop and support occupational knowledge and learning across the working lives of UK food and grocery retail buyers.

FINAL THESIS - Schofield.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

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