Negotiation of occupational identities: apprentices in VET programmes in retail, automation and bricklaying

In Switzerland, vocational education and training (VET) relies on strong social recognition, but the high incidence of apprenticeship contract terminations and/or reorientations among apprentices suggests that the transition to working life is not always without complications. Hence, it is important to understand the experiences that apprentices have during their apprenticeship on the way to becoming professionals.

Groupe d'adolescents qui discutent

The aim of this research is to study the socialisation of apprentices during their training from a sociological perspective, focusing on the development of their occupational identities. Our goal is to understand the development of apprentices’ occupational identities, by taking into account the expectations and learning and working conditions at the host company and at the vocational school.

With an objective of developing an innovative approach to questions surrounding occupational identity, a comparison will be drawn between three occupations with specific work activities, levels of prestige and working conditions: the retail trade, automation and bricklaying. The way in which apprentices experience and make sense of different types of apprenticeships and develop into professionals will be analysed and compared. In particular, we will study how apprentices, as active agents in the process, develop identity strategies in response to the multiple tensions that they encounter during their training.

The project focuses on the following aspects:

  • What kind of professional identities do apprentices develop during their training?
  • How are apprentices’ occupational identities influenced by the expectations and working and learning conditions at host companies and vocational schools?
  • How do apprentices negotiate their occupational identities, given the demands of the job and working life? What identity strategies do they develop to reconcile the differences and tensions between their own expectations and the expectations of others?

This study seeks to improve our understanding of young people’s transition from school to work and the development of occupational identity. At the same time, it is intended to influence practices, specifically in VET teaching.


The study is being carried out in seven vocational schools in the French- and German-speaking regions of Switzerland. Three vocational schools (in the cantons of Vaud, Neuchâtel and Bern) have already been approached regarding an initial project on the retail trade, and the gathered data will be included in this study [].

The research involving bricklaying and automation apprentices is taking place at four schools in the same two linguistic regions of the country. A qualitative approach has been adopted, involving various methods: observations in vocational schools, group discussions with apprentices, and semi-structured interviews with apprentices and other VET experts.

Transfer into practice