Post-Fordism in the
Ford Motor Company?
Women Learning in a
Workplace Community

Julia Clarke

School of Education
Open University, UK

In the texts of labour market sociology, the name of Ford is frequently invoked to represent a particular form of mass-production. The demise of the 'fordist' assembly line and the development of small-scale craft production by a highly skilled and flexible workforce, is claimed to offer 'Possibilities for Prosperity' in a new 'post-fordist' era (Piore & Sabel, 1984). What are these possibilities? Who will prosper in this new era? This paper will offer a critique of the fordist/post-fordist representations of the labour market in relation to the work and educational experiences of a particular group of women. These women are employed in low-paid service jobs, but have embarked on a return to education through EDAP's Internet Café on the site of the car body plant at Ford Motor Company's Dagenham (UK) factory.

The Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP) is a joint programme run by the Trade Unions and Ford offering non job-related educational opportunities to Ford employees. A government grant has enabled an EDAP learning centre to open its doors to family members of Ford employees, contract workers on the Ford site and employees working in the local retail park. The aim was to reach out to adults who had not continued with education since leaving school. Interviews with some of the women who took up this opportunity provide the data which is used to explore their subject positions as learners in a "workplace community".


This paper begins with some observations on selected aspects of the fordism/post-fordism debate as a preface to my description of EDAP and the 'Growth Through Learning' project. A critical focus on post-fordist theory was prompted by my engagement in an educational project located within the Ford motor company, together with a desire to question some of the ideas about work in the global economy that are embedded in policy discourses of lifelong learning. These ideas are considered alongside data from semi-structured, individual interviews conducted with nine women who were asked about their experiences of working and learning in a particular context. The context was that of a short-term educational project for which further funding was being sought, and this involved re-casting a group of 'women returners' as members of a 'workplace community'. This idea constituted an attempt to blur the boundaries between the workplace and other aspects of social life, and to challenge the implicit separation of workplace and community in the UK government's allocation of funds for different kinds of educational project. The original purpose of the interviews was therefore to examine our own hypothesis that the people coming together to learn through a work-based scheme might be identifiable as members of such a 'workplace community'.

Appealing for money to work in public services, whether in the context of statutory provision, voluntary initiatives or international aid programmes, usually involves applicants in a pragmatic negotiation of the relationship between funding criteria, the conceptualisation of needs and the identification of service users. If we want money to work with the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged or the socially excluded, we must appeal to prevailing ideas about the legitimacy of particular desires and aspirations and about the kinds of people we ought to be or become. In the following account, I use categories and classifications that are based on a whole series of ideological assumptions within the discourses of work and education. For example, when I describe a person as a 'first time returner', I am positioning myself, as an educator, in a privileged location to which 'others' are seen to be returning, as if they have been inhabiting some less desirable 'other' place. This is because I am committed to work that extends educational opportunities to people whose prior experiences or current situation has made such opportunities inaccessible. At the same time, however, I recognise the power of educational institutions, whether located in the formal sector, at the workplace or in the community, to authorise and validate particular kinds of knowledge and identities. While the experience of paid work and organised education are widely valued, other experiences, such as those that are generally common to women as primary carers, are often ignored, marginalised or even denigrated. As well as interrogating the notion of a 'workplace community', therefore, the data from our interviews is used to pose questions about where and how these women's experiences fit into the idealised representations of work and subjectivity associated with the literature of fordism and post-fordism. This includes a consideration of reasons for choosing to learn about computers, the meaning of 'career' and notions of identity that are represented as characteristic of a shift to a post-fordist age.

Lifelong learning and the economic imperative

In recent UK policy directives on lifelong learning, while there is some recognition of the value of learning for 'active citizenship' and 'the chance to explore art, music and literature', funding arrangements for all forms of adult learning are now primarily justified in terms of the economic imperative of competition in a global economy and the call for a multi-skilled and flexible workforce. A recent government White Paper sets out an agenda for lifelong learning that will enable the nation to, 'keep pace with the modern economies of our competitors' (DfEE, 1999). The authors of this policy statement also recognise the importance of social cohesion in their call upon individuals, families and communities to embrace lifelong learning in order to develop individual potential and to sustain 'a civilised and cohesive society'. The central purpose remains, however, 'to ensure the means by which our economy can make a successful transition from the industries and services of the past, to the knowledge and information economy of the future' (DfEE, 1999: 3). Such is the power of these discourses that it is extremely difficult for adult educators, or anybody else, to challenge the idea of lifelong learning as anything but a Good Thing.

There is no doubt that technological advances have had a tremendous impact on both the nature and organisation of work, and that developments in information technology have supported new approaches to the production and commodification of knowledge. In current government discourse, technological progress is treated as an inevitable driving force for change, in which knowledge and information replace 'the industries and services of the past'. Lifelong learning thus becomes a necessary process in the service of a 'knowledge and information economy'. However, there are questions to be asked about the extent to which the 'industries and services of the past' are being replaced or reorganised, about the nature of reorganisation and about who stands to gain or lose from the changes. These questions are not new, as I note that five years have passed since Griff Foley described as 'breathtakingly irresponsible' the continuing call for economic growth in the face of ecological destruction, in a competition that nobody can win unless others lose (Foley, 1994:124). More recently Tony Brown (1999) has pointed out that it is not so much the advance of technology as the expansionary nature and rapid spread of the social relations of capital that have affected work, law, state and civil life around the world. In Brown's account, the old industries are being replaced to a great extent by currency trading, which accounts for a volume of world trade around twenty times that of international trade in commodities. Post-modern discourses of globalisation, Brown argues, tend to 'deflect attention from this spread and the quest for higher profits and lower prices which are the primary causes of the restructuring and change we are experiencing' (Brown, 1999: 9). This expansion is supported by nation states when they exhort their own working classes to compete on the global stage in 'a never ending chase for marginal advantage' (Brown, p. 11).

The suppression of difference in the ideal types of 'fordism/post-fordism'

The Ford Motor Company, famous for its introduction of the assembly line and associated with particular forms of work organisation, continues to produce and sell cars despite its representation as a symbol of the old industrial order. Fordism, as a sociological phenomenon, describes the wider economic context in which the mass production of consumer durables was regarded as the dominant form of work organisation. Jessop (1994) identifies other referents in addition to the labour process which, taken together, contribute to the particularly influential analysis of fordism produced by economists associated with the regulation school. These include patterns of economic growth (the accumulation regime); institutional structures that regulate the growth cycle, including state support for collective wage bargaining; and a consumer society based on the nuclear family and state controlled public services. The age of fordism is thus represented as a picture of the past, when men endured the mindless routine of the assembly line in return for a guaranteed wage for their stay-at-home wives to spend on consumer goods. Post-fordism is then constructed, through various narratives of change, in opposition to this kind of oversimplified representation of work and social life in industrialised nations between the 1920s and 1960s. I shall not attempt a review of the diverse strands of analysis that are founded upon the fordism/post-fordism metaphor, of which a useful summary from an educational perspective can be found in Watkins (1994). From the numerous critiques of the various sociological theories of post-fordism, my particular interest is in the people and experiences that are excluded from these accounts through the suppression of complexity and difference. (See, for example, Williams et al 1987; Pollert, 1988; Bagguley, 1991; Carter, 1997).

A focus on capital and class in the regulationist account, for example, means that questions of race and gender are ignored. Similarly, the before/after simplifications of fordism/post-fordism contribute to ideological representations of the inevitability of linear progress by distorting the uneven and multi-directional patterns of change. Following Japanese-style job restructuring in the Ford factory at Dagenham, assembly workers reported that this resulted in work intensification as they were constantly moved between a variety of jobs. However, they claimed that these jobs required fewer skills than were needed for the more specialised tasks they had done in the past (Watkins, 1991). This experience is not consistent with the account of post-fordism, characterised by the model of flexible specialisation, which contrasts the core/periphery model of a multi-skilled and flexible workforce with a fordist model of the homogeneous white male mass-production worker. The latter may have been typical of some Ford assembly lines, but are less likely to be found in other mass-production industries where semi-skilled work on the assembly line has always been seen as 'women's work' (Hart,1992).

The model for flexible specialization is represented in a book by two North American academics, Michael Piore and Charles Sabel (1984). The authors cite industrial districts in Central and Northern Italy where the government supports both co-operation and competition among small firms producing short runs of clothing, textiles or machine parts to accommodate rapidly fluctuating market demand. Co-operation is promoted 'by establishing an ethos of interdependence among producers in the same market' (Piore and Sabel p. 272), while competition is encouraged but controlled through whatever mechanisms for social cohesion exist within the particular local community. This requires 'a strategy of permanent innovation: accommodation to ceaseless change, rather than an effort to control it' (Piore and Sabel, p.17). Among the critics of the flexible specialization thesis, Fergus Murray (1987) challenges the utopian vision of the artisan workplace in the 'Third Italy', pointing out that 'one of its virtues for firms of all sizes is the overall labour flexibility it provides and racial, gender and skill divisions are essential to the operation of this economic model' (Murray, 1987:88). Murray also points out that mass-production continues alongside the small Italian firms and the latter are still subject to the domination of the international economy by large and multinational companies (Murray, p.94). Despite the more complex picture presented in Murray's empirical study, Piore and Sabel's model is often generalized across all nations and all sectors of the labour market as a vision of the workplace of the future. It is clear that the empirical basis for these models needs to be interrogated in order to take account of their full complexity and the 'gender-blindness' of their representation.

Discourses of workplace learning, both in public policy documents and in the literature of the 'Learning Organisation' resonate with Piore and Sabel's model of flexible specialisation, in which employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, and to be prepared to adapt and change and develop new skills. Piore and Sabel explain the restructuring of manufacturing in the 'Third Italy' as a creative response to market saturation of mass-produced goods. Critics point out that the decentralisation and large scale subcontracting at the heart of these changes can also be explained as a reaction to mass strike action and the passing of labour laws guaranteeing statutory rights for workers, while granting exemption and tax concessions to smaller firms (Kumar, 1995). Among the statutory entitlements achieved in Italy through trade union action during this period was the employees' right to 150 hours per year of Paid Educational Leave (PEL) for basic adult education (Brasolin & Villone, 1987). There is a certain irony here. The need for lifelong learning is related to the demands of an 'enchanted workplace' of the future (Gee et al, 1996). Yet the most widely cited models of such workplaces were designed, in part, to circumvent the statutory provision of benefits that included employer funded general education for the workforce.

Workplace Learning, EDAP and the Trade Union Learning Fund

The Italian '150 hours' scheme was initiated in the early 1970s by public authorities in the Bologna/Emilia Romagna region in response to a trade union survey in which it was estimated that 70% of Italian workers had not completed basic secondary schooling. Local authorities provided courses of up to 350 hours a year, initially for their own employees and subsequently extending to employees in engineering, textiles and chemical industries, who attended for 150-250 hours on paid release from work and completed the courses in their own time. In Britain, the Workbase Trade Union Education & Skills Project was developed from similar partnerships, and flourished in the 1980s, mainly with the support of Labour controlled local authorities for whom the provision of workplace basic education for manual workers played an important part in the implementation of an equal opportunities policy (Bonnerjea, 1992). Initiatives of this kind have contributed to changing practices of workplace learning that challenge traditional distinctions between employer-funded training and state-funded adult education in diverse ways. The development of EDAP, Offline and the 'Growth Through Learning' project provide an illustration of this blurring of boundaries between education and training in the workplace.

The Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP) is a joint programme run by the Trade Unions and Ford. In addition to job-related training provided by the company, EDAP has been offering educational guidance and sponsorship for learning opportunities to Ford employees since 1989. While the question was raised earlier about the link between flexible working practices and skill enhancement at Fords, the company recognised that in its first five years, EDAP has contributed to 'improvements in work environment and industrial relations at Ford' and to 'a more committed and flexible workforce' (Moore,1994:10). Through EDAP, each employee is entitled to an allowance of up to £200 per year towards course fees, and the centre also offers a range of courses tailored to meet the needs of the wide range of shift patterns worked by the employees. At the Dagenham Body Plant, the EDAP learning centre includes an Internet Café, with open access and tutor support for those wishing to learn a variety of computer applications. Other on-site courses include Tai Chi, Photography, Music, Art, Bricklaying, Home Electrics, Washing Machine Repair and various workshop skills. In the same building, but now funded directly by Ford as part of the employer's job-related training programme, is a literacy and basic skills unit, Offline.

In 1998, a Trade Union Learning Fund was set up by the government's Department for Education and Employment, (DfEE), with the aim of encouraging Trade Unions to promote lifelong learning in the workplace. The committee of Body Plant EDAP secured a grant from this fund for a six month project which aimed: 'to extend existing provision to the wider community, especially those taking the first step back into learning'. Given the title 'Growth Through Learning', the particular 'wider community' targeted by this project included family members of Ford Body Plant employees, contractors working on the site (the majority of whom work in cleaning, maintenance and catering services), and employees in stores located in the neighbouring retail park. In effect this meant a focus on a predominantly female target group in a workplace where men comprise the overwhelming majority of the workforce. A wide variety of marketing and 'outreach' strategies were employed to urge people to join the existing courses offered at the EDAP centre including art, photography and music as well as additional, introductory or women-only courses in Tai Chi and Car Servicing. Over the six months, one female cleaner joined the art class, three male contractors joined music and another male contractor joined the photography group. However, of a total of 218 courses requested, the greatest number (83) were for computer courses. With just over half of the project participants returning to education for the first time since leaving school, the proportion of this group asking for computer courses was far higher, with 42 requests for computer courses from 87 'first time returners'.

In an attempt to vary their strategies for promoting lifelong learning in 1999, the DfEE introduced new sets of criteria for applications to the Trade Union Learning Fund. This would support new initiatives, but would leave the 170 participants - 126 women and 44 men - who had been so recently recruited through GTL, with no further support to continue their educational activities. We therefore looked for ways of redefining the project to fit the new criteria for another source of DfEE money. In our submission to the DfEE's Adult and Community Learning Fund, we defined the geographical area surrounding the Ford production plants in Dagenham as a 'workplace community'. In support of this idea, we suggested that the offer to retail and service employees of educational opportunities close to their workplace, in the sense of time, geography and even identity, might constitute recognition of their value as workers, even though most of them were employed in low-skilled and low-paid jobs. Our application was rejected, but we decided to investigate our hypothesis of the 'workplace community' through tape recorded interviews with nine of the women who had been coming in to EDAP's Internet Café on a more or less regular basis for several months. We asked these women about their experiences of learning and working; their feelings about themselves as workers/learners; their goals and aspirations; barriers and opportunities.

Nine women in the Internet Cafe

Of the nine women interviewed, five were aged between 36 and 45 and the other four were over the age of 45. Seven are white and two of Asian origin. Six of them had not engaged in any organised education since leaving school. Two of the women, Barbara and Helen, had enrolled in the project as family members of Ford employees and one, Cathy, was employed by a catering contractor on the Ford site. The other six, Mina, Mary, Vicky, Pat, Ghita and Yvonne, were all employed in the local retail park. Barbara gave up paid work four years ago when she was expecting a child and now describes herself as a housewife. After leaving school at 18, Barbara worked in secretarial jobs, but, she said, 'I've always done evening classes', and she had gained a degree in Mediaeval history, studying part-time at London University while she was working. Helen left school at 16 but went to college to do secretarial training because, as she said, 'I think girls were automatically pushed towards secretarial and that sort of profession...'. However, she later trained to be a nurse and, at the time of our interview, was combining a nursing job with bringing up children. Mina, who worked on the shop floor at ASDA, had left school at the age of ten when her mother died, and she had to stay home and care for younger brothers and sisters. She commented that, 'Everything I learn now is just pick up from people and learn as I go'. Mary, Vicky and Pat worked together in catering jobs at ASDA. They had all left school at 15 and none of them had engaged in any further education since then. Ghita was also a 'first time returner', having left school at 16 with no formal qualifications and she now worked in a clerical job at Homebase and cared for teenaged children at home.

Yvonne worked a night shift filling shelves at ASDA and cared for her 5-year-old twin daughters during the day. Yvonne did a vocational course after leaving school at 16, and then worked for fifteen years in graphic design. When she became pregnant, Yvonne's mother offered to care for her baby so she could go back to work, 'but when it was twins it was just too much. So I've not been to work for about five years, and just as a little evening thing I got the job at ASDA filling shelves'. The 'little evening thing' actually involves working from 9pm until 2am, and Yvonne said that now her daughters were at school, she was hoping to switch to a day job. Cathy also left school at 16 and had gone to work in an office until she had her second child. She now works for a catering contractor on the Ford site because, as she said, 'I find this is like more flexible when you have got a family'. Although her children are grown up, Cathy is committed to being 'on call' for an epileptic daughter and says that, in this job, 'if someone phones up and she's not well, I can go'.

We asked all the women whether they had learnt anything useful at school and most of them replied negatively, those who left at 15 saying that they learnt nothing until after they left school. Although they are all literate and numerate, it was only the two Asian women who mentioned the value of learning to write, read and do arithmetic at school.

'You don't want to, but suddenly you want to' — confronting fears about education

The EDAP Internet Café is carefully designed to create a relaxed, non-institutional atmosphere, with bright neon signs, fresh coffee, soft music and plenty of space. Following an initial two hour induction programme with the tutor, learners can book time to browse the web, for example, or to engage in other learning activities using commercial software or to complete the series of assignments required to achieve a certificate in Computer Literacy & Information Technology (CLAIT). One reason why we had chosen to focus on the Internet Café was because, in a review of grant applications to the 'Adult and Community Learning Fund', Sue Cara expressed her concern at the preponderance of bids for 'parenting skills and basic IT' (Cara, 1998). Cara suggests that this might be attributed to the limited vision of funding applicants who did not appear to be interested in offering 'non-vocational opportunities to disadvantaged groups'. She poses the question, 'Why do poor people not need art, photography, local history or tai chi if those who have money enjoy them so much?' Since, as I have outlined above, our target group of 'poor people' were offered a wide variety of non-vocational opportunities, we wanted to re-direct her question and ask why basic IT courses were the most popular choice of activity among those participants who we classified as 'first time returners'.

Mina was keen to learn about computers because, as a Health and Safety officer, she was expected to write memos on a word processor at work and had to ask for help with this. She said she felt safe with a group of employees and 'I hate college environment. I never been but I hate it'. Others who had rejected the college option, cited age as a factor, and for Yvonne, this was based on a recent visit to the college where she had studied when she left school. '…oh God, they were all so young in there', she remarked 'I'm going to be like a fish out of water amongst these lot, and I never took it any further'. Pressures of time and compulsion feature in several descriptions of school with, as Yvonne put it, 'the teacher at the front… oh you've got to do that, kind of thing' and Ghita's view of the teacher who 'sets a time and all that'. Several others said they liked the Internet Café because they could make mistakes without being told they were stupid. Pat said that coming there had '…not been as bad as I thought' because 'I think I imagined it like school really, like — oh God, look what you've done…'.

I discuss below the diverse reasons why the women chose to learn about computers, despite the kinds of fears and suspicion that some of them expressed about returning to organised education. But Mary's account of this experience supports an argument that the offer of learning opportunities with an instrumental or vocational purpose can open up all kinds of other possibilities for the defensive and hesitant adult learner. This does not necessarily mean that she will take up classes in art or local history, but that an enjoyable and successful learning experience leads to positive changes in self-perception that were not consciously sought or anticipated. Mary's comment that she only came along 'for a joke' suggests a defense against the risk of damage to an apparently fragile perception of herself as a learner. Mary decided to work towards a CLAIT qualification although she found the idea of an exam 'a bit off-putting at first. I thought, at my age, to take an exam'. When I pointed out that she didn't have to do this, Mary replied, 'No you don't have to, but now you want to don't you? It's a funny world… you don't want to but then you suddenly want to don't you'. She still seemed to find it difficult to take her own interest seriously, employing a feminine and self-deprecating metaphor to describe her new-found commitment to learning, '…you get a little bee in your bonnet and think, I've got to do it'.

'Everything's computers now'

Paul du Gay describes retailing as the 'leading edge' sector of a 'new service economy' in which shopping as a premier leisure activity makes retailing a major cultural site (du Gay, 1996:98). I wondered whether, among a group of women working in the service sector and choosing to learn about computers, I would find evidence of the merged identity of producer/provider and consumer that du Gay associates with the rule of the 'sovereign consumer' over the relations and processes of production. This merging occurs when the employee actively produces an identity through work, where s/he is encouraged to identify with workplace goals as an 'enterprising subject' (Rose, 1990), while simultaneously making a project of producing the self through patterns of consumption. These patterns represent lifestyle choices, and might include, for example, a choice of educational products and services. The qualities that are valued in this 'culture of the customer', are those of 'autonomous, calculating individuals' who, as both producer/worker and consumer, are 'in search of meaning and fulfilment, looking to 'add value' to themselves in every sphere of existence, whether at work or play' (du Gay, 1996: 79).

Because of our interest in the popularity of the Internet Cafe, we had begun by asking the women what they were doing on the computer, and why. Right from the start, several of them referred to home and family in response to these questions. For some of the women, there was already a computer at home, and Helen, Ghita and Yvonne talked about their desire to keep pace with their children. Similarly, Pat has decided to buy a computer because, when her grandchildren come round, '…it's nice to have something there for them to be interested in… and you get all the things for children don't you, History, Geography, Maths… which I think will benefit them as well'. There is some evidence here of a consumer/provider identity in which the acquisition of a personal computer represents a lifestyle choice that includes the need to develop new skills. Such choices clearly have implications for family relationships in which the good mother and grandmother must provide a lot more than clean clothes and nourishing meals. The computer is a particular kind of commodity through which Pat can provide something that will both entertain and 'benefit' her grandchildren. But these are not the only reasons why these women have chosen to learn about computers, and some of them do not distinguish between pursuing their 'own' interests and those of family members. For example, Vicky told us that, '…all I wanted to learn for was basically for me… I don't know if I want to go anywhere job-wise with it, I'm not really that confident at the moment, but who knows, at the end of the day I might feel confident enough to go and do that sort of work.' When asked what kinds of things she would do for herself, Vicky replied, '…well my husband's self-employed so I can do a lot of his work on it, his tax, whatever…'. This suggests that doing something 'for me' means doing something at home, which is clearly distinguished from something 'job-wise' even if it is really for her husband's work.

Cathy also related her interest in computers to a combination of something she had once taken pride in at work and a desire to participate more fully in family life. After leaving school at the age of 16, Cathy worked in an accounts office, using adding machines. She said, 'I used to love the machine side in the other job and I thought, is it that much different? You know, with regards to my nephews, they've all got computers and… if you won't play you look silly really, so that was another reason why…'. For Mina, whose need to type memos has already been mentioned, learning about computers would serve an immediate vocational purpose. Yvonne also expressed the desire to switch from shelf-filling at night to a day job in the ASDA office now that her children were at school, and she believed that computer literacy would help her to secure such a job. Ghita said she would like to work with computers in the future and Helen, the nurse, said that she may well need to use them on the wards.

Another motivating factor was articulated in terms of a general observation that 'everything's computers now' and, as Pat went on, '…like you go to a doctor's surgery, you've got to be able to know how to use a computer. Everywhere you go now it's computerised'. Pat had expressed some ambivalence about joining the Internet Café, saying she would not have come on her own because she was afraid it might be like school and that she might be too old. Mary had been even less confident than Pat about embarking on this course, saying 'it started off as a joke' and that she came to keep Pat company and thought, 'we'll go once, we won't come back'. But Mary did come back, despite her husband's scepticism, '…he said where are you going to go from here… at your time of life, where are you going to go from here with it? But' she added, 'it's for satisfaction now, more than anything, I think. To prove the point that you can do it you know. The children are more excited than him… they think it's fascinating'. Having decided to 'prove a point', Mary echoed Pat's reference to the doctor's surgery, suggesting that this group of women had rehearsed the arguments that would justify their decision to learn about computers. 'I'd like my own firm actually and a computer would come in handy, you know, in catering, or anything… or if you go to the doctor's surgery now isn't it, what do you need? A computer. So, yeah, I think eventually it will be all, wherever you go…'.

In the constant references to family members and in the description of social activity among those who came together to learn as a group, these accounts do not convey a picture of du Gay's 'autonomous, calculating individuals'. As workers, consumers and domestic providers in relationships with others, the boundaries between their own needs and desires and those of other people are never clearly drawn. Enmeshed as they are in a complex web of relationships, the motivation to acquire and learn about computers can certainly be conceived in terms of a desire to ''add value' to themselves in every sphere of existence, whether at work or play' (du Gay, 1996:79). However, the value that is added may not be transferable between the different spheres, and cannot be related to any simple notion of progress or career progression among a group of adults whose work history is often marked by a pattern of 'downward mobility'.

'We all get in a rut' — the meaning of 'career'

The concept of 'downward mobility' presupposes the hierarchical organisation of a labour market that attaches certain value to certain kinds of labour. The terms in which women described some of their jobs gives an indication of the value they attached to them. We mentioned Yvonne's reference to her job at ASDA as 'just a little evening thing', and Vicky's first job was at a 'dressmaking place' but 'that was just sort of packing the clothes'. She then took a job worthy of description, 'I went to a company and worked in a wages office,' but, after she got married, although she had no children, Vicky said that, 'basically I've just had sort of like part-time jobs'. When Pat's children were young, she said, 'I worked in Ford's for a while but I only worked in the canteen'. Mary spoke of her current job as '…just fast food so anybody could do it really, it's more boring than anything'. Both Ghita and Mina, however, appeared to value all their work experience. Ghita said, 'I've been assistant to stock controller, I always worked', and Mina recounted a happy and varied career, 'I had my own shop. I worked in a factory. I worked in Kimberley Clark for 8 years. I worked in a cigarette factory, I made some cigarettes. That was a good job actually… baby's bottle teats, I made them, amazing how they make them'. It is interesting to note that Mina's account of unskilled, 'fordist' mass-production, conveys a sense of active ownership of the production process, 'I made them', rather than the mindless alienation of the assembly worker. In the light of lower recorded participation in the UK labour market among Asian women during the 1980s (Rees, 1992), it could be that any kind of paid work outside the home was a matter of pride for Mina and Ghita.

The other seven women, on the other hand, referred to previous jobs, skills and competences in terms that indicated a sense of loss. Barbara said that she 'just sort of drifted' into doing commercial subjects at school, and 'I suppose if I had thought about it years ago I probably would have gone into primary teaching or something like that'. After a short spell in an office, Mary had worked as a sewing machinist until she got married, '…and then of course when the children were little I went into catering 'cause the hours seem to fit with the children doesn't it, and the more I want to get away from food, I'm back into it all the time…'. So for Mary, learning about computers had helped her to regain other skills she had acquired at school but rarely used since,

'It livens up your brain again… You get a bit dead as you get older don't you? …and it's made me think again. My spelling's atrocious and it's made my spelling a lot better so that has pleased me actually 'cause, I mean, it was pretty good when you leave school but you don't use it much do you, you might write an odd letter, very rarely do you use spelling'.

In the light of changing patterns of work, some career guidance professionals are arguing for a new concept of career that embraces experiences of unpaid and voluntary work, including domestic and caring work at home. For example, Collin and Watts (1996) argue that the notion of career should incorporate all aspects of '…the individual's development in learning and work throughout life'. This, according to Collin and Watts, would 'recognise the more discontinuous but also more relational quality of women's career development' (1996: 393). They go on to cite an argument developed by Wilkinson (1995) that 'Indeed, it is plausible to argue that such female models may be more relevant to the post-industrial era than male ones, for men as well as for women'. A challenge to this argument, derived from Foucault's (1977) work on disciplinary power, would suggest that those with an interest in more inclusive definitions of career are those who have a governmental role to play in extending the project of 'self-management' or self-discipline beyond the organised workplace. Gray (1994) points out how, 'In contrast to the unintelligibility, chaos, and paradoxical nature of social relations in general, career offers at least the potential for the management of the self through 'steps on the ladder' or 'moves in the game'' (Gray,1994: 495).

For the women in our study, the 'game' is one with snakes as well as ladders, and many of them expressed the view that career is an alternative to family relationships, even when there are no children, and that a choice has to be made between the two. As Cathy said, 'I find this is like more flexible when you have got a family. I mean if you're career-wise it's different…'. But there was some regret in Cathy's account of her current position in the canteen at Fords when she said, '… some people in the office do look down on you and… what I'm saying is… don't look down at me because I'm sitting here at the till and serving up food because I've done what you've done and I could have gone further so…'. Yvonne said she could not return to her career in graphic design because, 'really I wouldn't be as good as I was before because I wouldn't give it 100 per cent.' She conceded that, if somebody came along and said, 'do you fancy doing it a couple of days a week, then I probably would'. This was so unlikely, in her view, that she had set her sights instead on an office job in ASDA because it was local and 'when you've got children they are quite understanding'. Cathy also said that, if she could find a part-time office job close to home she would prefer to do that, but felt that she lacked the confidence to 'actually go for an interview' unless threatened with redundancy. She added, 'I think if you was made to do it you'd go and do it but... it's like we all say this in work, we're all in a rut, we all get in a rut…'

No change: domestic labour and part-time work

There is little evidence from these interviews to support the idea of a workplace community as we had formulated it. The women who spoke to us were recruited through their workplace, and some were encouraged to attend by friends from work. Mina and Yvonne certainly preferred the prospect of working alongside employees of their own age group rather than attending a college with young school leavers. To this extent, they responded to an opportunity that took account of their workplace identities. Vicky, however, had already decided to look for a computer course when the offer came from GTL, and she arranged to pick up Pat and Mary from their homes and drive them to the centre. These three women have been going along to the Internet Café together every week since their first visit, but they chose to travel from home on their day off. Ghita and Cathy had also started coming from work in their lunch break or at the end of a shift, but later switched to a Saturday morning session, even though this involved an extra journey from home. They said there was less pressure of time and they were not so tired on a Saturday. Similarly, it appears that the motivation and aspirations of these learners in this context was grounded in a far more complex set of identities and relationships than those that are specific to the workplace.

There is no doubt that the Growth Through Learning project was successful in encouraging a high proportion of 'first time returners' to engage in educational activities. But, rather than being located in a 'workplace community', their continuing participation in education appears more like '… something which occurs against a matrix of organizational forms and in conjunction with those forms and the interests they serve' (Courtenay, 1992:112). The workplace is just one site in such a matrix where, for most of these women, family relationships comprise an equally if not more important site. The problematic but mutable intersection between family and work in this matrix is evident, however, in the expressions of ambivalence or regret associated with the low status of their current jobs, and with the descriptions of careers that some of these women might have chosen to pursue. The opportunity to acquire computer literacy was not seen as a validation of their present employee status, but some of the women were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to 'add value' to themselves at home and to engage in more interesting work in future. In my earlier review of fordism/post-fordism as a framework for describing changes in the labour market, it must now be clear that the most blatant inadequacy of these descriptions lies in their failure to account for the lack of any significant change in the relationship between the gendered organisation of domestic labour and the persistence of low-paid, part-time jobs for women. For the nine women who responded to our questions about their work and learning, this is clearly a relationship that cannot be ignored.


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Dr. Julia Clarke
School of Education
Open University,
Walton Hall,
Milton Keynes,

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