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Identity strategies in light of a low-prestige occupation: the case of retail apprentices

Pages 339-352
Received 02 Sep 2015
Accepted 01 Aug 2016
Published online: 15 Aug 2016


Occupations differ in their prestige, but little research has examined how workers manage working in a low-prestige occupation. This case study with retail-clerk apprentices in Switzerland uncovers the identity strategies the apprentices employ to help them normalise the situation they find themselves in: they are learning an occupation that is not assumed to require any specific knowledge or skills. We base our arguments on theories about occupational prestige, identity and stigma management, as well as on a qualitative study in VET (vocational education and training) schools. Three identity strategies are dominant among retail-clerk apprentices and are deeply embedded within the retail context and the Swiss apprenticeship programme. First, apprentices embrace ideas of discontinuous careers and lifelong learning, which encourage them to improve their occupational position through mobility within or outside the retail sector. Second, the VET programme builds on apprentices’ consumer interests and encourages their self-valorisation through the prestige of products and shops. Third, apprentices emphasise that retail work is skilled work, a strategy that is consistent with the positive societal perception of the Swiss VET system. These strategies provide insights into how apprentices construct positive occupational identities although they are placed low on the occupational prestige hierarchy.


We wish to thank various people for their contribution to our research project; Elettra Flamigni for her constructive ideas in developing the project and her help in collecting data; Nadine Kipfer and Alexandra Felder for her useful comments on an earlier version of this article. Special thanks should be given to the journal editors and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions to improve the article.


1. Retail-clerk apprentices are trained to advise customers and manage products/stocks. They specialise in one of these two domains in their last year, in line with the demands of the shop at which they work.

2. A federal VET diploma was introduced to ensure that certificates are recognised throughout Switzerland and to define the minimum length of an ordinary apprenticeship as three years.

3. The taint can be physical, as when the occupation is associated with garbage, death or danger. It can also be social, as when it involves working with stigmatised groups or servile relationships. Finally, the taint can be moral, as with occupations that are perceived as not respecting norms of civility (Ashforth et al. Citation2007, 151). Occupations differ on the basis of the centrality and the intensity of the dirty aspects they involve (Kreiner, Ashforth, and Sluss Citation2006, 621).

4. Apart from general education courses (e.g. economics, languages), apprentices acquire theoretical knowledge about sales in the VET school. They are familiarised with customer orientation, customer loyalty, additional services, product presentation, forms of payment and price formation. Specific product knowledge is acquired through on-the-job training in companies and in intercompany courses held in learning centres.

5. Apprentices from different cantons and classes did not differ in the ways in which they managed low prestige.

6. Names are pseudonyms.

7. Some strategies, for instance, arguing that all occupations are of equal prestige and thus questioning the prestige hierarchy as such, were marginal and only mobilised by individual apprentices.

8. Because of inadequate statistics, it is difficult to evaluate the extent to which the retail apprenticeship provides possibilities for further education and progression. Regarding the entrance diploma to universities, however, only 15% of all apprentices obtain it.

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