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Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education

How do welfare workers learn?

An interview with Professor Peter Sawchuk

By Vesna Bajic


Professor Peter Sawchuk explores the meaning and purpose of social service work in his new book, Contested Learning in Welfare Work: A Study of Mind, Political Economy and the Labour Process. 

1. You chose to write about state welfare workers and about their occupational learning: Why is this important?

The economic challenges of recent times have brought to the forefront new pressures on the funding of public services in countries like Canada. The argument put forth in the book is that when government seeks to avoid costs in a significant way, they turn toward making changes in the labour process. I argue in the book that, in the case of welfare benefit services, the state has learned and re-learned an important lesson: to discipline the poor requires the effective disciplining of those who administer the poor.

2. How difficult is to meet the ongoing needs of clients and still follow the work rules?

In the book we see that over the seven years of the study most workers feel like they are caught in the middle of a new set of work rules, roles and technologies. Out of this emerges three very clear trajectories of learning, though workers can and did shift trajectories of development under certain conditions. Still, what we see is that there are those who are engrossed in technicalities and are therefore tend to learn to become less empathetic to clients and a second who develop skills dealing with the technicalities but whose learning is guided by empathy. What’s particularly interesting here is that, on the surface, the difference is not usually very easy to detect. The third type stand out a bit more, analytically speaking. These are workers who are having difficulty starting their learning journey on either of these first two trajectories. They are sputtering. If the sputtering has gone on too long, they begin to develop skills and knowledge related to hiding poor performance. Social isolation is often a big part of this third trajectory of learning. In terms of work rules, the upshot is that, each type of worker was  learning to bend and break the work rules in (usually) very subtle and very distinctive ways according to their trajectory of learning. You could say that bending and sometimes breaking rules was at the centre of everyone’s learning lives at work.

3. How do they cope?  

Coping was very different for each set of workers. Some forms of coping led toward expansive occupational skill and knowledge (what I defined in the book as genuine "up-skilling"), while other forms of coping merely relieved anxieties and immediate problems that workers faced (something I defined simply as "re-skilling").

4. What happens in times of radical change?

My use of the phrase "in times of radical change" throughout the book really serves several functions. In the first instance, I use it to refer to growing austerity and pressure on services, work and occupations in the public sector of advanced, capitalist countries. In our own province of Ontario, the changes in the work system of welfare benefits delivery were formally initiated under a government that explicitly had austerity goals in mind, starting with services to the poor, but it anticipated the even broader pressures that came to a head in the economic crisis of 2008. In the second instance, "times of radical change" also refers in the book to the way that workers and citizens have responded to the crises in 2008. It is linked with significant collective protest, often directly linked to public sector workers in many, many countries. Lastly, I refer to "times of radical change" in the book for the simple reason that I am studying occupational learning in a certain political, economic, cultural and historical context (advancing austerity in a particular, advanced capitalist country), not occupational learning in general.

5. What are the recent trends in number of skill types and learning processes?

In several ways the book is a response the trend that researchers are identifying more and more forms of skill and learning. This observation is not at all original. Many scholars of work and learning processes have noted it over the last two decades. Some have lamented it and others have embraced it (and added to the list). I've added to the list several times myself, and OISE in fact is perhaps somewhat famous for putting notions of "informal learning" on the map through the work of David Livingstone and others at the Centre for the Study of Education and Work here.  In itself it's not a bad thing to recognize as many forms of skill and learning as we can. It has the inherent value of recognizing skill and learning in places where, prior, we had not, which in turn has the potential to challenge embedded hierarchies of intelligence and ability that are usually inequitable. However we still have work ahead of us, like demonstrating how these forms of skill and learning relate to one another, or how they relate to different types of broader results in education, workplaces and beyond.

6. You interviewed welfare workers across Ontario for 7 years: How did you make sense of these multiple voices?

You're correct to raise this important issue of "multiple voices" in the research. This is because one of the key shortcomings in the literature is the failure to recognize the enormous variety of responses in workplaces undergoing change. Variations have to do with the different social backgrounds and identities, as well as very subtle differences linked to work design and the labour process. For example, it is very common in business studies literature to further the presumption that the introduction of new forms of advanced technology means better or more highly skilled work, when this is not always the case at all.

7. The questions of work and skill are complicated: How much do we understand about learning?

As I write in the book, questions of work and skill are complicated but the questions of human learning are even more so since they encompass these skills and situations, and yet implicate much more. Of course, there have been enormous gains in understanding of the learning process over time. Amongst them, I argue that a family of research traditions which can be loosely referred to as "socio-cultural" are particularly important in this sense. It was beginning in the 1960s and 70s these socio-cultural perspectives, disproportionately emerging from anthropological sensibilities and diversifying rapidly thereafter, really began to challenge the dominance of traditional psychology and its focus on the individual. Debates about learning have now become deeply inter-disciplinary. My own approach in the book, for instance, is linked to something called Cultural Historical Activity Theory, a form of psychology that I take up in the context of my own sociological and political economic sensibilities. In the book I summarize this as a mind-in-political-economy approach. I believe that although the picture of human learning has become more clear, we still must realize that when we talk about learning we are talking about some of the most fundamental features of humanity and how people realize or do not realize their potential socially. These are big questions that won’t be resolved any time soon.

8. How do you see the impact of your research?

It is still too early to tell the effect of this particular book in terms of scholarly impact in the conventional sense.. But there are obviously other ways to think about “impact”. In virtually every research project I carry out, I depend on partnerships with the community of interest. Through these partnerships, we learn together of course, and blend our knowledge. It is the work of effectively partnering in one's research that gives opportunities for broader impact. In the case of the welfare worker research, I was partnered from the beginning with CUPE-Ontario. This is the union that represents welfare benefits delivery workers. I learned a great deal from my work with CUPE-Ontario on this research, and with the help of popular educators at Toronto’s Catalyst Centre, we developed and delivered new training materials as well. I still have a copy of these on my shelf at home and think of them as a very important output.

9. What will be your next research topic?

For the immediate future I will likely continue to think about the concepts that emerged from the welfare work study because I feel they have the potential for wider application. The welfare work book was actually completed some time ago, and even while I was writing it I was working on another project that looked at anti-poverty activist learning. I have not given this anti-poverty learning data the attention it deserves yet, so I anticipate trying to draw on my past work to give it that attention.