Women in the Workplace: How to increase the number of female apprentices
A round table hosted by BAE Systems and the Telegraph brought together senior HR directors, academics and industry lobbyists to grapple with the question of how to attract more young women into engineering apprenticeships. The session took place in the build-up to the Skills Show, a three-day event starting today at Birmingham’s NEC Arena. The event, expected to attract 75,000 young people, offers advice and hands-on experience in an informal setting.
Also present were two female graduates of apprenticeship programmes – both in their twenties and now racing up the career ladder at their respective companies, BAE Systems and BT. They shared experiences and suggested ways their own paths could help inspire others.
The panellists agreed on three fundamental facts: one is that men in apprenticeships far outweigh women – by as much as 19 to one in engineering.
Another is that concrete measures are in place to address this imbalance, but that
change will take time. The final point of universal agreement covered the general feeling of goodwill and support for girls and young women who choose engineering as a career. A host of schemes have been created by the Government, NGOs and the industry to advertise apprenticeships and careers to both sexes in schools and universities.
But these should be better co-ordinated, they said, to give employers and educators a clear picture of the incentives on offer.
The schemes should also reflect that students taking “academic” subjects can perform a multitude of roles within engineering companies, too.
Verity O’Keefe, employment and skills policy adviser at engineering employers’ group EEF, said: “As an industry we seem to know what action should be taken and there are various initiatives and campaigns to get females into male-dominated roles.
“But from an employers’ perspective it has probably got to a point where there are too many. So much that it is hard to make tailored recommendations to small businesses who need guidance. Some initiatives compete with others because they are offering the same thing.”
Gareth Humphreys, an HR adviser who oversees the development of 74 apprentices at MBDA Missile Systems, agreed that cohesion is key: “There are an awful lot of small businesses who want to promote STEM subjects but the support is uncoordinated and sometimes you don’t know who to go with or what to do.”
Gender parity in apprenticeships is seen as a gateway to better male-female representation within ‘‘mature’’ job roles.
Progress has been made in the past few years, but subtle forces have acted as a brake. One is an archaic idea of what an engineer does. “When we ask students to draw an engineer they depict a man and a mechanic,” said Laura Wilson, head of STEM subjects at Bohunt School in Hampshire. “So we explain just how broad engineering is and how it links to almost every subject taught at the school.
“But even this brings challenges because teachers have their own experiences and don’t necessarily know the opportunities available. That’s why we’re working with industry to learn what jobs are available so we can tell our students about them.”
Ms Wilson believes one-off events and schemes are great at inspiring pockets of children and young adults, but too many females opt out. There must also be sustained tuition as part of normal school services she says.
Schools and the role of teachers in encouraging young people was a major theme throughout the discussion.
Representatives from industry acknowledged that while teachers have a role to play, they have heavy workloads and need to be supported with guidance and ready-made materials. Teachers should be encouraged to promote work skills and emphasis should be taken away from university placements being the ultimate aim of schools and colleges, said the panel. This is important in view of the UK’s skills gap in which, according to EEF figures, four out of five companies in the production industries struggle to recruit – while half admit this is due to an insufficient number of skilled applicants.
Blane Judd, chief executive of EngTechNow, said: “The Government talks very positively about investing in apprenticeships, so perhaps we should be seeing in schools not only league tables on university places and A to C grades, but also how successful they’ve been at getting people into apprenticeships as well.”
Teachers are role models for children and they have influence over future career decisions, so giving them scope to push apprenticeships – particularly to girls – is a vital ingredient in redressing the male-female balance in the workplace.
But it is not just league tables that incentivise pushing the academic route: some parents do too because they misunderstand apprenticeships and dissuade their children from taking an interest. “Too many people still look at apprenticeships as an inferior option to university. It is changing, but absolutely they still do,” said John Whelan, who is HR director, programmes and support at BAE Systems.
“I was talking to a group of apprentices at BAE recently and one of them talked about the struggle he had with his school and family to take an apprenticeship. Lots of people put lots of pressure on him to take another route.”
Part of the problem, said Ann Watson, chief operating officer at Semta (Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies) is that too many engineering role models are not only men but they have been dead for 100 years. People often think of Brunel, Carnegie and Stephenson – so Semta has launched an annual competition to find modern role models who can inspire a generation.
“We need more role models in engineering,” she said. “We have recently seen MPs wearing T-shirts saying ‘this is what a feminist looks like’; we need one saying ‘this is what a female engineer looks like’. We have an image problem. Parents think of engineering and imagine grimy factories from the Seventies, so young people can’t put engineering into perspective.”
Memona Mohammad is a good example of how women often have to seek out apprenticeships and make critical career decisions for themselves while peers head in another direction. She is now operational manager at BT and a member of Wise (Women in Science and Engineering). She said: “My school was very focused on academic results and I realised there would be limited opportunities for work experiences at university, so looking to the future beyond education I could see how the apprenticeship root would benefit me.
“When my friends heard that I was doing an apprenticeship they didn’t actually know what it was. That was three years ago and I feel now that more people understand what they involve. So the image and perception is changing.”
Rachael Carr, a 26 year-old former apprentice and systems engineer with BAE Systems, said that experience chimed with her own: “My school pushed the academic side over vocational courses but I went to college and did a Btech.
“My college had open days with local companies who came around and offered an apprenticeship. As it happens, I am doing my degree now part-time and sponsored by BAE Systems, but I’m doing it at my local college where there are 15 people in my class, not at university where 300 people get lectured at.”
A final point in the apprenticeships versus university debate revolves around money. With university fees rising and students graduating with ever-larger debts, being paid to train sounds attractive. Engineering apprentices earn more than the national average, around £7 an hour, meaning that if the career prospects don’t grab young people, then the pay should.
On the whole, the future looks bright for women in engineering and the panel agreed that the path had been set towards a better gender balance. The job now is to speed up the journey and make sure all of the interested parties are moving in the same direction.
‘At BAE we’re looking at a number of angles to promote women in engineering: how we can get into schools and influence them early so children don’t rule out STEM subjects later on, for example. We need to help teachers understand the different routes on offer’
John Whelan, HR director, programmes and support at BAE Systems
‘Young women need to be able to see role models progressing and know there is a career for them. There is a choice for them here and it is a first choice, not something often made clear to people if they can’t make it in the traditional academic route’
Sue Husband, executive director, Skills Funding Agency
‘We have a large number of talented women working in our industry but I would like more. When we recruit and ask for a diverse shortlist we see there are just not enough. Companies like BAE and BT are leading the way in bringing more women to the profession’
Kevin Brady, HR director, BT