Male trainees still dominate the better-paid construction and technical fields - so how can girls be encouraged to branch out?

The number of young women applying for apprenticeships has doubled in a decade, says Sarah Cassidy

After Heather Peach achieved 10 A and A* grades at GCSE, everybody expected that the 16-year-old would stay on to study A-levels and set her sights on a top university. So when Heather, from Wigan, told her teachers that she was planning to become an apprentice at a defence firm, they were horrified.

"My family were really supportive, but my teachers were all really shocked. One teacher told me I'd regret it and that I'd be back in the sixth form within six months," says Heather. "I've really enjoyed proving her wrong."

Nearly four years later, Heather, now 19, is in the final year of her apprenticeship, and will start a full-time job at the company MBDA Missile Systems in September. Her current role sees her working with a senior engineer designing and producing equipment to test new defence products.

"I had never considered an apprenticeship until a couple of former apprentices came into my school electronics class to talk about it... I had had no idea that my love of electronics could be turned into a viable career."

Heather is one of a growing number of young women who are becoming apprentices. The latest figures from the National Apprenticeship Service last month showed a huge rise in the number of applications from women.

Online applications from women have increased by more than half since 2012, with 216,100 applications made by women in the three months between August and October last year, a 55 per cent increase on 2012. This has also served to narrow the male bias in applications, with 47 per cent now made by females in 2013, compared with 43 per cent the previous year.

Abigail Fraser, 20, from Accrington, Lancashire, is another who ended up on an apprenticeship almost by chance. She discovered a hidden talent for furniture polishing after being encouraged to start an apprenticeship at the factory where she worked as a 16-year-old labourer. "I just wanted to leave school, get a job and start earning some money, so I got a job as a labourer in a furniture factory," she says. "I worked with some of the furniture sprayers and asked them if I could have a go. My bosses thought I might have a talent for it and asked me to become an apprentice. I wasn't sure about it to start with, as I didn't want to go back to college. But I actually enjoyed it. It was one day a week and you get to do things that you might not do at your own company – such as restoring antique furniture... Within a couple of months, I was able to refurbish certain pieces of furniture on my own."

She completed her Level 3 advanced apprenticeship last month, and now hopes to become a supervisor and to one day run her own polishing business.

Heather and Abigail are unusual in training and working in such male-dominated fields. Vocational training has always been segregated by gender, and apprenticeships have been no different. A recent report by the TUC warned that female apprentices were likely to end up in low-paid jobs because they tended to train for female-dominated roles, with limited scope for career progression.

The number of women taking apprenticeships has more than doubled in the past decade, with just over half (51 per cent) of all apprentices starting training in 2011-12 being female. However, women make up only 2 per cent of apprenticeship starts in construction, electro-technical and vehicle maintenance and repair sectors, and less than 4 per cent in the engineering and driving vehicles sectors, the report warned. Meanwhile, more than 90 per cent of apprentices in childcare and hairdressing are women.

Abigail Fraser, 20, discovered a hidden talent for furniture polishing Abigail Fraser, 20, discovered a hidden talent for furniture polishing
Frances O'Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, says: "While the increase in the number of apprentices over the last decade is encouraging, we are still a long way short of having the number and breadth of high-quality apprenticeships that many of our competitors have. Ministers also need to work closely with employers and unions to get more young women into non-traditional apprenticeships such as engineering. This will help tackle the UK's chronic skills shortage and help to close the gender pay gap."

The union has also raised concerns about the numbers of apprentices paid less than the minimum wage. According to figures released by the Department for Business in October, three out of 10 apprentices are paid less than the legal minimum. The two sectors where under-payment is most rife – hairdressing and children's care – are dominated by women.

More also needs to be done to attract women into IT, as Anouska Ramsay, head of talent at Capgemini, a technology services company employing more than 250 apprentices, acknowledges. "About 20 per cent of our apprentices are girls," she says, "which is something we really want to improve upon. We take on more young women at graduate level – about 27 per cent is forecast for the next few months. We need to get the message across that the work we do is not just for IT geeks,.. It is about finding business solutions across all kinds of industries."

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that gender imbalance in apprenticeships reflected "deep-seated differences between men and women", which would be difficult to address.

"On average, women are more interested in working with and for people," he says, "while men are typically more comfortable with the impersonal, and working with things... I don't think it matters if the sexes are genuinely attracted to different occupations. The important thing is that the school curriculum ensures that all children experience the whole range of subjects so that they can discover what they are good at.

"The Government must do more to ensure modern apprenticeships are the first rungs of ladders to rewarding jobs and careers, and not just there to soak up youth unemployment."

Back at MBDA Missile Systems, where Heather Peach will soon finish her apprenticeship, Gareth Humphreys, head of education and apprentices, says that schools must shoulder some of the blame for the gender bias. The company has worked hard to ensure that it recruits equal numbers of male and female apprentices.

"Schools are not telling people at 14, 15 or 16 that they can leave school at 16 and become an apprentice," he says. "Teachers are doing young people an injustice by not giving them this option. We need a better balance between young people going to university and starting apprenticeships. We need both. We take young people at 16 and after four years they are earning at least £27,000 with us. Where else can you do that?"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli posed for this selfie during AC Milan's 5-1 defeat to Manchester City
sport
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth Games
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + ents
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Extras
indybestSpice up your knife with our selection of delicious toppings
Sport
sport
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Chemistry Teacher

£90 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Outstanding Teaching Assistants needed f...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried