Women prefer gas as trade proves fitting job alternative

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The Independent Online

One is a former reality TV star, another an African studies student, and the latest recruit is a former NHS haematologist. All are women who have been lured from a motley mixture of backgrounds into the somewhat unglamorous world of gas fitting.

They are all also colleagues in a north London firm where more than 10 per cent of the gas fitters are now female. The bait? Salaries of more than £50,000, reasonable hours and the guarantee of a job in a field facing chronic trained staff shortages.

Lorraine Wimms, 35, has just finished her training and is about to start with the gas fitting firm TA Horn in Barnet, where 10 of the 85 technicians are women.

She qualified while continuing to work as a haematologist, analysing blood, for the health service.

"I had been working in the NHS for 12 years and I was beginning to find it mind-numbing," she said.

"I had the choice of going into management and I just couldn't bear the thought of doing the same job for another 10 years. In this job, I get to use my head and my hands, and it's just something different."

She has taken a pay cut after her years of experience with the NHS, but will nevertheless start on a salary of about £30,000, more than most trainees in medicine; experienced technicians can earn in excess of £50,000.

Her training co-ordinator is Michelle King, 31, who reached the final of the ITV1 reality show Ladette to Lady this year, in which binge-drinking tomboys were sent to finishing school.

She "fell into" gas fitting five years ago after leaving school at 16 with a few qualifications and no idea what she wanted to do. She was the first woman to join TA Horn, but had few problems with sexism.

"Some of the older blokes had a problem but other than that it was fine," she said. "Once they see that you know what you're doing and you can do the job, it's fine."

The biggest problem doesn't come from fellow fitters, but from customers. "The customers often know a woman is coming, and I've had some answer the door with no trousers on, or put a porn film on while I'm working," she said.

"I just ignore it, or tell them to put some clothes on. That usually works. Women are the worst. Some of them will answer the door in a negligee, expecting to get a man, and start complaining they've got a bird instead."

Another fitter, 25-year-old Carla Jones, was a model with the agency that handles Kate Moss before embarking on a degree in African studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London.

Two years into the course, she has dropped out, retrained as a gas fitter and works alongside Lorraine and Michelle.

She said: "Degrees are a dime a dozen; everyone has them. If I had got a first-rate degree, I would have started on £12,000 a year. With a trade, you will always have work and you can go anywhere in the world."

Maria O'Brien, 34, was in marketing when she helped her brother strip the boiler out of her late father's house. That made her decide to train as a gas fitter. She has just been declared apprentice of the year by the industry watchdog, Corgi.

Eddie Hickey, service manager at TA Horn, said: "Women seem to make very good gas-fitters. They are better with customers and the paperwork, and they can think around a problem. They may not have the physical strength to lift a boiler like a man, but they will use physics and fulcrums to get it installed."

Local authorities and private companies are experiencing desperate shortages of skilled staff such as plumbers, electricians and gas fitters, as a result of a lack of investment in vocational training. More women are now being attracted to these jobs by grants.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is also campaigning for girls at school to be encouraged into jobs such as gas fitting after research showed that too many careers teachers still stereotype by gender when advising pupils.

The training pipeline

* Gas fitting courses at college take six months to a year, with grants and apprenticeships on offer.

* Students learn how to install, maintain and repair boilers and central heating systems.

* Fees charged by gas fitters in some parts of the country have increased by 30 per cent in the past year because of the shortage of trained technicians.

* Areas with the highest vacancy rates, such as plumbing and gas fitting, also have the lowest levels of female workers.

* More than half of women believe the careers advice they had at school was influenced by their gender.

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