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Enter, Betty the Builder

Simon Midgley reports on plans to increase women's participation in the building trade.

FORGET Bob the Builder. Welcome instead Betty the Builder, Sarah the Surveyor, Sue the Civil Engineer or Polly the Project Manager.

At least, that is what Northumbria University lecturer Cheryl Williamson hopes will soon be the case in the construction industry.

She and her colleagues believe that the industry's severe shortage of skilled labour could be eased if more women were encouraged to train for a craft or professional role in the sector.

At present, just 9 per cent of workers in the industry - which is suffering from a shortfall of about 250,000 employees - are women, and very few are in senior positions.

In an attempt to tackle the problem, Ms Williamson, who lectures in property management, and two colleagues, have launched "Stepping Stones", a 15-week, women-only course to provide a taste of what the construction industry is about.

The course, which covers building technology, architecture and design, planning, information technology and conservation, could be the first step towards women becoming bricklayers, plumbers, estate managers or quantity surveyors.

The first tranche of 24 female students were enrolled in February. A second course will run in September. The courses are open to women of all ages from the north-east of England regardless of qualifications.

The course, which has attracted pound;50,000 in funding from the Eropean Social Fund, and pound;50,000 from the university, is free to students. Such is its popularity that Ms Williamson has been receiving enquiries from would-be applicants - ineligible on geographical grounds - from as far afield as Devon, Wales, Scotland and London.

"It's clear that such a male-dominated industry isn't an attractive option for girls and young women leaving school," Ms Williamson said. "Our course will give women a second chance. The construction industry is seen as boom and bust, dirty, with no security and poor salaries.

"Schools and career people don't know enough about construction careers to give good advice on career paths and the qualifications you need. The public perception of the industry is wrong. There are not enough positive role models. Whenever you see construction and property, you think of a sharp estate agent or a cowboy builder."

There are nearly 100 different careers in the built-environment field, Ms Williamson said, ranging from brickies and plumbers to professional and managerial roles.

Students graduating from the Stepping Stones course, who are assessed on a portfolio of their work, will be able to go on to study for HNDs at the university in architectural technology, estate management, building surveying, construction management and building services engineering. Those wanting to follow a trade such as plumbing or carpentry will be able to enrol on HNDs in local further education colleges.

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