Overall route to success

8th June 2007 at 01:00
More young women are showing an interest in taking up apprenticeships

SHERYL DOBBIE keeps her overalls on when she walks home - that way, people notice her. While colleagues are changing and putting the working day behind them, she sees the journey home as an extension of work.

Sheryl, 21, stands out as a sheet metal worker on Clydeside, crafting the interiors of BAE Systems' warships. Duplex apartments and Blackberry-wielding journalists may have displaced heaving cranes and socialist rallying calls, but some things never change in Glasgow's docklands: the shipbuilding workforce remains overwhelmingly male.

Sheryl is the sole female in a team of 50, but she wants to change that. So her overalls stay on as she journeys the short distance home to Knightswood, because she wants to change attitudes and break down barriers for other young women. People stop to ask her why she is kitted out like that. Young girls sometimes quiz her, their interest piqued by the sight of a confident young woman in what, to them, seems unusual working gear. It is a tactic that has paid off, as two of those girls have applied this year to become apprentices at BAE Systems, the defence and aerospace company famous for the Euro-fighter aircraft.

Sheryl's efforts have coincided with a growing enthusiasm for modern apprenticeships - which allow people to gain qualifications without having to study full-time - among young women. When Sheryl became a BAE apprentice three years ago, she was one of only six female applicants; this year, that has shot up to 40, still considerably fewer than the 800 male applicants.

Sheryl's interest in making things with her hands emerged at an early age, thanks to the ingenuity of her parents around the house. Her father in particular, a natural craftsman who takes delight in reusing what might seem like junk to others, left a lasting impression when he saw a staircase on sale at BQ for close to pound;1,000, then showed Sheryl how he could make the same thing for a tenth of the price. She got the bug when she was about 10 and remembers making a Wendy house - before quickly proceeding to conservatories.

At St Thomas Aquinas Second-ary, she made a natural progression into craft and design. While enjoying school and doing well in most subjects, she excelled in craft and design and gained outstanding Standard grade results.

Some girls at school questioned what she was doing in a traditionally male environment, although this manifested itself as benign bafflement rather than small-minded carping. "They said, 'That's a boys'

subject', but that made me more determined," she says.

In 2001, aged 15, she went to Anniesland College to study for national certificates in landscape and construction, entering not only an all-male environment, but one largely populated by students more than twice her age.

Throughout college, Sheryl worked often with wood. It was when she made an impressive "through-housing" joint for a frame that her career with BAE was mapped out. The college principal said her work was "absolutely fantastic" and "way ahead" of her classmates'. She was encouraged to apply for a BAE apprenticeship.

Sheryl started in 2003 on a three-year modern apprenticeship scheme, where she made anything from vents to bunk beds. Things were awkward when she started and found herself standing out among the hundreds of men. "At first you'd see everybody nudging each other, but a few weeks later it wasn't a problem," she says.

She is passionate about getting more girls to follow her example and would like to move into recruitment eventually. She feels work has to be done in primary schools before "society's stereo-typical views" take hold, pointing to personal experience of speaking to girls at secondary schools who show an interest in apprenticeships, only to pipe down when they get askance looks from peers.

"There are a lot more woman chefs, bus drivers and even taxi drivers - society is changing. If you've got the smallest inkling you might enjoy it, go for it."


BAE Systems has one of the largest apprenticeship schemes in the UK, with up to 1,000 young people on its training programmes at any one time.

Apprentices are employed full-time and can train in a range of skills, from engineering to business administration and IT.

Modern apprenticeships - the scheme Sheryl joined - offers people aged over 16 paid employment, combined with the opportunity to train for craft, technician and management jobs. They are a way of gaining skills and qualifications for a career without having to study full-time, and are available across a wide range of industries.

BAE Service Fleet Solutions - the shipbuilding arm - has the largest modern apprenticeship programme in Scotland, with more than 240 apprentices. In 2006, it won the "best large employer" category at Scottish Enterprise's Modern Apprenticeship Awards.

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