Sparks fly as women plug in

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Two campaigns are aiming to recruit women to the electrical industry.

Joe Clancy looks at one success story

Clair Williams is a rare commodity. Not quite one in a million, but one in 600. She is causing shockwaves as a female electrician in a world dominated by men.

As few as 0.17 per cent of new recruits to the electrical industry are women and Clair is at the forefront of a drive to redress the balance.

She gave details of her power struggle to be accepted in a man's world to a recent conference run by the electricians' training body JTL. Her talk was entitled "meeting the skills shortage with diversity".

At 16 she became an apprentice electrician and, 13 years later, after undertaking training at the People's College in Nottingham, she is a design engineer for the same employer.

Now she is giving her backing to two campaigns launched by JTL, the training arm of the Electrical Contractors' Association, to persuade women to wire up for jobs as sparks.

An advertising campaign run in London aimed at teenage girls has generated more than 60 responses. And a pilot initiative in Sheffield aimed at women aged over 25 has provided the conduit for seven women embarking on training.

Clair says: "There are not enough women electricians working on site and as such we are a novelty to be targeted with sexist abuse. It is very difficult being surrounded by lads all the time.

"I went to college with two other girls who have both since left the industry, which poses the question why. If there were more of us on site we would be less of a novelty and would become more accepted. Unfortunately, there is just as much sexism on site now as there was when I started 13 years ago."

In London, the poster campaign "Girls can be electricians", aimed at 16 to 19-year-olds, was launched in September on buses and tube trains. JTL is now assessing the applicants to select between 12 and 15 for apprenticeships.

In Sheffield, seven women, including a mother of three, a single mother, and a former bus driver, have signed up for training following the launch of a pilot campaign in June. They will attend Sheffield College in January and are now receiving on-the-job training with employers.

Denis Hird, head of education and training for the ECA, says Clair demonstrates how the profession could benefit from an increase of women.

"While Clair is an exception at the moment, she has proved her skills and commitment and embarked on a very successful career.

"It is important that companies are not prejudiced against taking on female apprentices and recognise that if they do, they could be excluding very good craftsmen.

"Women are often more adaptable, more focused, with better interpersonal skills and attention to detail. In a competitive industry such as ours, these qualities could prove the missing link for some businesses.

"The few women we do have in the electrical industry have proved themselves equal to, if not better than, their male counterparts. Perceptions need to change to encourage more girls to enter the trade at apprentice level."

Clair said she became interested in pursuing a career as an electrician at the age of 15 when she helped a relative re-wire the family home. Her parents, and her careers adviser at school, blew a fuse when she told them of her plans, but she persevered.

"I was a determined and rebellious teenager and ended up picking up the Yellow Pages and ringing round local electrical contractors until one, G T Ranby, eventually showed interest."

Terry Guildford, the managing director who recruited Clair, is a firm believer in equal opportunities. "I have always believed that it equals good business. When Clair walked through the door, I treated her as an individual. She had the right attributes and qualifications and whether she was a girl or boy made no difference.

"If a person can do a job well, that's all I'm interested in. With Clair, the proof is in the pudding - her potential has grown and grown and she has gained great respect from members of the industry."

Clair says that her on-site experience as an electrician has been invaluable to her role as a design engineer, and has advantages over the academic route into her job.

"I feel as if I hadn't spent those five years on site, I wouldn't really have a true insight into site life, to electrical systems or to problem-solving. And I would not have gained the respect of my malecolleagues.

"If we can dissolve the existing prejudices, it would become more commonplace for jobs to be passed, not just from father to son, but father to daughter, and eventually from mother to son."

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