Women give men the brush-off

8th January 2010 at 00:00
Aberdeen College sees female painters and decorators excel in a traditionally male-dominated trade

Young men are having to raise their game at Aberdeen College, where women are walking off with the top prizes in what is traditionally seen as a male-dominated trade.

It was a case of "here come the girls" at the Construction Crafts Awards this year, when three women took five out of six awards in painting and decorating. Two of the women are mature students in their forties, who have been learning in classes full of teenage boys.

Debbie Copeland, 43, won the award for first-year apprentices and Theresa Wood, 42, took the prize for second-year apprentices; Lindsay Johnston, 21, won the third-year award for advanced craft students. Theresa also received the Scottish Decorators' Federation Craft Award and Lindsay, now in full-time employment, was awarded the Scottish Decorators' Federation Advanced Award.

Their instructor, Walter Moir, says the three are remarkably talented. "If I had a whole class of Debbies, Lindsays and Theresas, I'd be a happy man," he says. "You couldn't fault any of them - their attitude, their aptitude - it's just brilliant."

When Debbie was at school, this was what she wanted to do - and, 30 years later, she's in the second year of her college course and an apprenticeship with McLaren amp; Co. "I always fancied it from a young age, but obviously when I left school that opportunity didn't come about."

After leaving school, she worked at a local chicken firm for 25 years, until she was made redundant just before her 40th birthday. It was only when she got talking to the painters at her next job, selling and mixing paint with Dulux, that Debbie decided to chase the dream.

Today she's in her element in the college painting and decorating department. "I'm enjoying every minute," she smiles.

She's now studying for an SVQ Level 3 at Aberdeen College, after her mum first encouraged her. Her 17-year-old son Martin is also a second-year student in structural engineering, and she has an 11-year-old daughter, Samantha. Her 69-year-old mum is still handy with a paintbrush. "She still reckons she does it better than me!" says Debbie.

Debbie found very few problems breaking into a male-dominated field as the only woman in her class, and was more concerned about studying alongside young men her son's age.

"There is an age gap in the class - I mean, I'm 43 and they're 17 and just turning 18 now. I thought I would have found that really difficult, but no - they are a good bunch of guys. They show a lot of respect.

"Obviously there are moments when you have to shut your ears off and think, `Oh no, I'm a mother.' But apart from that, they really have been a good bunch."

Debbie has discovered there are growing numbers of women in construction- related trades. "I saw a lassie joiner on one of the sites at Peterhead and I am sure there are a couple of plumbers as well," she says. "It's happening now and it's getting more and more acceptable."

Another prize-winning student, Theresa Wood, 42, is now in her third year studying advanced crafts. She works alongside Debbie with McLaren amp; Co, but struggled initially to find an apprenticeship.

"I started off by writing to companies, asking about adult apprenticeships, but got no response," she explains. "I then began sending out my CV, followed by a phone call a few days later. When I got no positive results from that, I decided to start knocking on doors and talking to company managers face to face."

Her persistence certainly paid off and, in June 2007, she began her apprenticeship and attended college on block release shortly afterwards.

She enjoys her course and is taking the advanced craft option at the college. "I hope my story inspires more companies in my field to consider taking on adult apprentices," she says.

The women's instructor, Walter Moir, says some young men struggle with female success. "Quite a number fall by the wayside, mainly boys," he says. "A lot of them just can't hack it, especially when they get girls in the class - a wee bit of competition, and when they see they're getting beaten by girls, they just seem to give up the ghost. "

The college's team manager for construction, Leslie Milne, is delighted women are doing so well. "The painting and decorating course is attracting more and more women and, as this year's prize winners show, they do very well," she says. "It's a trade that requires patience, attention to detail and an artistic flair, and women are ideally suited."

With five litres of emulsion sitting unopened in the bedroom at home, this seemed a good opportunity to get some expert tips. "Preparation is the key," says Debbie. "If you're prep is done properly, the rest will just fall into place."

Or maybe better just to get a woman in?

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