Women who ply their trade

20th March 2009 at 00:00
More adolescent girls are signing on to bricklaying, stonemasonry and joinery courses

She must be the best manicured bricky in Scotland. In the middle of the building yard, Jessica pulls off heavy working gloves to reveal beautifully cared-for hands and nails.

You'd think you would have to get your hands dirty to do a job like this but, evidently not - providing you wear your gloves. And with the prospect of earning Pounds 50,000 a year after your bricklayer's apprenticeship, who'd worry about a bit of cement under their nails?

Jessica Cull, 18, and her teenage friends Karen Simpson and Heather Gray have signed on for a one-year pre-apprenticeship course at Angus College in Arbroath. And if they play their cards right, they could be earning more than their old school teachers once they finish a four-year apprenticeship. That's assuming they can get one. Last year, only 30 per cent of students on this Introduction to Construction course found firms to sponsor them and, as the recession takes a grip, the immediate outlook isn't promising.

"The huge problem with the system is you can't do an apprenticeship unless you're employer-sponsored," says Mike Swan, course leader in Painting and Decorating, and Introduction to Construction.

Given the economic climate and the downturn in construction, there may be even fewer employers prepared to sponsor an apprentice later this year. But these three girls are determined to succeed.

Heather, 17, started building two years ago when she was still a pupil at Morgan Academy in Dundee. "My granddad's a bricklayer. He built his own garage and I helped him when I was about 15," says Heather, surrounded by male classmates in the massive construction hall at the college.

In a sea of bobbing hard hats and immaculate brick arches, everyone is hard at work - the radio competing for attention against a background clatter of chipping, cutting and scraping.

Karen, 16, a former Forfar Academy pupil, is using a measuring tape and spirit level to make sure her tiers of bricks are perfectly aligned. "The bubble of the spirit level has got to be exactly in the middle," she explains, as she slaps a neat sludge of cement onto another brick.

Jessica says she opted for this course because she wanted to do something different, but she also has close connections with the construction industry. "My boyfriend is a joiner, his brother's a bricklayer and his other brother's a labourer," she says.

During this course, students prepare for a National Progression Award in building crafts. In the first five weeks they learn joinery, painting and decorating and bricklaying, and then choose which they prefer.

Students as young as 14, who have been disaffected at school, can join this course and, says Mr Swan, some go on to do extremely well. The course teaches a range of skills such as problem-solving, numeracy and IT, providing a valuable preparation for work, even for those who don't go into apprenticeships.

Three or four girls every year start to train as bricklayers at Angus College. And bricklaying lecturer Gary Knox says they are good. In fact, they're usually better than the boys. One girl, who was one of their most talented bricklayers, went on to become a stonemason after her apprenticeship.

"I find the girls on the course are always more meticulous than the boys," says Mr Knox. "They enjoy it - they like to leave a job tidy. To be honest, they don't struggle, they do well - and in most cases, they do better than the boys."


Despite growing interest among young women like Jessica, Heather and Karen, females are under-represented in managerial and manual jobs in the construction industry.

Women make up some 10 per cent of the workforce, with 2 per cent in manual jobs and 32 per cent in non-manual occupations, mostly in administrative and support roles, according to 2005 figures from ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council for the construction industry.

Figures from the Scottish Funding Council show greater increases in the number of 15 to 18-year-old females enrolling at further education colleges for traditionally male-dominated construction-related courses.

Between 2003-04 and 2007-08, there was an increase of almost half in the number of women enrolling in construction (general courses), with a rise from 96 to 150 students. During that same period respectively, 3,904 and 4,098 males enrolled on courses in this category.

The number of girls taking electrical engineering rose from 60 to 144 in the same period and in metal workingfinishing rose from two to 49.

According to research commissioned by ConstructionSkills in Scotland among built environment students and employers, family and friends played a significant role influencing career decisions, more than schoolteachers or careers advisers. "Getting In, Getting On ... in Construction" is a three-year research project, undertaken in partnership with the Scottish Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology at Napier University, to address equality and diversity issues among students and apprentices in Scotland.

Researchers are looking for 10 FE colleges to join the next phase to get an overview of where women are working and studying, identify barriers and promote initiatives to increase diversity. Research will be carried out with construction skills apprentices and the project will run equality and diversity training for students of construction and the built environment.


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