More young women should be doing STEM apprenticeships

As 2018’s School Leaver of the Year is announced – won by a female engineering apprentice – we take a look at why more young women should consider programmes in STEM.

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The young women who choose to stick with STEM are well equipped to embark on careers in the industry.

In May, Verity Jackson was named 2018’s School Leaver of the Year. Verity is something very rare: not only is she a hard-worker who goes above and beyond the requirements of her role, but she is a female apprentice working in the STEM industry – science, technology, engineering and maths.

A mechanical engineering apprentice at DSTL - the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory – ensuring that innovative science and technology contribute to the defence and security of the UK, Verity makes up one of the extremely few, but very important, young UK women working in her field.

The School Leaver of the Year announcement was made at the AllAboutSchoolsLeavers award ceremony in London, where UK employers (of apprentices or school leaver trainees) were ranked based on the opinions and real-life experiences of the young people they employ on their programmes.

Third-year DSTL engineering apprentice Verity Jackson highlighted the positive work of the apprenticeship scheme at the company by being named the School Leaver of the Year, but her win also highlights the need for more young women to enter the industry.

Verity is already working toward that end herself: she was nominated not just for the excellent work she does at her job, but for her championing of apprenticeships at careers fairs and the support she offers via education outreach activities. Part of the evidence she submitted for the award nomination was her role in creating a model 3D submarine for seven-year-old Jacob Bland, who drew his water-propelled design himself and sent it into DSTL with a note asking if they would like to make it and use it for “sneaking and spying”.

With the drawing, DSTL scientific apprentices – including Verity – worked up the design and printed out a model using their own 3D printer. The work provided an excellent opportunity for the apprentices to take a concept design and produce an actual model, which contributed to their National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) evidence. Verity was also recognised by her colleagues for her dedication and hard work during her day job.

On receiving her award, Verity demonstrated how rewarding STEM apprenticeships can be for young women, saying: “I can’t believe I’ve won! I didn’t think I was going to, but I’m really pleased, especially because DSTL got the recognition. I’ve loved my time as an apprentice so far and I’m so glad that I chose to do this route.”

DSTL Chief Executive, Gary Aitkenhead, said: “This is a fantastic achievement. Hundreds of other apprentices were nominated from a wide range of diverse industries. The award judges are made up an independent panel who chose one overall winner from 10 finalists – so being awarded School Leaver of the Year is a huge accolade.

“Well done Verity, we are very proud.”

STEM careers & the gender pay gap

More young women should follow Verity’s lead by pursuing STEM apprenticeships. For starters, it could help close the gender pay gap. Research has revealed that the gender pay gap has risen to 26.8%, with male managers on average out-earning female peers by £11,606 a year, up from 23.1%, or £8,964, last year. And even for those women who do progress to more senior roles, the pay gap begins to widen considerably, rising to £34,144, with men earning an average of £175,673 and women £141,529.

However, STEM careers buck this trend, or at least at the beginning of careers. According to research carried out by Deloitte, the gap in starting salaries between men and women who have STEM subjects and go on to take jobs in those spheres is smaller than in any other subjects studied. If more women were to pursue careers in these areas, Deloitte’s research concluded, not only would it give them a more balanced portfolio of skills, but it would also narrow the gender pay gap for those in the early years of their working lives.

STEM subjects & girls at school

Overall, Deloitte reported, almost as many girls as boys sat GCSEs in STEM subjects in 2016. However, three times more boys than girls took computing at GCSE level. And 50% more boys than girls took design and technology, but with the number of girls awarded A* – C grades in this subject nearly 20% points higher than for boys. The girls choosing to pursue these subjects often perform better than their male counterparts.

The young women who choose to stick with STEM are well equipped to embark on careers in the industry. Those leaving at 16 are more likely to have good GCSE grades in relevant subjects – girls outperform boys in all but three of the 16 STEM categories. In Construction, for example, 100% of the girls entered in 2015 achieved an A*-C grade.

When it comes to A-levels, girls do better than boys in STEM subjects in terms of A*/A grades in Physics, Maths, Chemistry and Biology, while n Computing and ICT the attainment advantage of girls over boys is noticeably increasing. In Applied A-level single award STEM subjects girls are in a minority of entrants but their results are significantly better than the male results.

Despite performing well at school, young women are not taking up the rewarding and potentially lucrative opportunity offered by STEM apprenticeships. In fact, boys are too: there were fewer than 300 science and mathematics apprentices last year, a tiny proportion of the near 500,000 apprenticeship starts in England in 2016/17.   

A shocking lack of female STEM apprentices

Despite performing well at school, young women are not taking up the rewarding and potentially lucrative opportunity offered by STEM apprenticeships. In fact, boys are too: there were fewer than 300 science and mathematics apprentices last year, a tiny proportion of the near 500,000 apprenticeship starts in England in 2016/17. 

Women made up just 2.3% of those achieving an engineering framework apprenticeship qualification in 2015/16. Only 720 women gained their qualification in a cohort of 30,720. Among those achieving their apprenticeship qualification in engineering the proportion of female apprentices has not exceeded 5% in 15 years.

Young women moving away from STEM subjects

There is a disconnect between girls’ interest and skill in STEM subjects at school and whether they choose to pursue it further, whether at university or in an apprenticeship setting. At A-Level in 2016, for example, girls continued to outperform boys in every STEM subject, but 40% more boys than girls then went on to take STEM subjects at university.

AllAboutSchoolLeavers research into the school leaver careers market shows that ‘Science and Mathematics’ is the third most popular industry for school leavers – boys and girls – to say they want to work in, yet last year there were only 500 apprenticeship starts in Science and Mathematics in the whole of the UK, compared to over 143,000 starts in Business, Administration and Law.

No only is letting women down, but it ultimately has a negative impact on the UK economy: the Royal Academy of Engineering says the UK needs 100,000 new graduates in STEM subjects every year until 2020 just to maintain current employment numbers. If we want women to have jobs in the future, and well-paid ones at that, then more need to be encouraged into STEM when making career choices.

Encouraging more young women into STEM apprenticeships

But what can be done to encourage more girls to pursue STEM as a career? In 2016, research carried out by Milkround found that 23% of female school leavers believed their male counterparts got more support in choosing a STEM career than they did, while over 50% said they thought that women would struggle to earn as much as men in STEM industries.

According to Anne Milton, the minister for skills and apprenticeships, when she spoke to  the Evening Standard in March, barriers need to be broken down in order to encourage girls to pursue these science-based subjects. 

“All young kids love science and finding out how things work. But for some reasons, there has been a drop off in interest for young girls as they go through secondary school,” she explained. “They begin to feel that those sorts of subjects and those sorts of careers are not right for them.

“But the thing about STEM is that it’s not just about building bridges. It’s present in every single sector, whether that’s construction, farming and agriculture, or the creative industries. These industries rely on STEM subjects.”

To plug this gender gap, the government is trying to ensure that more young women are made aware of the opportunities available in STEM apprenticeships. 

This is why Milton launched the careers strategy last year: an obligatory scheme for schools to invite different providers of education - such as further education (FE) colleges, universities and apprenticeship providers - into classes so young people can learn about the different career choices available to them. 

“It’s really important that we have initiatives for young women to think of STEM careers,”  Milton told the Evening Standard.

STEM apprenticeships leading onto degrees

In the same article, another successful female STEM apprentice was put under the spotlight. Becky King, from Bermondsey, found her apprenticeship with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). She always had “a passion for science from a young age but found learning from a textbook in a classroom stifling”, according to the Evening Standard

“I hadn’t considered an apprenticeship before and I certainly wasn’t aware of any in STEM,” Becky told the newspaper. “I searched ‘careers in science without a degree’ online and the NPL apprenticeship came up.

“It sounded like exactly what I was looking for so I applied. A few interviews and a presentation later I was accepted as a junior scientist apprentice.”

Becky said she loved the “sense of community and teamwork” at NPL, as well as the many areas of science the laboratory specialises in. She took on an Advanced Apprenticeship at Level 3 (which is equivalent to three A-Levels) as well as completing extra qualifications to prove her technical competence in lab work.  

After completing her apprenticeship last March, she was offered a full-time role as an assistant research scientist in Quantum Detection.

But Becky’s training and education journey didn’t end there: she is now an undergraduate student at the University of Kent, studying an integrated Masters Degree in physics, which is sponsored by the NPL – her apprentice employer. 

“My favourite thing about my apprenticeship was the endless opportunities”, she told the Evening Standard. “I got to work with work leading scientists who trusted and encouraged you to work independently and improve your skills in labs and in analytical work.

“So many people at NPL invested their time into ensuring I succeed which is something I will never forget.” 

With a more encouragement at school and in the home – as well as more targeted campaigns from the industry’s apprenticeship providers – the UK could see a rise in female STEM apprenticeships. This presents a wealth of opportunity for young women, as well as the industry and the nation as a whole.

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