International Women in Engineering Day: Apprenticeships

We take a look at the vital statistics on female engineering apprenticeships, as well as what young women can get from entering the industry, and in turn what the industry ould gain from greater gender equality. 

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In 2015/16 women accounted for only 6.8% of Engineering apprenticeship starts.

It was International Women in Engineering Day on June 23rd, and while campaigns like this highlight the good work being done in the industry – as well as the pioneering women within it – there is plenty more work to be done in addressing the huge gender imbalance in the industry. Apprenticeships should be a part of that: supporting more young women school leavers to take up programmes in engineering would be good for employers, consumers, the UK economy, and for individual women themselves.

In 2017, a survey by WISE – an organisation that campaigns to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – revealed that only 11% of the engineering workforce in the UK was female. Government statistics also show that the UK is lagging behind other European countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus when it comes to a gender balance in the industry, who have almost 30% of women in engineering roles.

Women in engineering apprenticeships: the vital stats

In terms of apprenticeships, WISE found that in 2017 more than 90% of people achieving STEM apprenticeships were men. This was despite an increase in the number of women achieving a STEM apprenticeship – 250 more, a 6% growth on the previous year. The percentage of women went down from 7.7% to 7.5% however, because the number of men increased by just over 5,300, an increase of 10%.

In 2015/16 women accounted for only 6.8% of Engineering apprenticeship starts and 1.9% of Construction Skills starts. And when it comes to the different apprenticeship levels, the gender imbalance becomes markedly wider the higher the level of the programme: the proportion of women doing Level 3 STEM qualifications (which includes Advanced Apprenticeships) was 34% in 2017; the proportion doing Level 4 (including Higher Apprenticeships) was a meagre 7%.

More young people are now interested in apprenticeships

This is despite research showing nearly two thirds of young people would be interested in starting an apprenticeship instead of going to university.

The Sutton Trust, established by Sir Peter Lampl said 64% of those surveyed said they would be "very" or "fairly interested" in starting an apprenticeship available for a job they wanted to do over doing a degree.

This is up nine percentage points from 2014, when 55%of young people said they were interested in this route.

The rise in school leavers’ interest in apprenticeships in general is not being met by their teachers. Polling of 1,246 teachers (of which 583 were secondary teachers) by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that just a fifth (21%) would advise a high performing student to opt for an apprenticeship, though this is up from 13% in 2014. Almost two-thirds (64%) of the 583 teachers surveyed said they would rarely or never advise students with good grades to take this route.

Of those unlikely to advise their students to start an apprenticeship, over a third (36%) said it was down to a lack of information about apprenticeships in general and in relation to the options available to their students. Just over a quarter (28%) thought their students had better career prospects at university, while 14% cited negative views about the quality of apprenticeships on offer.

Real demand from employers & consumers

The UK engineering sector is currently suffering from a serious skills shortage, and this is being compounded by insufficient numbers of young people, especially girls, choosing it as a career path. A recent report from Engineering UK estimated that the country needs 1.8 million new engineers by 2025.

Meanwhile, 61% of engineering employers say a recruitment of engineering and technical staff with right skills is a barrier to business; 32% of companies across sectors have reported difficulties recruiting experienced STEM staff, and 20% find it difficult to recruit entrants to STEM.

We know that employers find apprentices (as opposed to university graduates) often have the workplace and specific industry skills they need, due to the nature of apprenticeship programmes, and want to stay in the industry: apprenticeships can help plug the skills and recruitment gap, as well as the gender one.

Consumers want more women in the industry too. Earlier this year, Coleen Everitt – who runs her own electrical business Alto Electrical – spoke of her firm belief that there is plenty of demand for female electricians.

Coleen said: “I’ve found first-hand that there’s a huge demand. I have been going two years now and there is just not enough of me to do all the work I get. I try to get to the people who I feel specifically want a female.”

Likewise, Natasha Clark-Withers runs Get Her Trade, a directory of female tradeswomen in the UK, and she found the same: “From the research we have done, there is a massive demand for tradeswomen and we need to encourage women to join the industry to cope with the demand.”

In 2015/16 women accounted for only 6.8% of Engineering apprenticeship starts and 1.9% of Construction Skills starts. And when it comes to the different apprenticeship levels, the gender imbalance becomes markedly wider the higher the level of the programme: the proportion of women doing Level 3 STEM qualifications (which includes Advanced Apprenticeships) was 34% in 2017; the proportion doing Level 4 (including Higher Apprenticeships) was a meagre 7%.

Young women have plenty to offer the industry

In a survey of 300 female engineers, 84% were either happy or extremely happy with their career choice; apprenticeships could get more women into that position.

Verity Jackson won School Leaver of the Year at the School Leaver Awards last month: 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.

Her work demonstrates the equal ability of young women to bring top skills and enthusiasm to the industry, via apprenticeship programmes.

"I can't believe I've won,” Verity said on winning her award. “I didn't think I was going to, but I'm really pleased, especially because a small company like 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". 

Likewise, Bethany Preston – an Operational Support Systems Engineer at Arqiva – spoke earlier this year about her engineering apprenticeship, which gave her the experience needed to become the engineer she is today.

“The hands-on training that you receive through apprenticeships gives you a real chance to put your skills into practice and gain competency and confidence in a working environment,” Bethany said. “You don’t always get on-the-job training as a student, but as a Communications Engineering Apprentice at Arqiva I was able to build up my skills as I worked.” She joined the communications infrastructure company as an engineering apprentice in 2013 after completing A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, History and Psychology. She explained that choosing an engineering apprenticeship was the right path for her career development.

Firstly, it helped her build a highly-valued skill set from the get-go. “The hands-on training that you receive through apprenticeships gives you a real chance to put your skills into practice and gain competency and confidence in a working environment,” Bethany said. “You don’t always get on-the-job training as a student, but as a Communications Engineering Apprentice at Arqiva I was able to build up my skills as I worked.

“Developing my technical and functional knowledge of satellite transmissions and IP networking at such an early stage in my career ensured that I was fully equipped for my permanent position at the end of the programme. Now I’m a fully qualified engineer, working in the Satellite & Media OSS team in Winchester, and providing telemetry for our Operations team to ensure the smooth delivery of our broadcast services across the globe.”

The engineering apprenticeship also gave her the chance to try out plenty of different roles: “Rather than going straight into your permanent team, apprenticeships like Arqiva’s often function on a rotational basis so you’re exposed to a variety of departments throughout your programme. Not only does this allow you to establish a better rapport with key contacts across the business (and industry), but it also gives you a much broader understanding of how other teams work and what their priorities are. Now when I’m collaborating on a project I know exactly how different teams expect things done.”

Bethany is very much made the most of being a female engineering apprentice. During her programme she became a STEM ambassador, encouraging children to engage with STEM subjects and promoting modern engineering within schools. “The invaluable engineering toolkit that I developed during my Arqiva apprenticeship means that I’m more in-demand than ever and I hope that my success story inspires young people to explore alternative routes into engineering,” she said.

Victoria Shepherd, Service Excellence Manager at Arqiva was the first female broadcast engineer ever to work in the company’s Winchester satellite master control room. She told AllAboutSchooLLeavers earlier in the year about the challenges as well as the positives about being a female engineering apprentice “Inevitably, during my first years in the industry, I faced some challenges finding my feet and establishing myself among colleagues and clients – due in part to my gender, but also my young age,” she said. “There were certainly occasions when I would arrive on site for a job and be asked, ‘So when is the engineer turning up?’

“Unfortunately, this was just a largely unconscious by-product of what the industry was used to. As a woman I was slightly seen as a new entity, and that brought its own challenges. In the early years, not only was I focused on developing my own skills, but also trying to change any misperceptions around my ability to do the job.”

Despite the hard work, Victoria said she was able to turn these challenges to her advantage. “Yes, I might have had to put in a little more effort to earn the recognition of those around me, but my colleagues and clients now have an even deeper respect for my work, and I have been able to develop a good reputation across the business. Being one of the growing number of female engineers in my company, people also remember me more easily. When you are the only women in a room of 15, you stand out from the crowd whether you like it or not.”

The engineering gender pay gap

Despite it being an industry that more young women should pursue – and many of them via good quality apprenticeships – it would be remiss not to mention the gender pay gap in engineering.

The Engineer’s 2017 Salary Survey found that women engineers earn on average £10,000 less per year than their male colleagues. The average salary for female respondents was £38,109. This compares to £48,866 for men, and an industry average of £48,000.

Although the figure represented a slight increase on the average salary among women in 2016, of £36,201, the overall gap in salaries between men and women remained unchanged, and it seems that female engineers have benefitted less from an industry-wide average salary increase of 6.6% in 2016-17.

Perhaps most concerning is the finding that women at every level of seniority are on average paid less than their male colleagues. For example, at junior level women earn on average £4,000 less than their male colleagues. The gap widens at director level with women paid on average £20,000 less.

However, a better gender balance in the industry could go someway to addressing this (with more female bosses hiring and setting salaries) – more young women should get into engineering, and do it with apprenticeships.

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