This is how we can boost the number of girls and women on construction courses

24 May 2021, 6:00

There’s a huge market for female tradespeople to come round and fix the electrics, so we need to get more on construction courses, writes Nikki Davis

Being a college with one specific industry focus – in our case, construction – has lots of advantages. But even with our advantages, it still takes a lot of effort to increase the number of female students on our courses. 

Over three years, we have made progress. We’ve gone from just 33 female apprentices to 190, almost six times as many.

But the percentage in the college itself sounds less impressive – that’s a move from five per cent of students who are female to seven per cent.

Meanwhile, women in the UK construction industry account for around ten per cent of the workforce. 

Lack of women on trade courses

Some of our courses do better than others. Our higher and technical courses, such as civil engineering and transport planning, have more female students on them.

On some of these courses, the split is more like 70-30 male to female. The same is true of the staff, giving a much better representation of females who have come directly from the industry and are doing a phenomenal job.

But there are far fewer female students on the trade courses, such as brickwork, joinery, plastering, painting and decorating, tiling, electrical and plumbing. 

We do have a fantastic female lecturer in joinery, and that’s what we need more of. However, it’s difficult to recruit female staff in some of these trade courses. 

This needs to change because there’s such a market for tradeswomen. How much more comfortable would women feel if it was a woman who arrived to fix their electrics? 

Change careers advice in schools

One of the answers is to tackle the problem much earlier in schools. There’s a lot of outreach work needed at both primary and secondary levels. You occasionally hear horror stories of girls being directed away from careers talks on construction, towards a “more appropriate” presentations. 

Students should have their perceptions of the construction industry challenged, too. They see it as brickwork, which can be dirty, dusty and cold in winter. There is a bit of that, it’s true, but there is so much more to it. 

The sector has a lot of secure jobs that are well paid in many cases. With the government’s “Build back better” slogan, this will be a booming industry. Careers advice in schools needs to be much better informed about a career in construction – it should not be assumed that it’s a job for low-achieving students. 

Another way to tackle the issue is to run women-focused short courses here in college. We do taster sessions, where people can ask questions, and also six-week courses to get the basics in a trade area. It’s especially helpful if that’s a female-led course. 

Close relationships with employers

One of the big advantages of being a purely construction college is our very close links with employers. The college opened in 1960 because there was a local need for construction workers at the time, with just a handful of staff.

Now, we have 400 staff and about 1,200 16- to 18-year-old students, about 2,500 apprentices and adult students too. 

I’ve worked in a mainstream college before this one and the relationship with employers is just different here. They pick up the phone and call us. They work directly with us.

Because we focus solely on construction, we can also offer employers more flexibility – they can send apprentices to us on day release or block release, for example. They can pick a model that suits them. 

Employers also help us decipher local skills plans. They can be difficult to understand sometimes, so we work with employers to unpick them in detail.

Being focused on one industry area also lets us attract talent nationally. Because we specialise, we’re seen as one of the best.  

But that doesn’t mean our work in improving representation of students is anywhere near done. 

The government is expecting employers to do a lot to support the skills system, but the issue of more girls and women choosing construction courses needs to be pioneered within the education sector, supported by employers. 

We need to be doing much more, much earlier, to encourage them in.

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