The WISE Campaign move to Leeds

WISE have moved North and want the world to know about it. Specifically they’ve relocated to the city of Leeds, the ‘North Eastern powerhouse’, certified by Deloitte as being the centre point of UK construction. WISE and their cooperate members are a smart bunch- they’ve realised that to fill the 182,000 jobs created in engineering a year, they’ll need more than just the boys. Engineering UK estimates we’ll need to double the number of young people studying triple science (particularly GCSE physics) and the number of Advanced Apprenticeship placements in engineering and construction. There are actually some super interesting statistics the Engineering UK report, from the fact that only 2 in 5 STEM teachers feel confidently about giving engineering careers advice, to the fact that only 1 in 4 parents know what engineers do- but 3 in 4 parents still think it’s a desirable career for their children. Does that mean most parents want their kids to do a job they don’t understand?!

I guess this is like WISE’s house warming: only their address is ‘Leeds College of Building’ and Princess Anne is invited. They’ve also invited scientists, engineers, architects, software developers, university lecturers and apprentice construction workers. Whilst Princess Anne meets members of Leeds College and Building, Fay Best (an associate consultant for WISE) warms the crowd up, talking about WISE’s project ‘People Like Me’. To try and excite girls about careers in STEM, WISE teamed up with Professor Averil McDonald and looked at young people’s aspirations. Whilst boys described their personalities and future careers with verbs, girls went for adjectives- instantly alienating young women from the majority of STEM-disciplines. They took Professor McD’s research and went to the British Science Council, mapping the top twelve adjectives to STEM related careers. WISE’s research said it wasn’t enough to engage the young people and their classrooms: we have to connect with their parents too. Planted in the audience (and ready for the panel later), Fionnuala McGowan from Laing O’Rourke is here with her mum. Fionnuala’s mum was worried about her entering construction and took seven years to convince. Now Fionnuala is the only one of three sisters not to go in to teaching and is the only one without any student debt and with a permanent job contract. But… more on Fionnuala in a bit.

Princess Anne is a brilliant patron for WISE, committed to spreading the excitement of engineering and shrewd enough to know it should come via interaction with the education system. She knows we (the UK) “are short of scientists and engineers, full stop”.

The panel was chaired by fellow members of the WISE Young Women’s Board, Stephanie Newman and Kathryn Grant, and populated by apprentices and recruiters and plumbers. Louise Archer and the concept of Science Capital is strong here- my parents were both doctors >> my brother is a foundation doctor at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. Katherine Smith’s dad was a mechanic, she’s an apprentice plumper with JTL and the University of York. She’s great- we spent a while chatting in the time allocated for ‘informal networking’. Katherine did two years of A-Levels in subjects like psychology before she realised academia wasn’t for her. She turned to her friend, an electrician, who filled her in on alternative options. Katherine’s grandfather said you’d “never go wrong” if you learnt a trade, so she did, and in 3 years Katherine will be a plumber. The majority of the panel come from pretty ‘hands-on’ backgrounds: I reckon they don’t (as we do in North West London) call British Gas to change a light bulb.

Fionnuala says that so far, her experiences of gender balance in the construction sector have been pretty good: companies are supportive, hours are becoming more flexible and people are working harder than ever to recruit young women. To dismiss the audience’s misconceptions that apprenticeships are restricted to the young, two of the apprentices on the panel (Liz and Dionne) have dependent children at home and didn’t decide to apply until construction found them. Helen, at Incommunities, who works in the recruitment of apprentices, spent years in construction management before realising she’d like to get more involved. These women find apprenticeships particularly appealing, offering them the opportunity to ‘earn and learn’. Dionne’s dream is to set up an Academy for Women in Construction, offering support, mentoring and advice for women at every stage of their construction careers.

When the panel are asked whether their careers advisors helped them the answer isn’t good. Fionnuala went to her college’s careers centre with a plea for construction based work experience and was referred to a counsellor, who took some convincing of her genuine commitment and passion. Eventually she signed up two a two-week work experience scheme with Laing O’Rourke and was permanently recruited after her first five days. When other members of the panel aired their dreams with brickwork, their friends and family said “what a shame”.

The statistics aren’t great- around 5 % of the apprentices at LCB are women. Your parents will be largely unsupportive. I don’t know about you, but I’m so bored of negative stats. Instead, how can we attract young women into these exciting and lucrative careers in engineering, manufacture and construction? Aside from the obvious- stop with the useless stereotypes, avoid sweeping statements like ‘girls can’t carry kitchen cabinets’ (although I’m not personally convinced I could carry a kitchen cabinet)- we need to take some practical advice. The apprenticeship recruiter Helen says we need to be very clear about what the entry-level requirements are. We need to promote the areas where female apprentices are preferred- they are particularly amongst vulnerable groups such as the elderly, disabled and single parents, which makes them particularly attractive to local councils. We need to get in to schools and speak to parents, telling them (as crude as it is) about the starting salaries. Fionnuala has made a women’s board at Laing O’Rourke. Her role as a young ambassador on the board takes her to schools and colleges to promote opportunities, where she concentrates her time on careers advisors and parents (this girl is an absolute genius), whilst the older member’s of the board campaign for ‘flexitime’ and shared leave.

These apprentices are going to go far: when they finish their four-year courses, they’ll be debt free with secure jobs doing something they love. How many university graduates, or postgraduates for that matter, can say the same?

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