Women ditching the office for a career in trade

Six years ago Jane Graham from Middlesbrough decided she’d had enough of tedious office jobs. "I wanted to do something more hands on," says Jane, now 28. "My dad is a builder so I’d done a bit of manual work with him in the past, and decided to look into plumbing."

Jane did some research and found that her local council offered a 12-month paid placement with a local plumbing company. "I was able to learn on the job and go to college one day a week on day-release," explains Jane. "It gave me a chance to prove myself and the company kept me on. I started doing an NVQ Level 1, and over four years worked my way up to Level 3 and became CORGI-registered."

Jane continued to work for the company for a year after qualifying and then moved to London to work for Pimlico Plumbers six months ago.

"I really enjoy it because each day is different," she says. "I have a logical mind and like solving problems, which is the basis of the job, and meeting new customers every day keeps it interesting," she says. "I’m not sure I’ll still be doing it when I’m 50, but it’s great at the moment and I have the option of going part-time if I decide to start a family."

Trading places

"Women are attracted by the high quality of life and flexibility of working in manual trades," explains Business Link’s Rosemary French, who specialises in women’s business start-ups. "And if you decide to be your own boss, it allows you to fit work around your ­family commitments, such as childcare responsibilities or caring for elderly relatives.

"There are two female painter and decorators in my village, for example, who formed a partnership after meeting at a crèche and now only work between 10am and 3pm when their children are at school."

Jane admits it is hard, physical work and there is still an element of sexism. "It’s not easy and you have to get your hands dirty, but that’s the whole appeal for me," she says. "While the reaction from male colleagues and customers is usually okay, there is sometimes scepticism about whether you know what you’re doing."

Training options

More women work in the construction industry than ever before, but there’s a long way to go before equality is achieved. According to the Know Your Place campaign, which was set up by the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET (science, engineering and technology) to promote the construction industry as a career choice, just 12,996 women were working in construction and building trades at the beginning of 2007, which equates to 1.1%.

Jacqui Allen, a surveyor and partner at building consultants Tuffin Ferraby Taylor in London, believes many women would relish the challenging variety of work in the construction industry but simply don’t consider it. "It needs to be actively promoted to girls at school from a young age," says Jacqui, 40, who has worked her way up to partner over 10 years. "The macho hard-hat perception needs to be dispelled."

So if you are considering a career change or just starting out, what do you need to do to get into the trades?

The first step is research, to decide what field of work is right for you. There’s a wealth of information on the Construction Skills and Learn Direct websites, with detailed job profiles on each trade, including salary information, average working hours, the level of qualifications required by employers, and opportunities for career development.

Learn Direct also outlines employment opportunities in each job - for example, that the construction industry estimates it will need about 5,000 new bricklayers every year between now and 2011. Speaking to people, particularly other women, who work in your chosen trade is also a good idea to get a feel for what is involved.

Some roles, such as a building surveyor, require you to complete a degree course accredited by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), followed by professional qualifications, whereas more manual trades such as plastering and tiling don’t require formal qualifications, but employers tend to want on-site experience.

If you haven’t worked in construction before, Learn Direct advises looking for work as a labourer to gain site experience. Once you’re in, like Jane, the employer may offer you on-the-job training in your required field, which usually leads to NVQ qualifications.

Another option is an apprenticeship scheme, for which you will need GCSEs in subjects such as maths, English and design technology, or equivalent qualifications. The range of apprenticeships available in your area will depend on the local labour market. For more information visit apprenticeships.org.uk.

The third option is to take a college course. Details of the required qualifications are available on the Learn Direct website while Hotcourses.com provides information on courses across the country, including a few construction courses specifically for women.

Most building contractors now insist that you have a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card to work on site. The card is proof of your skills and competence, and you must pass a health and safety assessment and have an NVQ or equivalent qualification to get one.

If you’re working without qualifications, you may be able to use On-Site Assessment and Training (OSAT) or Experienced Worker Practical Assessment (EWPA) to get your NVQ and card. Visit the Construction Skills website for more details.

Going direct to female-only trade businesses is also an option, as some offer a range of evening and day training courses. Women Builders for example, offers paid-for courses (around £300) and a free ‘Jobs for the Girls’ course for women who live in Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, which is part-funded by the European Social Fund through the Learning and Skills Council.

Raising funds

Training on the job, as Jane Graham did, has the advantage that you can earn an income while you learn, whereas taking a college course will require funding while you study.

The financial support of a partner is really helpful while you’re training and starting out, and friends and family are often people’s first option for a loan, as they’ll hopefully be flexible and charge you little or no interest. If they are unable to help, there is a wide range of grants, loans and bursaries available.

The Educational Grants Advisory Service and Student Loans Company websites are good places to start. High street banks such as Barclays and the Co-operative Bank also offer career development loans up to £8,000 for vocational training. These loans don’t have to be repaid until you have completed your training and rates average around 13%.

If you decide to set up your own business, you will also need some finance. "You’ll have lots of outgoings in the beginning, such as tools, a vehicle, marketing - even childcare," says Business Link’s Rosemary French.

A well-written business plan is vital if you intend to approach your bank for a business loan. There is also a wide range of government grants available, details of which are available in the Finance and Grants section at businesslink.gov.uk.

Be your own boss

If you decide to go it alone or team up with a partner to set up a business, it is important to find out if there is a market for your trade in your area. "This requires some market research," explains French. "It can be anything from knocking on doors, asking around at community or leisure centres, or speaking to parents at a crèche or the school gates."

Interestingly, you could have a ready-made market for your business. Female and elderly homeowners often prefer the idea of hiring tradeswomen, because inviting a man you don’t know into your home can be intimidating.

As with any business, you need to think in terms of competitive edge and a unique selling point. Business Link provides free, step-by-step advice on everything from drawing up a business plan to marketing, finance and growing your business.

Ultimately, the construction industry is likely to remain male-dominated but your only concern should be to get well trained and work hard, says Jacqui Allen. "I think there’ll always be raised eyebrows when a woman walks on to a building site, and few comments of ‘Blimey, it’s a girl.’ But once people realise you’re skilled and good at your job, you’ll earn a great deal of respect."