Increasing numbers of females are opting to train as joiners, plumbers and electricians. Stephanie Bell talks to three NI women who are studying at Belfast Metropolitan College.
More women are choosing non-traditional career paths yet many still encounter raised eyebrows when they show up to do their job.
Plumber, electrician and joiner are all jobs we traditionally associate with men, but a growing number of women are being drawn to these professions with the prospect of secure work and the chance to do a practical and worthwhile job.
But when they turn up to fix a leaky pipe, fit a new door or repair a faulty wire, more often than not the customer is surprised to find a female on their doorstep.
We talked to three women, who have all opted to pursue non-traditional careers, about the reasons for their choice and the challenges they encounter - if any - because of their gender.
Aine McLaughlin (35), a single mum to Erin (14), Damien (11), Podraig-James (4) and Feargal (2), from Coalisland, is currently studying at Belfast Metropolitan College for a career as a joiner. She has just been selected as a finalist in this year's Skillbuild NI competition. She says:
I always loved technology at school as well as art and home economics - all the creative subjects. When I left school I went on to train in mechanical engineering, but gave it up after I got married and became a full-time mum.
However, I wanted a career and in 2015 I decided to try joinery and did two 10-week courses at the Women's Tech. My tutor told me that I had a real flair for woodwork and should go to Belfast Met to study it further.
I began a 36-week course in technical carpentry at Belfast Metropolitan College last September to qualify for an NVQ level 2 which will be followed by another 36 weeks to get level 3.
For the next level I will need to get a placement and that's proving a bit of a problem because of my age and, possibly, the fact that I'm a woman.
But I need someone to take me on for work experience in order to finish my qualifications.
I want to work on a building site where I can get hands-on experience and the satisfaction of creating something. My aim is to go into project management and maybe one day have my own business.
I'm the only woman on my course and I'm the same age as most of the other students' mums and dads - but despite that we all get on great.
I love being handed a diagram and then having the satisfaction of making something from scratch.
At 35, some people might think it will be hard for me to get a job when I have no experience, but I have life experience and with the things I've learned looking after my children, I'm not afraid to tackle anything.
As for being a woman on a building site, I've done it before when I was training to be an engineer. When I started the guys would have gone all quiet around me and not told their jokes, so I had to break the ice and tell them just to get on with it, it didn't bother me.
I can give as good as I get when it comes to the banter.
But I am determined to succeed. My kids think it's cool that mummy wants to be a joiner and have a career and that's what I intend to do."
Nicole Catney (20), from Magheralin, Co Armagh, is in her second year of an electrical and electronic engineering course at Belfast Met. She has followed in her family’s footsteps, as her dad Damien and uncle John are both electricians. She says:
My family was building a new house and I watched my dad and uncle do the work every day — and it made me want to be able to do what they did.
At school I was good at the electrical side of physics, so when I was studying for my A-levels, I decided to find out more about how I could do it as a career.
I’m the first female in my family to want to do it — and my dad was over the moon.
Mum just wanted me to do whatever made me happy and is very supportive.
I studied physics, technology and maths at A-level, but when I didn’t get the results I needed to get into university I spoke to a tutor at Belfast Met and then signed up for the course.
On my first day I was the only girl in the classroom and I remember thinking ‘oh no’ — but then two other girls came in and I was so relieved.
The guys in the class are okay with the fact that there are three girls working alongside them.
I remember during careers lessons at school there was always a shout out for more girls to enter these non-traditional professions.
I plan to go to the Ulster University in September to study for a degree in electrical and electronic engineering.
I’d love to get a job overseas, as I think it’s a skill that will take you anywhere.
My girlfriends always knew that I was interested in this career, so they aren’t surprised, but the guys I know were a bit old-fashioned — they thought that I would choose to study something like beauty. Having said that, they have all wished me well.
Gender shouldn’t come into a career choice.
Men can do what women do and women can do what men do — it’s as simple as that.
I enjoy the course and it was a great opportunity last year to take part in the World Skills competition.
I got third place and was awarded a bronze medal.
My fellow student, Christine McDowell, won gold and of the hundreds who entered there were only eight girls in the electronics category.
It was nice to see two girls come away with top prizes.”
Isobel Clarke (23), from south Belfast, graduated last June from Queen’s University, Belfast with a degree in philosophy and then started a NVQ Level 2 course in plumbing and heating at Belfast Met in September. She says:
I hadn’t any career in mind when I did my degree, as it was something to fall back on. Going to university felt like going through the motions. I always knew afterwards that I would do something completely different. When I graduated there were few jobs and any there were involved sitting at a desk all day and that didn’t appeal to me.
I wanted to learn a trade, go out and use my hands, to do something useful and be able to fix something. I knew this would give me a real sense of satisfaction.
Plumbing appealed to me, as I thought it was a great trade with plenty of jobs and the chance to earn a lot of money.
When I went to the college to inquire about the course I found out that I needed an apprenticeship — and that it may be harder for me because I’m older and also because I’m a woman.
The experts at the college suggested I get in touch with Fusion Heating in Belfast, which had taken on females before; the next week I had an interview and got the job. Now I work with the company three days a week, with two days at college.
It’s a four-year apprenticeship course and I’m the only woman — both at college and at work.
Apprentice wages aren’t a lot but I have a job while I’m learning and doing what I want for a career. It’s really hands-on work which I love. Because I don’t have any female colleagues at work I really value spending time with my girlfriends more now.
My male colleagues are all gents — they include me in their banter and are really encouraging.
Oddly I think working with men has made me more of a girly girl. I feel I have to make up for it when I’m not working by painting my nails or doing something feminine.
People are really surprised when I turn up at their home to fix something — but they’re also really interested that I’m a female plumber and I’ve always had a very positive response.
My university friends were surprised by my choice of job, but they are also really supportive. A lot of them had to move to England to find jobs or are working in a supermarket to help pay the bills.
My parents really wanted me to go to university and they were reluctant at first when I told them I wanted to do plumbing, as they are both quite academic.
Now that they see how happy I am they’ve accepted it and are really proud, and they tell all their friends that their daughter is a plumber.
It’s important for people to realise that it’s not about your technical ability but your personality and enthusiasm and willingness to learn. I would encourage anyone to do it.”
There is a shortfall of 69,000 advanced technicians and engineers every year in the UK.
Recent studies show that only 9% of technicians and engineers in the UK are women.
Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) industries are still male-dominated, with women making up 13% of the workforce. The proportion of women in the engineering workforce is low — only one in 10.
In NI schools, boys are 3.5 times more likely to study A-level physics than girls and five times more likely to gain an engineering and technology degree.
STEM programmes at Belfast Met are contributing significantly to addressing the gender imbalance, with women making up 30% of the current learners.
Course applications are open until June 1, 2017, and early registration is advisable.
STEM courses, available at Belfast Met’s new School of Science, Engineering & Construction, can be accessed by downloading the full and part-time prospectus at http://www.belfastmet.ac.uk
Or, for course inquiries, telephone 9026 5265 or email email@example.com