Why we need to encourage more women into apprenticeships

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

You don’t have to look far back into our past to find a time when the traditional trades, such as plumbing, carpentry and electrical, were 100% male. A shift is taking place, but it’s not happening fast enough.

In fact, less than 10% of traditional trade apprenticeships are taken up by female candidates, and part of the reason is that they are simply not applying.

Yet this largely untapped market has the potential to save our trade industries.

Women are outperforming their male counterparts in many traditionally male-dominated industries, and if we can encourage higher participation, it could provide the answer to a looming trade skills shortage and play a role in reducing rising youth unemployment rates.

Increasing female participation in our labour force is also important for our economy, with a report from the Grattan Institute telling us that an increase of just 6% could equal a boost to our economy of $25 billion over a decade.

With the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reporting that gender segregation hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years, it’s clear we need to do more to encourage women into the traditional trades - and it’s in our best interests to.

Exposure is critical

In my opinion, the career guidance programs in our schools need to rethink the way trades are discussed, particularly with female students. There is a definite gender bias when it comes to talking about career options, with NSW Government reports showing that many female students aren’t told about apprenticeship pathways, and often have limited access to trade-based subjects.

This is also reflected in the discussions taking place at home, with many families not viewing trade careers as a viable option for their daughters.

On the positive, there are many programs out there that expose women to trade careers, such as the Try-A-Trade program, that provides them with the opportunity to try their hand at a variety of trades, and schools should be actively encouraging female students to participate in these initiatives.

Stereotypes need to be broken down

There are many stereotypes, not just in our schools, but in society in general, about women and trade careers that can be a barrier to female participation in these industries.

One particularly persistent stereotype is that women don’t perform as well as men in these industries, but the evidence, both reported and anecdotal, tells a different story. Women are outperforming their male counterparts in many industries, particularly automotive. You only have to look at V8 Racing to see the success of not only female pit crews, but female drivers, such as Simona De Silvestro, who are changing the face of the industry.

There are many stories out there, of female apprentices who are successfully challenging these stereotypes across the traditional trade industries. It’s good news stories like these that need to be shared if a shift is going to happen.

In my experience, there is also a long-held belief that trades don’t require academic ability and this is simply not true. With our electrical systems and automobiles becoming more and more technological, there is a rising demand for mathematical, scientific and computing skills across these industries. And with technology shaping the future of work, this is only going to increase.

We also need to break down the myth that university graduates are better off, when the research tells us that VET graduates earn an average of $2,000 more and typically have better job prospects than their university counterparts.

The next generation is key

With an ever-growing need for a diverse range of skills across our traditional trades, a looming skills shortage, and youth unemployment on the rise, it has never been more important to encourage more women into trade careers.

If we can showcase the good news stories, and rethink how we talk about trade careers with our girls, both at school and at home, we can change the way the up and coming generation view trade career opportunities.

If we can succeed in this, we have the potential to grow and advance Australia’s trade industries, keep the skills shortage at bay, and give a boost to our economy.