THERE ARE MANY different ways to find your career in modern Ireland.
There’s the tried and trusted school-college-job route. But for many of the most fundamental professions and crafts in Irish society an apprenticeship is the established way towards learning a trade.
Ireland runs 33 categories of such state-sponsored apprenticeships (although only 29 of them are currently active). Currently more than 3,000 new apprenticeships are being granted each year.
And a frankly ludicrous proportion of spots in those categories are occupied by men.
In fact, less than 1% of the 9,587 apprenticeships active in Ireland thus far in 2016 are taken by women.
This isn’t even a new trend. That 1% is actually an increase on each of the last five years.
These figures have come to light via a parliamentary question submitted by Fianna Fáil educational spokesman Niall Collins to the Department of Education.
They document a trend of apprenticeships dramatically skewed towards men. Just 52 women are on a state apprenticeship this year against a staggering 9,535 men.
Easily the greatest representation of women in comparison with men is in the newest sector, financial services, which was introduced in 2016, in which the insurance practice apprenticeship has 21 female candidates compared with 33 men.
The next most populated apprenticeship from a female perspective is the electrical category, with 16 women actively accessing one in 2016. And how many men in the same category? 2,982.
No other category has more than five women participating in it at present.
So what’s the reason for this? And is state employment agency Solas concerned about it?
It’s not like there’s an overseas correlation for our dismal levels of female participation – in the UK for example, the number of women taking on state-sponsored apprenticeships has been on a par, if not higher, than that of men over the course of the last five years.
Collins for his part has pointed the finger of blame firmly at the government, saying it needs to provide “greater leadership” in providing additional apprenticeship opportunities for women.
But what about existing apprenticeships? Is there any overriding reason why men are dominating them?
The standard way of getting an apprenticeship in Ireland is to apply to an employer, who are themselves recognised by Solas as being qualified to help an apprentice “meet the needs of the industry and the labour market”.
What trades are available are designated by Solas (the successor to Fás which dissolved in 2013). They cover a range of crafts – tiling, carpentry, mechanics, plumbing, and electrics to name a few.
If you can secure an employer, most apprenticeships last four years, with set rates of pay for each of those years.
There is in fact an incentive already in place for those who take on female apprentices – a bursary of €3,000 for employers in the craft trades. Still, the lack of women in these apprenticeships suggests a more entrenched problem.
“The bursary clearly isn’t increasing women’s participation,” says Nikki Gallagher, director at Solas, who says the jobs agency is looking to commission research to identify barriers to women accessing such apprenticeships.
We’ll use this evidence to run a targeted campaign to present apprenticeship as a choice for everyone. That’s the key to unlocking this for me.
The women who do take an apprenticeship are really impressive and we will try to use these women as role models and spokespeople in any way we can.
The women who did
Gallagher isn’t wrong when she says the women in Ireland on apprenticeships are impressive.
We asked two of them for their feelings on why the career path is so dominated by men.
Gemma Linehan is in the final year of her four-year mechanic’s apprenticeship in Bishopstown, Co Cork. Her grandfather and father were mechanics before her, and she knew she wanted to do it as a career since secondary school. So why does she think less than 1% of apprenticeships are being filled by women?
“I’d say they’re afraid,” she says. “They’re afraid of the fact that it’s all men that are doing it and they’re afraid to go into a class full of men.”
Gemma, who stresses she has never been treated in any way differently as a woman in her chosen field, says she has “absolutely loved” her apprenticeship. She hopes to move into lecturing on the subject “in five or six years”.
“You can do this through college, which is what I initially planned to do, but I found this so much better because you stay on placement,” she says.
If you might speculate that poor advertising plays a part in the skewed Irish figures, the way Gemma became aware of the possibility of an apprenticeship won’t do much to change your mind:
I didn’t know about apprenticeships at all. The only reason I heard of it is I went on a recovery one night, and the car that was broken down, the driver was a woman who worked for Fás.
I would have gone through CIT (Cork Institute of Technology) otherwise.
“It’s a no-brainer”
Drogheda native Margaret Reilly meanwhile began her apprenticeship in cabinet-making in 1998. She now owns and runs her own manufacturing and design business in the town and was a nominee for Business Woman of the Year in 2016.
If there’s one word you could use to describe Margaret it’s ’passionate’. She cares deeply about what she does. She also has ideas as to the gender discrepancy seen with Irish apprenticeships. She says when she first went looking for an employer to take her on she was said no to repeatedly by businesses who couldn’t countenance a female apprentice.
“Honestly, I still have the problem today with men and women. I’ll go to someone’s house to mend their kitchen and they’ll be expecting a man to step out from behind me,” she says.
There’s a missing link. You have to give women the confidence to say ‘I can do this’. I mean once you love something it doesn’t even feel like a job. Why wouldn’t someone take you on?
Margaret says that employers are “losing out” in not giving more women apprenticeships (she is completely unsurprised to hear that less than 1% of them are being done by women here, saying ‘that’s in line with how it was when I did it’).
“I have 15 sub-contractors working for me – tilers, plasterers, plumbers, the whole shebang. And not one of them is female. I say to them will you not take on a woman.”
Women are so meticulous, they’re can-do, and in many cases women would love to be dealing with other women in these professions. It’s a no-brainer.
I’d love to take on a woman apprentice. Of course I would. I mean if you’re really good why wouldn’t someone want to take you on?
The better option?
One thing Reilly is very definite on is the advantages of taking an apprenticeship, if you can:
“You’ll always be working, you’re entitled to take a degree after, when you’ll probably only be 21 if you’ve come from school, and you’re always being paid and that gives you empowerment. You can pay your own way. It’s a fantastic way to learn skills and enhance your education.”
That message – that an apprenticeship is a choice, not a consolation prize, is something Gallagher says needs to be made clear if the gender imbalance is to be corrected.
“It’s not a second option, it’s not for the stereotyped ‘kid who didn’t get the points’. It’s for any kid who is particularly interested in something,” she says.
She stresses that, regardless of the gender statistics, “Ireland does really well internationally in terms of apprenticeships”.
“It’s true the UK has a better split maybe, but they’re probably a few years ahead of us. They’ve moved into other areas, not just the traditional crafts, and have run through some really cool communications campaigns,” she says.
And branching out is where we’ll want to go to next.
“While the recession was on us there simply weren’t the jobs there to promote. But now things are picking up, the opportunities are there, for all genders, for all ages.”
But we’ve a lot of work ahead of us obviously.