Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 00:00 UK

Making it in a man's world

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"I think all the girls should put their toolbelts on and come join us ... and show these blokes how it's done."

By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

One of the biggest differences you notice with the current crop of construction students at the Astins Institute in Battersea is that they're just so, well, delicate.

The six are quite a contrast to the usual, hairy, butch builder - mainly because they are women.

These girls are the ones Astins Ltd managing director and co-founder Dominic Tutt believes will be the vanguard of his campaign to bring more women onto big building sites.

"Currently women make up less than 1% of the construction workforce at the trade level," Mr Tutt says. "Astins aims to make that 8% by 2013."

And it's easy to see why women have historically dodged the building site.

Diverse paths

In school, it's not the direction most teachers or career officers would push them in.

Social attitudes and views surrounding the industry do little to attract many women to the dirt and manual labour of a building site.

And the age-old stereotype of the wolf-whistling brickie hanging off his scaffolding dishing out lairy "''Ello darling" comments to passing ladies is likely to make conditions even less appealing.

In fact, the number of women employed on doing the physical work on-site within the construction industry is so small that the Office For National Statistics can't measure it properly, but ONS data does show that 932,000 men are currently working within the sector.

Looming concerns

Yet the industry could soon be facing an employment crisis, prompting many experts to call for innovative ways to resolve the crisis.

Becky, Astins apprentice

We walked into the canteen all the workers just stared at us in shock
Becky Skinner, apprentice

A lack of apprenticeships schemes leaving wide gaps in the skills base and an overreliance on immigrant workers are two factors sparking concerns.

Meanwhile, experts have also warned an ageing workforce will do little to ease the problem.

A recent report from the Chartered Institute of Building showed that construction managers over the age of 60 are the fastest growing age group in the sector and the biggest reduction in workers is in the under 30 age group.

"They key issues affecting the workforce are age and skills, particularly in a recession," says Kate Lloyd, Equality and Diversity Manager within recruitment at Construction Skills.

"Training budgets aren't there, so they get cut. That's what we've seen over the last few years and that means a skills shortage. We saw it in the last recession when people stopped training."

Innovative approach

In order to make a start in tackling the looming crisis Astins decided to target the 50% of the UK workforce that has historically been ignored in the industry - women.

So the firm set up one of the UK's first professional qualification courses in construction trades specifically aimed at women, an NVQ level two specialising in dry lining - or making partition walls to the uninitiated.

To make the London-based course more attractive it has offered fully subsidised places to the lucky apprentices and even free accommodation to those living outside London.

Astins has pumped the best part of £1m into the project, as well as getting additional funding from Construction Skills, and hopes it is building a good investment for the future.

"I think the way we'll change things in the industry is by having women on site and they'll act as beacons of change within the industry itself," said Mr Tutt.

"We firmly believe that they can add value to our business and to the construction industry as a whole."

However, the search for the six apprentices was not an easy one.

Of 600 applications for the women-only course, just 39 were from women. Those women then had to go to interviews, pass various tests and attend a two-week 'builders boot camp' to check they could handle the pressure of working on a building site.

Benefits and rewards

But the successful candidates can look forward to a rewarding future.

"Several of our top performing and top producing men earn well in excess of £1,000 a week," says Mr Tutt.

"We can't afford to ignore 50% of the population because of their gender."

"I see no reason why the women couldn't match that in the long term. It's not going to be in the next couple of years but once they've honed their skills in the next four to five years that's an achievable amount."

Astins will reap the benefits of the training, taking the women on after graduation - but it also hopes to use the experience to keep a closer eye on the battle of the sexes.

It will be keeping a close eye on the work on their construction sites across the gender divide, measuring men against women in terms of productivity and mistakes.

"Ideally its critical that they're successful so that we give them a career and a skill that benefits them in the long term but it also benefits the business. So there's no real limit to where I see them going," he adds.

Hurdles

But the road to the building site has not been an easy one for the girls.

Among the more mundane issues that raise their heads are homesickness, missing mum and missing out on home-cooked food. But their punishing schedule seems to draw the most complaints.

L-R: Elizabeth Rodrigues, Sam Paul, Takeela Osbourne
The girls will be building 25 miles of partition walls on one site

Almost all of them complain about a lack of sleep.

Getting up at 5am, travelling for two hours, putting in a full day's work, and then taking two hours to get back home leaves them longing for a rest.

"I often get home and just fall asleep in my clothes," says Elizabeth Rodriguez, 19, of St Johns Wood, London.

Two other students are single mothers balancing childcare responsibilities and their work.

But one of the biggest obstacles they have faced is getting safety equipment to fit.

Special trousers with pockets for knee pads are so big that the padding end up round their ankles. Astins is now looking to get the equipment specially fitted and made.

'Gobsmacked'

As for the practical experience, while the girls were all itching to get their hands dirty, they were dreading their first face-to-face experience of a builders crew - despite e-mails warning the men to "be kind" to the newcomers being sent by the company.

"The men were gobsmacked. It all went completely and utterly quiet on our first visit - like a scene from the film Grease," explains Elizabeth.

"The men were all protective and a bit patronising, which was a bit annoying," adds Sam Paul, 28 of Camberwell, London. "But that just makes us want to do more."

And they will be.

One task looming for the girls is to help put together the equivalent of 25 miles of partitioning at one hospital site.

But Mr Tutt hopes they won't just rest on their laurels.

He's hoping the girls will push onwards and upwards into site management. Sam herself has voiced an interest in taking on such courses in future.

But the ultimate test will be to see whether the girls do manage to bring more women into the industry - and whether they really can do the jobs for the boys.

Women in construction graphics



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