I’m excited about the future of vocational education. There is so much going on right now with the T-levels and the apprenticeship levy. There is at least a possibility that we are seeing a serious step forwards in vocational education in England at the moment. What is more, I’m pretty sure that this is a cross-party issue and so even if we do see a change in government the focus on vocational education and skills is likely to endure.
However, there are some things that are concerning about the way that vocational education tends to channel certain young people into certain careers. There is clearly a strong class dimension to this, which I’m also interested in, but in this post I’d like to look at the issue of gender.
A joint TUC and YWCA paper (Apprenticeships and Gender) published a few years ago concluded that the expansion in apprenticeships had replicated traditional gender segregation in the labour market. More recent work by the Young Women’s Trust (Making Apprenticeships Work for Young Women) notes that since 2010 women apprentices have outnumbered men, but that male apprentices get paid 21% more on average.
The Young Women’s Trust presents the following chart to show how male and female apprenticeships differ by sector.
What it shows is that women are concentrated in health and social care, business administration and childcare and education. In contrast male apprentices are present in a lot more sectors and have less of a profile in these traditionally low paying sectors.
These differences play out in terms of pay, but they also play out in terms of job quality with female apprentices less likely to report training and more likely to lose their job at the end of the apprenticeship.
All of this is very concerning, but not in all honesty completely unexpected. Similar issues have been reported in the past (as this 2006 article by the Equal Opportunities commission shows). Inevitably the reasons for this phenomenon are complex. It undoubtedly includes a dose of good old fashioned sexism, but the associations of gender with particular parts of the labour market are more complex than this. They undoubtedly include questions about self- and career- identity in young people. How far they can imagine themselves in different careers. They also clearly relate to employer expectations and to the ever questionable idea of ‘cultural fit’. ‘Someone like her just wouldn’t fit in here‘ is a much used excuse.
I don’t have any easy answers as to what it is possible to do about this. But what I am sure is that achieving any change on this issue will require shifts on both the supply and demand side of the labour market. We need both young people and employers to think and act differently. It will also require changes pre-, during, and post- vocational education programme. In other words people need to be recruited differently, supported better whilst on programme and then given ongoing support to transition to the labour market. All of these changes need to be actively alert to gender rather than simply trying to be ‘gender neutral’ – delivering a major cultural change is not going to be easy.
I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts about how they deal with some of these issues in career education and guidance processes.