Gender and apprenticeships

Female Construction Apprentice

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.

gender differences

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.



Show me what you’re made of

I don’t know whether anyone else has seen Stacey Dooley’s Show Me What You’re Made Of? In each episode Stacey takes a bunch of kids and shows them the work that underpins some everyday aspect of their life. In the one that I’ve linked to in this post they learn about how buses are cleaned, but elsewhere they learn about fruit picking, fish canning and a whole host of other undesirable jobs.

This is work experience with a difference. The idea here is not to offer up ‘aspirational’ job, rather it is the opposite. But, these occupations aren’t just being profiled to show young people what could happen if things go wrong. Rather these difficult, dirty and challenging jobs are profiled to demonstrate that all of our lives rely on these things getting done. The show is brilliant for demonstrating the skill and dignity that is associated with difficult work.

I think that Show Me What You’re Made Of offers a brilliant resource for career education. It provides an insight into real work in ways that show both the positives and the negatives. It also opens up space for important discussions about how work is organised and rewarded in our society and also how workers are accorded respect or otherwise for doing important things.

I’d be really interested to hear from any teachers or careers educators who have used it with learners.

Guest post: What is the gig economy?


In this guest post Esther Galvalvi discussed the growth of the gig economy. I’d urge people to get involved with her important research in this area.

The media has tended to use the term “gig economy” to refer to digital platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, and Taskrabbit, where people can work on a short term, free lance basis through apps on their phones.  However, any online platform that allows people to participate in commerce, where people can opt in and opt out at will (on a “gig” basis), could be thought of as belonging to the gig economy.  People are busily making work for themselves on platforms like Ebay, Etsy, and Airbnb, effectively acting as their own employers.  (Different rules apply to Ebay and Etsy, however; no one is checking when you clock in, or how fast you respond; labour platforms like Uber and Deliveroo tend to control worker behaviour a lot more.) 

People involved in platform work find themselves at the crest of a wave of exciting new technology that could afford a great deal of flexibility and freedom – but risk being dragged under by the lack of security and worker protections.  On a policy level, some clear decision-making will be critical to make sure that the people who work on them have a reasonable safety net to protect them in times of difficulty. 

All this is a challenge for careers advisers, because we are learning about these new technologies at the same time that people are being exposed to them.  Young people in particular are at the forefront of the wave; a large proportion of workers in the UK gig economy are under 35.  Gig economy work could afford them a great deal of flexibility and opportunity if they are struggling to fund further education, or want a boost to their CV.  But with so much at stake with their exams, the cost for young people could be high if they overdo it

It is unfeasible for careers advisers to know the ins and outs of every platform, but we should at least know roughly how platforms work and what the key issues are, both in terms of risks and opportunities.  These could include

  • worker rights law
  • time management
  • how to critically evaluate platforms and their practices
  • depending on the platform, the basic skills to build a business 

My PhD project at University of Derby is about young people’s involvement in the online gig economy.  I want to find out to what extent young people are already thinking about or even using these technologies – and if they are using anything we haven’t even thought about yet!  The first phase is a survey of careers professionals who work with 16-19 year olds.  If you belong in this group, I would be grateful if you could take 10 minutes to fill it in.

Complete the survey

La La Land and the importance of dual careers


Last night I opted not to watch Donald Trump’s inaugural or engage in any of the post-speech analysis or self-flagellation. I watched it this morning, so that is still to come.

Instead I opted to go out with my family and watch a slice of golden/retro/postmodern Hollywood classic in LA LA Land. For those of you who haven’t seen it – make the effort. It is, as they say, one to see in the cinema. For those that have been living under a rock and haven’t engaged with the hype around this film. Here is a taster.

As ever, when I watch films I’m struck by the prominence that is given to career as a theme. La La Land is about the meeting point of aspiration and reality, it is about power and compromise, decisions and dreams, talent and uncertainty. In other words it is the stuff of which career and life is made of. I won’t offer any spoilers but in essence the film is a meditation on what is gained and lost if you follow your dreams.

La La Land is also (some might say that it is firstly) a love story. It is about the relationship between two people and how their relationship changes their life and their life changes their relationship. As such it reminded me of something which I think is far too little explored in the academic literature about careers. For a great many people career decisions are not made alone, but in the context of family relationships, particularly those that people make with a partner or spouse.

There is a lot of literature that treats career as if it is an individual activity. The term ‘self-actualisation’, often held up as the apotheosis of career, learning and life, is a perfect example of this. We should strive to be the best that we can be, to achieve the most that we can achieve and so on. In opposition to this some of us have tried to argue that this is not the best way to view career at all. Career is about the coming together of the self and the environment, it is about the relationship between the individual and the social structures. Consequently we have tried to bring family, community, colleagues, friends, society and politics into the frame.

However the micro-context of a relationship is also critical to how people’s careers unfold. We talk to our partners about our dreams, we advise them and as in La La Land we react to what they want and try to please them or otherwise. Conversely our career provides a context for our relationship placing strains on it at times and at other points elevating our mood and allowing us the space to commit to the relationship. All of this needs to be understood much more clearly.

In many cases the process of career decision making itself is a joint process rather than an individual one. Shall we move? If you take this job who will pick up the kids? How will we clean the house if we both work 12 hours a day? All of these questions are part of career decision making and for couples and families they are questions that we solve together rather than alone. In many cases there is a pattern in the way that we resolve these dual career decisions. Women get to focus on the home, while men get to focus on the workplace. In many cases this may not be ideal for either, but in a capitalist economy it is particularly likely to disadvantage women by concentrating capital in the hands of men.

Increasing an understanding of dual careers is about understanding how love shapes our working life. But it is also about understanding power and patriarchy and about thinking through the subtle personal and inter-personal decisions through which such power operates. A better understanding of dual careers might ask us to think about how we talk to people about their careers and relationships and how we might bring these two conversations together.

In the meantime I heartily recommend La La Land and promise that it will transport you from your troubles for a little while.