Female apprentices in Cork urge more women to consider career route

Just 5.2% of apprentices in Ireland are women, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE, who talks to women whose Cork apprenticeships led to a career path in a male-dominated profession
Female apprentices in Cork urge more women to consider career route

Alice Handke

NOT everyone is suited to what has become the standard educational trajectory of secondary school, Leaving Cert and third level education.

For kinaesthetic learners, who learn through doing, an apprenticeship can be a far better approach, especially in highly skilled trades.

But many women and girls still don’t consider this route to a career: why not? Just 5.2% of apprentices in Ireland are female.

Solas, the State’s further education and training agency, recently registered its 1,000th female apprentice. While this is a huge increase on the 26 women who had registered for an apprenticeship in 2015, it’s clear that the apprenticeship path is one a lot of young women are not considering.

Maybe this is because the perception is that apprenticeships are only in trades like plumbing and electrical, 27-year-old Julie Harty believes.

“You wouldn’t believe how many apprenticeships there are out there, and in so many different things,” says Julie, herself two and a half years into an Electrical Instrumentation apprenticeship in Kinsale.

“People might think they’re all in construction, but there are so many apprenticeships in things like accounting too. Girls especially need to look into it a lot more.

Julie Harty.
Julie Harty.

“I feel like a lot of girls wouldn’t even think of it as an option, but they’d be well able for it.

“I’d tell anyone that if they have an interest they should go for it and talk to a few companies.”

Julie’s spot on about the range of apprenticeships now available, in everything from Electrical and Finance to BioPharma, Accounting and Property Services.

For Julie herself, though, it’s definitely the path less travelled: while she’s not the only female in her class of 14, when she’s on site doing her practical work, she’s the only female electrician there.

“There’s the shock of seeing a girl on site, but they’re all used to it now,” she says.

“You get a bit of a slagging, but it’s all humour and I’d be slagging people too.

“All the lads are great craic and they’re all very good for helping out when you’re stuck with something.”

An apprenticeship is split between practical learning under the eye of an employer, combined with classroom-based theory, divided into “phases.”

Julie’s employer is O’Shea Electrical and she works in Eli Lilly in Kinsale, calibrating machinery. Her theory phases are currently in Limerick ETB.

At 27, Julie is older than many apprentices, who may be between 16 and 18. Born in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, as a girl she always had a keen interest in construction, even moving schools from on all-girls school to a co-ed at 15 so she could take woodwork and metalwork for her Leaving Cert.

Opting to study Civil Engineering at CIT following school, Julie found the course did not suit her. She completed her first year and then took a series of jobs that did not pique her interest, before researching apprenticeships and opting for her current path.

“I didn’t actually think I’d like the job half as much as I do,” she says.

“I’ve always been interested in architecture and stuff, and this is connected.”

After she completes her apprenticeship, Julie would like to travel to Australia to work for a couple of years.

THE ONLY GIRL

Alice Handke, from Conna in North Cork, is another young woman who chose an apprenticeship in a traditionally extremely male-dominated area: Alice is a motor mechanic with Blackwater Motors, who graduated from her apprenticeship in 2018.

“When I went through my phases, I was the only girl in any of them,” Alice says.

Alice Handke.
Alice Handke.

“When we had our graduation ceremony in 2018, and this was across all trades, so plumbers and electricians and things too, I was the only girl there.

“Whatever about being the only female mechanic, I found it a bit strange that across all the trades I was the only girl.”

Alice worked in a veterinary clinic following school, and began her apprenticeship at 21. She says her interest in cars and motors only really kicked in when she started driving and watching motorsports.

“I suppose I had an interest in cars and I said to myself, ‘why pay someone else to fix it when I can learn myself?’ So I decided to take up the apprenticeship.”

PHYSICALLY DEMANDING

Having continued to work in Blackwater Motors following her graduation, Alice says the job is physically tough, which may be off-putting to some girls, and which may in turn account for why it’s still such a male-dominated job, rather than due to any actual barrier to entry.

“It’s very physically demanding. It’s very tough, very hard work, you’re always dirty, but if you’re into it, you’re into it.”

Alice Handke.
Alice Handke.

Alice says she has never experienced sexism in her job.

“With the lads I work with, there’s never once been any kind of comment or sexism about whether or not I can do the job,” she says. 

“I think a lot of people try to say it’s a disadvantage to be female in such a male- dominated job, but I can say that’s not true. 

"I have found it very inclusive even though it is male-dominated. The reason it’s male-dominated is more to do with the type of work it is, in my opinion, rather than it not being accessible for women to do it.”

COMMITMENT NEEDED

There are downsides to signing up for an apprenticeship, and Alice says the process requires a commitment and careful consideration.

“You definitely need to think long and hard about if it’s right for you, because it’s a four-year process,” she says.

“And starting out, the money isn’t fantastic. You need to realise that it will be a gradual increase in wages over the years.”

Alice got €179 per week in her first year: “That’s low, for a full working week.”

But when it comes to career satisfaction, Alice says she’s got it in spades, and she’s delighted she took the apprenticeship route.

“I enjoy what I do, and I don’t think there’s any point in doing a job unless you can say that,” she says.

“It’s not a burden for me to come into work every day, and you can’t say better than that.”

Accounting Technicians Ireland Apprentice Zoe Fitzgerald, who recently become the 1000th female apprentice registered with SOLAS. Picture: John Kelly.
Accounting Technicians Ireland Apprentice Zoe Fitzgerald, who recently become the 1000th female apprentice registered with SOLAS. Picture: John Kelly.

IRELAND’S 1000th FEMALE APPRENTICE

Zoe Fitzgerald, aged 23, from Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, was recently named as Solas’ 1,000th registered woman apprentice.

Zoe, a first-year Accounting Technicians Ireland apprentice, works with Cork City Council and studies through Cork College of Commerce.

The Accounting Technicians Ireland Apprenticeship alone has 192 women on its books, accounting for 20% of all female apprentices — the top choice for women when it comes to apprenticeships.

“The apprenticeship option needs to be promoted more widely amongst Leaving Certificate students,” said Zoe.

“More girls and women should consider it as a way to progress their studies and careers.”

Zoe sat her Leaving Certificate in 2015 and went on to study for a degree in Science Education at UCC, but realised it wasn’t for her.

She said when at school an apprenticeship wasn’t really presented to her as an option, the focus was very much on going straight to college. It was only when her younger brother was doing his Leaving Cert and considering an apprenticeship, that she began looking into it as an option for herself too.

“My brother and his friends were more aware of apprenticeship options than I was, perhaps because they attended an all-boys’ school. I went to an all-girls’ school and did not know of anyone going on to an apprenticeship. When my brother began his programme, I started to further research apprenticeships for myself. I really enjoyed accounting and business subjects at school, so when I saw the Accounting Technicians Apprenticeship, it appealed very much and seemed like a great fit.”

A full programme of apprenticeships can be found on www.apprenticeship.ie

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