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Modern Apprenticeships (Women)

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2007

I am grateful to have the chance to raise this important subject, which is vital not only to the lives of women and their children but to the functioning of the wider economy. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) will be responding—we share a county in common so I am pleased to see him.

The subject of the debate is a YWCA campaign to ensure that young women get more equal opportunities in their working lives. The campaign also aims to ensure that they have the chance to work in a wide range of different jobs, trades, and professions, to better their own position, and to increase their earning potential. I strongly believe that this issue is also about improving the workings of our economy. I do not believe that we can have an efficient economy unless all members of the community are able to play a full role in it. We must tackle disadvantage among the poorest families and children. Many of the young women associated with this issue quickly become parents and their ability to provide for their families will in large part depend on their ability to get a well-paid job. If, either directly or indirectly, half the population are excluded from certain categories of work purely by virtue of their gender, it is unjust and economically inefficient.

The YWCA’s “More than one rung” campaign has brought together some powerful advocates for improving modern apprenticeships, including people from different industrial sectors, the world of training, the educational sector and from inside government. The campaigners want five key changes. They want a duty to be put on local authorities and key local players better to assess and meet the skills, training and apprenticeship needs of disadvantaged young women, and to dramatically increase and sustain their skills and achievements. They also want women to have access to better-paid jobs at the end of the scheme and for businesses to replicate models of good practice that recruit and employ more disadvantaged young women. Seven out of 10 employers agree that recruiting more young people of the non-traditional sex would help to solve skills shortages.

The campaigners also want governments and employers to improve disadvantaged young women’s access to skills and apprenticeship training, which means improving planning to increase the number of disadvantaged young women who take part in better-paid apprenticeships and skills training with better-paid jobs at the end. As part of that, the campaigners want the ministerial apprenticeships steering group to conduct an inquiry into the gender pay gap in apprenticeships—I will provide some quite dramatic figures on that later—the impact of low pay on disadvantaged young women’s entry and retention in apprenticeships, and sector segregation by class and gender. I add ethnic origin to that, as there is clear evidence of differential access to apprenticeships by ethnicity.

The YWCA wants children’s trusts to ensure that all disadvantaged young women have support from an inspirational adult to increase their confidence and broaden their horizons. YWCA research has shown that self-esteem and confidence are as critical as qualifications when making choices about work. The point is not to undervalue women’s work or say that this area of work is less important than another or that it should be less well rewarded. We should also ensure that work and skills in, for example, social care are properly valued and paid. At this point, the focus is on ensuring that young women have a wider range of skills and more choices, so that they can get into areas of work that, so far, have been largely closed to them.

The reasons for the campaign are clear when we consider access to different skills and the differential access of young men and young women to diverse levels of training in various sectors of the economy. Before outlining some of that in detail, it is important to recognise the enormous success of the modern apprenticeship scheme overall and the potential of the scheme for dramatically improving our economic performance. For a long time, people bemoaned the loss of apprenticeships and said how important it was for young people who did not want to pursue an academic path to a career to have access to high-quality training that could lead to a well-paid job and perhaps later to other routes of learning. The modern apprenticeship scheme has provided a lot of those opportunities. At present, there are a quarter of a million apprenticeships in England and Wales and the target is to double that by 2020.

The old apprenticeships were private and often opaque arrangements between the individual and the employer, and sometimes included very poor training and excessively poor pay and working conditions. The modern apprenticeships, however, are Government-sponsored and regulated, and cover a much wider range of skills—over 90 sectors, including some emerging sectors of the modern economy. They constitute one of the unsung success stories of this Government and the economy, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have a lot to say about them later on.

There are some very dramatic differences in access, however, for people from black and other ethnic minority communities who are from a half to a third as likely as their white counterparts to gain an apprenticeship. If we look at the demographic and ethnic and age breakdown of people, the disparities become much more evident. There are clear and dramatic differences in access for young people. I want to concentrate on the latter.

The figures show that, although young women are almost as likely as young men to access apprenticeships overall, they are confined largely to certain sectors of the economy. I shall run through that list. In 2007, the electrical industry had 1,749 standard-level apprenticeships, but no women apprentices, which is surprising, given that women can often be found doing detailed wiring work in factories producing electrical items such as televisions. It is very surprising that the industry does not seem to have been able to attract women on to apprenticeship schemes. The most dramatic differential is in construction, which had 22,755 apprentices, only 1 per cent. of whom were women. Out of 1,988 apprenticeships in the automotive industry, only 1 per cent. were filled by women, and in engineering, 3 per cent. of just over 8,000 apprenticeships were filled by women.

The segregation was equally marked at the other end of the scale. In hairdressing, 92 per cent. of apprentices were women, and out of 8,261 apprenticeships in the early years and education sector, which is an emerging and very important area of work, 97 per cent. were filled by women. In health and social care, 89 per cent. of apprentices were women. The one area with a roughly equal gender balance was hospitality, in which, out of 10,679 apprenticeships, about 49 per cent. were filled by women, which is a bit more even. The pattern was much the same at the more advanced level of apprenticeships: engineering had 2 per cent. women, construction 1 per cent., the automotive industry 1 per cent., the electro-technical industry 1 per cent., health and social care 90 per cent., early-years care and education 98 per cent. and hairdressing 95 per cent.

Those figures feed directly into the pay differentials, which are very marked in apprenticeships. A 2005 survey of 5,500 apprenticeships—monitoring is done locally so the figures had to be collated by local surveys—showed that there was a 26 per cent. weekly gender pay gap, with young women apprentices receiving, on average, £40 a week less than their male counterparts. In hairdressing, which is the lowest-paid and most female-dominated of the industries, the average take-home pay was £90 a week compared with the electrical industry, which of course is 100 per cent. male, and in which take-home pay was £183 a week. Of the one in five apprentices receiving less than £80 a week, over 70 per cent. were young women.

The different access that women have to bonus schemes and overtime is another factor. Young women apprentices were less likely to be paid for overtime and more likely to be in programme-based schemes, which meant that they were less likely to have an employment contract with an employer and, therefore, less likely to have a secure job at the end of their apprenticeship. Will my hon. Friend say a bit more about that as well because it comes down to the different types of apprenticeship scheme? In addition, women were in apprenticeships that were less likely to lead to a higher-level NVQ, which is necessary for access to higher education and professional programmes. I would argue, therefore, that those differentials will have a profound impact on their economic position at the start of their adult lives and on their opportunities to improve their pay and position at work later on.

A key part of the YWCA campaign is focused on the fact that about 1 million women between the ages of 16 and 30 are living in poverty in the UK; the campaign is aimed at ensuring that those women can find a way out. As I said, many of those young women will get into parenthood very quickly and so be less likely to have the kind of skills needed to find work with decent pay and support their children. We know that the Government have done a great deal to lift families with children out of poverty, and I would argue that one of the key ways to continue to do that is to ensure that parents with young children have the skills to find well-paid work when their children are older and they feel ready to go out to work.

At a recent seminar organised by the YWCA, which I chaired, and which was attended by the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, a number of experts in apprenticeships explored some of the reasons for the differentials and ways in which to overcome them. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take up and respond to those points. It was an extremely interesting, well-informed and important discussion, but in some ways it was also depressing because some of the reasons given for the disadvantages faced by young women related to issues that I thought had been resolved years ago—in particular, the lack of confidence of many young women to take on tasks seen as traditionally male.

In the 1980s, which one likes to think of as the heyday of the women’s movement in the Labour party, many of us supported programmes to give women access to non-traditional skills, with local government women’s committees funding manual skills training courses for women and other similar programmes, in order to break down some of the barriers. Some very pioneering women joined those courses and went on to set up their own businesses. It is depressing that those battles have to be refought. I am not sure whether they were never fully won or whether some of us took our eyes off the ball.

Rob Kenyon, from British Gas, who attended the YWCA seminar, said that in order to attract women into apprenticeships his company had had to do some very detailed work, including basic things such as advertising in women’s magazines and actively recruiting in schools. He also said that the key problem was changing young women’s aspirations. Another speaker said that although the gender imbalance was being overcome in school and further and higher education, it remained a problem in apprenticeships.

It seems that there are still very strong stereotypes in the world of work, so women get access to university places and, increasingly, to professional areas of work but, as we know, they do not get so much access to company directorships or some types of skilled, highly-paid work that have traditionally been seen as male.

Although research showed that 80 per cent. of young people were interested in doing work experience in non-traditional areas, only 15 per cent. managed to achieve that. I am sure that many of us have had people on work experience in our offices and know about the issue. At the formative time when young people are thinking about what they want to do, they need to have experience in all areas of work, not just in office work and more traditional skilled work. The aspirations might be there, but current programmes do not deliver on them.

I shall go through some of the barriers identified at the seminar to which I referred. There was a strong emphasis on structural issues and systems, including very important issues such as child care. I have seen a constituent of mine drop out of a women into plumbing course because of inconsistent funding regimes from the European Union, combined with a lack of support for child care. As I have said, many young women looking for apprenticeships are or become mothers. Even if they manage to overcome the stereotypes and get into a non-traditional area, trying to negotiate a break can be very difficult. One can imagine that if someone who works for a construction company wants a break to breastfeed her child, that might be one barrier too far for a young woman to overcome.

Another barrier that was identified related to career training and the need to improve advice provided in schools. Concerns were expressed about careers advice being pushed back into the education system and about the quality of information and training there.

Very basic gender issues were identified. Some employers said that issues such as clothes could be a major barrier for young women who perhaps had not done very well in school and were at the age at which they were very self-conscious about their appearance.

A major barrier that was identified related to confidence, especially to challenge gender stereotyping. People said that challenging gender stereotyping needed to start at a very early age. It should happen not just in secondary school or even primary school, but at the foundation stage of education, when children need to be playing at being Roberta the builder, not just Bob the Builder.

I touched on the lack of access for women into non-traditional skill areas in relation to the efficiency of our economy in a globalised world. As we know, there are acute labour shortages in some sectors of the economy. The most striking example is building, with building costs escalating at above-inflation levels because of high wage inflation due to labour shortages. Building employers in the north of the country complain about higher wage rates there, as they have to compete with labour that is more mobile and can travel down to get the higher wages that have been around for longer in the south-east. We all know about the impact of eastern European labour on the building industry, but we are starting to see in some sectors the impact of that migrant labour leaving the UK.

In many ways, the construction industry has dramatically failed to attract into its ranks either women or people from black and ethnic minority communities. Indeed, the Government have had a programme running to try to encourage the industry to recruit more widely to overcome labour shortages—and to address the challenges of meeting the demand for more housing. The Minister and I both know from our area what is happening to house building and the massive pressures that that is producing for local labour markets and local building costs.

It is perhaps surprising that an industry that faces such labour shortages has not organised itself to recruit properly from more than half the population. If we look at the apprenticeship figures, the failure is very clear. As I said, of 22,755 apprenticeships in the construction industry, only 1 per cent. were filled by women, and of the 5,204 advanced apprenticeships, again only 1 per cent were filled by women.

I point out that, in addition to the general demand for more labour in the construction industry, there is often a particular demand for a woman builder. That applies to building work in all areas. People might want to have a woman builder, plumber, decorator or electrician working in their home for various reasons. That might be their preference because of the skills that the women can bring with them.

What applies to the construction industry will apply to many more industries as we have to compete with emerging economies in the east and elsewhere, which have much larger reserves of labour and are producing very highly skilled work forces. We have to compete, which means ensuring that our women get access to the same skills as do men.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively, in particular to the five requests that the YWCA has made, which I believe are extremely important to ensuring that the modern apprenticeships scheme is effective, that women get access to all skills—it is a social justice issue—and that we have the skilled labour force that we need to meet the challenges ahead. In particular, it is important that we provide opportunities to enable women as mothers and as lone parents to get access to skilled work and provide for their children’s future. That would also deal with the Government’s aim of raising children out of poverty. What the YWCA wants, and has made a very powerful case for, is ensuring that young women do not get trapped on the bottom rung of the employment ladder.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing a very important, albeit short, debate on modern apprenticeships for women. I congratulate her on the work that she has done on the matter in recent years and, in particular, on her work with the YWCA and its “More than one rung” campaign. I know—she referred to this in her speech—that she chaired a roundtable discussion that my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning attended on 6 June. I very much welcome the campaign that the YWCA is running on advice and guidance, low pay, support for women in the labour market and the need to address the inequalities to which my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North referred.

Before dealing with some of my hon. Friend’s specific points, I should like to take a step back and talk about apprenticeships in general, because of the changes that have recently taken place. There are 250,000 apprentices in learning, which is treble the number in 1997, and will increase still further. Lord Leitch’s report on apprenticeships sets out an ambition to offer 400,000 apprenticeships in England every year. We would like, by 2013, to introduce an entitlement so that wherever they are, young people who are suitably qualified can take up an apprenticeship as one of their choices at the age of 16.

I am pleased to say that as well as the growth in apprenticeships generally, there has been an improvement in completion rates, which have risen from about 24 per cent. only five years ago to nearly 60 per cent. today, which says a lot both about the quality of the training provision on offer and about the motivation and commitment of the young people taking up the apprenticeships. We are creating greater flexibility of apprenticeship opportunities and more diversity in the apprenticeships that young people can study than ever before. We are trying, too, to improve the information that young people receive when they make their choices, so that they have more choices and are more informed. That applies not least to the issue of pay, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Let me take the opportunity to put on the record the fact that it is not possible to complete an apprenticeship without setting foot in the workplace. Someone who starts one of the programme-led pathways or apprenticeships that my hon. Friend mentioned cannot complete it unless they have had an opportunity to go into the workplace. My hon. Friend asked whether a disproportionate number of young women were starting programme-led pathways—that is, making a college start, rather than an employment-based start to their apprenticeships. Such apprenticeships represent only 10 per cent. of the total number of apprenticeships, but there is a bit of a Catch-22. We do not have a gender breakdown of the figures to show whether what my hon. Friend says is correct, but the college route might ensure that more women take up opportunities in what are perhaps non-stereotyped traditions and overcome some of her concerns about employers taking on young people along traditional lines to fill male and female roles. That is a bit of a Catch-22. On the one hand, my hon. Friend says that she is anxious that women are over-represented in programme-led apprenticeships, but on the other hand, such apprenticeships might be a way of starting many young women on apprenticeships that they might not otherwise have undertaken. In addition, those young women have all the support that a college can offer them, including child care and other opportunities. There is therefore a balance to be struck.

In general, there is something of a renaissance in the world of apprenticeships, and the critical question is whether we can ensure that young women benefit in the way that the YWCA wants them to. I am delighted to say that I will hand out the awards at the annual apprenticeship awards evening at the Hilton tomorrow night. That will be a great evening not only for me and all the apprentices but for those who take on apprentices. That includes young women who start apprenticeships in engineering, manufacturing, construction and the motor industry. My hon. Friend is right that this is not just about a young person having the self-confidence to take on an apprenticeship in a traditionally male industry—if I can put it that way—but about the employer. Some excellent people take on apprentices and generously impart their skills to them. My hon. Friend mentioned adults in the work force offering mentoring and support, and she said that having an “inspirational” adult was a critical success factor. We need many more such role models for young women who go into apprenticeships.

Let me turn specifically to some of the questions that my hon. Friend raised about equality and diversity. The figures for apprenticeships are about 50:50. Our figures show that 47 per cent. of apprentices are female and 53 per cent. are male, and that has not changed much. The number of apprenticeships is growing, so the number of young women taking on apprenticeships has grown too, and more apprenticeships are being offered in non-traditional sectors. I am also pleased to say that there is also equality in completion rates, which I mentioned earlier. In other words, young women and men in all sectors are completing their apprenticeships successfully in equal numbers, which is good news.

My hon. Friend spelled out in detail the male-female imbalances in different industries, and we need not only to get young women into some of the traditionally male occupations, but to get young men into some of the traditionally female occupations. Some young women, however, may choose a traditionally female occupation, such as beauty therapy, and that is a skill for which there is a market out there. We want young women to take up opportunities and apprenticeships in such fields, and I want those young women to succeed and to be the best. In other words, although the occupations that young women may take up are stereotypically female, they are none the less a pathway to a career.

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the WorldSkills championships—the equivalent of the Olympics in the world of skills—are held every two years, as she will know. In 2003, our apprentice beauty therapist competed against young women apprentices from 50 countries and achieved a gold medal to become the very best in the world. I was in Helsinki for the 2005 championships, as was my predecessor as Skills Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has just walked into the room. As he and I know—I am sorry to drag him into the debate, and I had not intended to do so, but he has just walked into the Chamber—we won a second medal—a silver—at those championships. We are both keen to deal with the issues before us, to celebrate such successes and to counter some of the stereotypes that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North mentioned.

Let me now address some of the specific issues. We have had two reports—one from the Equal Opportunities Commission and one from the women and work commission—which make strong recommendations about what we need to do to make progress and tackle the issue. Those reports suggest using equality-proofing and marketing activity to attract apprentices from a wide range of backgrounds, and to tackle not only gender stereotyping, but race and disability issues. We want to work with the sector’s representative bodies—employment bodies and the sector skills councils—to ensure that there is flexible delivery, to support under-represented trainees who want to go into industry and to consider under-represented learners’ needs, including child care, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I must say, however, that we have a long way to go, as the statistics that she set out suggest. In response, therefore, we have established an apprenticeship, equality and diversity action group, which includes representatives from equality bodies, employer representatives—my hon. Friend mentioned one whom she had met recently—and officials from the Department.

The key strands of activity that will have to be undertaken to overcome the barriers that my hon. Friend described include the use of communications and marketing to increase employment places and to tackle stereotypes. They also include the publication of a 14-to-19 prospectus, so that young people can see the variety of activity that is on offer. If we are to motivate young people to choose alternatives, it is important that we get information about pay across to them in the way that my hon. Friend described so that they can see that choosing one sector over another means that they are more likely to earn higher wages. My understanding is that although there may be pay differentials between sectors, there are no gender pay differentials within sectors, so we must increasingly tell young people, particularly young women, that they will make more money if they go into construction and engineering rather than other sectors, and that information needs to be available when they are 14, 15 and 16.

We have asked the sector skills councils to set targets to increase diversity. We have recruited champions to act as role models and to tell businesses that we can do things differently. We want to share good practice between employers and business associations to show them what they can do to overcome some of the barriers. We are working, too, with groups below the age of 16. Indeed, my hon. Friend said that we should go right back to two and three-year-olds, and she is absolutely right. An investigation that we commissioned from the Institute for Employment Studies came up with a number of recommendations regarding 14-to-16 apprenticeships—the young apprenticeships. Giving male and female learners opportunities to undertake non-stereotypical tasters from the age of 14 is an important way of overcoming some of the attitudes that exist among young people and in the institutions that they attend. In that way, they can gain better information and advice and make better choices, and we can emphasise the need to avoid gender stereotyping in the information and advice that young people are given. I am pleased to say that Jaguar cars, for example, has just taken 11 women aged between 14 and 16 on its programme to give them a first-hand taste of what it means to work in the motor industry, and we want such initiatives to be replicated around the country.

I am running out of time and I regret that I cannot cover everything that I wanted to. However, on pay, my hon. Friend is right. We carried out a pay survey in 2005 and we are doing another this year. It will be published later in the year, and I hope that it will provide the information to spur on the ministerial group that my hon. Friend mentioned, and which I chair, to carry on looking hard at how pay patterns reflect wider labour market conditions, and to get that information out to young people, so that they can make better informed choices. I have not, in the time available, been able to cover all the issues that I wanted to; there are many more, and we could continue the debate outside the Chamber.