The latest analysis on Women in Apprenticeships: Supporting women into work and diversifying the workplace

2019 has already seen the publication of two important reports:  the excellent State of the Nation report from Chwarae Teg and a report on the future direction of apprenticeship policy from colleagues at NTfW.

To bring these two themes together we’ve taken a look at the latest headline data to see how apprenticeships are supporting women into work and helping to diversify our workplaces.

The good news is that in terms of raw numbers, women are benefitting disproportionately from the Welsh Government’s apprenticeship programme.  In 2017/18 (the last full year for when data is available) women accounted for 61% of all apprenticeship starts, broadly consistent with previous years.

Women apprentices are also more likely than male counterparts to be undertaking an apprenticeship at Level 3 or higher.  For 2016/17 63% of all apprenticeships undertaken by women were at these levels, while for men it was just over half at 52%.

Gender segregation

The less good news is that despite accounting for six out of ten starts, progress towards diversifying the sectors women are entering has been painfully slow.  The distribution of women apprenticeships across the different sectors reflects the status quo rather than challenges it.

Our analysis shows that the broad direction of travel has not changed over the last six  years.  Women apprentices remain concentrated in ‘traditional and often low paid sectors.  Over that period, progress can be measured in tiny steps rather than giant leaps.

Take the proportion of women in what could be described as the ‘non-traditional’ sectors of construction, engineering and manufacturing.  Welsh Government data shows that as a proportion of all women apprenticeships in 2012/13, just 1.6% were in these sectors and that this had risen to only 2.4% in 2017/18.

In raw numbers, this was an increase of just 175 (from 275 to 450 total starts).    In total, in 2017/18 women accounted for just 8% of all starts in engineering, construction and manufacturing.

Contrast this with what can be seen as the ‘traditional’ sectors of Business Administration, Health & Beauty, and Healthcare & Public Services.  In 2017/18 they accounted for 69% of all women apprenticeship starts.  In fact, half of all women apprenticeships were in the Healthcare and Public Sector group.

Progress is nowhere near fast enough and as a country we should be demanding more.

This isn’t an issue relevant only with apprenticeships.  It reflects a wider pattern of gender distribution across the labour market.  In this sense, apprenticeships are reflecting that pattern of distribution and reproducing existing gender-based differences.

This is, of course, about broader challenges in the Welsh labour market and questions of how we run our economy. Part of the answer lies in giving role models for young women and providing specialist advice and guidance to encourage and to support women to apply (and, as our research shows, to persevere) with applications in different sectors.  Practically there is more we can do to support women, as suggested here by the Young Women’s Trust.

However, should we also be expecting far more from employers and training providers who are, after all, in receipt of significant public support through the apprenticeship programme.  Targets can be a blunt instrument but when linked to funding they will drive behaviour and, when allied to other interventions and initiatives, they may be the only way of forcing the kind of change that we need to see.

At the next election in 2021 there will likely be more pledges on apprenticeships.  As well as the headline pledge to build on the likely successful delivery of the 100,000 all age commitment made in 2016, parties should be expected to publish their targets for inclusion and access across a range of areas, including gender.  It will be a test against which we can all measure the commitment to delivering a feminist government.