STARTING out as the only female plumbing apprentice in a cohort of 70 brought its own challenges, admits Nicola Murray.
“No ladies’ toilets on site, that was a big deal,” she says with a smile. “It never crossed anyone’s mind to have one, because it was so male-dominated.
“It was the mid-90s and things have changed – there are more women in the industry, but they’re still incredibly underrepresented.”
Ms Murray, the new Head of Construction Studies at South Lanarkshire College, did not originally plan to be a plumber.
“I wanted to be a firefighter, but everyone said: do a good job first,” she explains. “I decided to do plumbing because that’s what made me the most money, that’s the honest reason.”
She jokes: “No story to tell of a father or grandfather, who taught me the ropes as a child – I did it purely for financial gain.
“I applied for an apprenticeship with Glasgow City Council as they were recruiting for 70 positions and I was fascinated by that – surely I would get one? I did, and it was a fantastic experience.
“It never occurred to me that as a woman there would be a downside – it never occurred to me, not when I was considering the fire department or the plumbing. had challenges, of course, but I loved the experience.
A recent CITB report revealed that currently women make up only 14% of the workforce in the construction sector, and workers from ethnic minorities only 6%.
“To solve this problem, it’s not just about changing the culture, it’s about making the opportunities much more visible and accessible,” says Ms. Murray.
“To encourage more women, we need to change the language we use around women in the industry. We should reiterate the opportunities that exist, further down the line. For example, you can enter an access level and progress in other fields, including HNCs in construction management or quantity surveying.
“I didn’t know that at school.”
Education, from the earliest years, is essential, she stresses.
Education, from the earliest years, is essential, she stresses. “Scottish Water, for example, has done a great job for nurseries by providing material on the website that staff can use to teach children, talk to preschoolers about the water cycle,” adds Ms. Murray.
“Getting kids this young interested in the subject is perfect because it gives them access to the language of the industry.
She adds, exasperated: “I mean, there are still signs that say ‘men at work’, which is ridiculous. And Bob the Builder? Bob builds while Wendy makes tea. It paints a picture in children’s heads that is hard to change.
She pauses. “Of course there’s a place for Bob the Builder, but Wendy needs her own spin-off series,” she smiles. “We just need to change the narrative.”
After completing her apprenticeship, Ms Murray worked on plumbing and gas maintenance contracts in Glasgow for several years before a switch to training ignited her ‘passion for teaching’.
“The Queenslie Training Center in Glasgow is where my teaching career started,” she says. “It was a great stepping stone. Teaching is a passion for me – after that I became a lecturer at Cardonald College, now part of Glasgow Clyde, and worked my way up.
“Joining South Lanarkshire College has been absolutely fantastic – I have been made incredibly welcome and look forward to being part of the great team here.
“As Program Manager, it is my job to help provide the best teaching and learning possible, working with the training and mentoring teams, recruiting and supporting students, ensuring that they are ‘future proofed’ – that they are motivated and have the skills to adapt and keep their jobs when the industry changes.
She adds: “This industry is changing all the time – new materials and technologies are emerging, and the College is leading the way in the preparation of PAS 2035, the new specifications for retrofitting housing for better energy efficiency.
“We also focus on retraining and upskilling people to access jobs in the growing insulation industry, as well as in renewable energy and the green economy. Helping plasterers learn new techniques for insulating exterior walls, for example, or helping plumbers learn how to install heat pumps – these opportunities were less available two years ago.
There is considerable optimism within the construction industry, post-Covid, Ms Murray adds.
“It could have gone either way, but it was very positive,” she explains. “There are a lot of things to put in my mouth. I think sharing my own journey with students can also help – I’ve been where they are and understand the challenges.
“And yes, things may have improved since I started, but the low number of women in the industry remains the same. That has to change, and I’m going to hit that particular drum as I move forward in my new role.
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