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JTL’s Apprentice of the Year reflects on a career as a woman in the trades

M Robinson holding a trophy with her partner

With International Women’s Day just around the corner (8th March), JTL caught up with its former National Apprentice of the Year for 2022, Michelle Robinson, to shed some light on her experiences as a woman in the industry.

When Michelle Robinson first left school, she flicked through a college prospectus and came across the page for electricians, and she lit up. Electricity had always interested her, but before she could recognise the opportunity, thoughts began to cloud her head, ‘you don’t hear of female electricians’ she thinks, ‘maybe it’s really physical and I won’t be able to do it.’ Michelle turns a page, flicking through the rest of the booklet.

Despite a gradual upturn, under 5% of skilled trade professionals in the UK construction sector are currently female, so for Michelle there would have been scarcely anywhere to look for inspiration. It was only at 32 years old, after reading a letter from her late mother, that Michelle finally left her office job to take the apprenticeship she had first laid eyes on.

Michelle elaborated on this: “She wrote all of her children letters, and one of the main things she said in mine was ‘strive to be happy.’ My stepdad told me that she’d always known I needed some big changes in my life. She didn’t know what those changes were, but for me that was my lightbulb moment.”

Michelle began her electrical apprenticeship with training provider JTL and her employer Electract in 2017. Such a career shift is more common nowadays, with 2021-2022 recording the highest number of 25–34-year-olds moving into apprenticeships ever. It comes as part of a very recent uptake of apprenticeships in the construction sector, one that has noted improvements in a variety of demographics – but not women.

A pervasive factor behind this is women not being made aware that the apprenticeship route is available to them. In a 2017 poll by the Young Women’s Trust, it was found that 1 in 6 women did not take on apprenticeships because they did not feel they were for their gender.

Michelle remarked: “Just because it’s not the norm doesn’t mean it’s not right.”

During Michelle’s apprenticeship, she gave birth to her baby boy, lived through a pandemic, became furloughed, and got married. She recalls an evening when her son became ill whilst she had a big exam the next day – then, the power cut out.

“You just think, this is a joke. I was literally under a torch revising, but you just carry on, don’t you? You stay committed and remember that the end is in sight.”

But there was more than just the end in sight for Michelle, as despite every obstacle, she achieved an outstanding distinction and even had her name put forwards for JTL’s Apprentice of the Year award.

Attending the ceremony, Michelle was eligible for two awards, Electrical Apprentice of the Year and National Apprentice. She wasn’t aware she could not win one and still win the other, so she’d all but given up when her name wasn’t announced for the electrical category.

“Then I started hearing them describe the winner of apprentice of the year, and I thought, that sounds familiar. I heard them say she, and my stomach flipped over. I was gobsmacked. To be recognised and honoured for all the hard work, it was a great day.”

Over 1 in 15 of the estimated 2,000 women currently undertaking construction apprenticeships in the UK are doing so with JTL. Bucking industry trends, JTL works with apprenticeships in the male-dominated building services engineering sector yet employs a staff made up of over one third women.

As an institution working with the formative stages of young people’s careers, JTL believes that training providers have a duty to inspire women at these starting gates. Shining a light on Michelle’s story is one of the ways it seeks to do this, with the hope that it may stop someone from turning the page on their dream career as Michelle once did.

Michelle, now a full-time member of Electract’s Inspection and Testing team, responds proudly when called an inspiration: “I think it’s a great thing. Why wouldn’t you want to inspire somebody else?”

If you want to find out more about our apprenticeship courses, click here: https://jtltraining.com/apprenticeships/courses/

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