Tuesday, 27 March 2012

On the right track

Shauni O'Neill, station master
As the woman tube driver on the Northern Line announced the other morning, in a clear and cheerful voice, that she was waiting for signals to change before moving on, I was reminded of smiling face of Shauni O'Neill on the front cover of the latest City and Guilds magazine Broadsheet. At the age of 15, with a clutch of GCSEs at A and B grade, she beat 7,000 applicants to become one of the 15 apprentices taken on by Transport for London (TfL). She studied signalling, controlling, train driving amongst other things,  undertaking 100 City and Guild study units and becoming National Apprentice of the Year in 2011. 

Shauni describes how passengers and staff alike laughed at her first station announcements as a trainee, because she sounded so happy. “You’re not really meant to sound that happy when you’re telling people about delays on the Metropolitan Line.” Now she is the station manager at Chalfont and Latimer underground station at the age of 18, earning a good salary and with ambitions to reach the top in TfL. As Shauni points out, if she had taken the university route, she would have begun accumulating debt rather than earning a good salary and well on the way on her chosen career path.

At last there seems to be a shift away from the absurd New Labour dream of seeing 50 per cent of the population going to university. Quite apart from the sheer cost, the dubious nature of the some of the degree courses and the high dropout rate, it is increasingly recognised that there are other routes to building a successful working life and career. This is particularly so in the world of construction and engineering, powerfully brought home earlier this month at the Big Bang Science andEngineering Fair at the NEC Birmingham.
Thumbs up for the Big Bang Fair
As a  non-executive director of EngineeringUK, which dreamt up the idea of the Big Bang Fair in 2008, I found this year's fair even more exhilarating, entertaining and inspirational than ever.  Touring the exhibition with the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, we met a number of young people who were making  informed decisions about the right track to take. A couple of Year 13 students, demonstrating their innovative robotic device, talked enthusiastically about their plans. One is aiming to take a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Southampton University, the other is delighted to be taking up an apprenticeship with a diesel engine company in Gloucestershire. 

Making the right decision is more important than taking the one that is perceived to be the 'better' decision. The Big Bang Fair is the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK. Everything is aimed at showing just how many exciting and rewarding opportunities there are out there for them with the right experience and qualifications. With over three days of wall-to-wall science and engineering shows, activities and workshops, the Fair attracted 56,000 visitors, including young people and very importantly their parents and teachers. 

Shauni O'Neill recounts how her teachers told her she was too intelligent to do an apprenticeship - "but now they've seen that I've done well and it's a viable option, I've been invited back to school to talk about it."

 Captivating:  flying penguins at the record breaking Big Bang Fair 2012

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A tale of two plumbers

A feature  appeared the other week in Stella, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, about five women working happily in non-traditional jobs. Annabel Smith, Britain’s only female beer inspector, Diane McMurray, who drives refuse trucks for Bolton Council and Shelley Morgan, a fire-fighter with the London Fire Brigade all talk enthusiastically about their work and how they deal with the surprised looks. But the two of particular interest to constructive women are Rosa Garrigos and Zoe Watson.

Rosa, a 37 year old with two children, became a scaffolder after getting to know about the job when working in a building site canteen. She got a job on the Olympic Village site as a trainee, where she knew a lot of the men working there and where there were lots of women working too – but no other female scaffolders. “So when I’d put my helmet and harness on I would watch the guys’ jaws literally drop. I was something of a novelty,” she says.

Zoe Watson, 25, is a plumbing and heating engineer in Surrey, who took a college course after helping a friend with his plumbing business. She too was seen as something of a novelty by the men on the course, who were friendly but seemed rather immature to Zoe. “I was there to learn," she says, “and I didn’t want distractions.”
Zoe Watson receiving her apprenticeship certificate.  

She obtained an apprenticeship which gave her four days work and one day at college each week. When Zoe was made redundant during her apprenticeship, her mum wrote to the plumbing company that looks after the estate where they live and Zoe was given a job and able to complete her training. Confident in her capabilities, she admits that sometimes the older male residents on the estate sneer when she turns up to service their boilers, “banging on about girls stealing all the mean’s jobs. I just laugh it off and ask them when was the last time they were even in work.”

Zoe’s story is in stark contrast to the recent tale of Sheona Keith, the female plumber from Exeter in Devon who admitted causing actual bodily harm to a stranger in a bar (injuring him in the face with a glass) because she felt he was looking at her in a 'suggestive' way. The judge spared her the customary jail sentence because he accepted the defence that she had been subjected to intolerable sexual harassment at work for months, which apparently had resulted in her losing her job on the day of the attack after complaining to her boss.
Sheona Keith at work in April 2011. 

This is a worrying case, as there appeared to be no opportunity for her employers, outsourcing company Mitie, to respond to these allegations. There is also some confusion in the reporting as to whether she left her job or was made redundant. Moreover just a few months earlier the magazine Devon Life featured an interview with Sheona in which she described how happy she was with her career choice. She said, “I chose plumbing because it opens so many doors, and doing my apprenticeship with Mitie has been amazing. I have learnt so much. Every day I am challenging myself and go home exhausted but happy."

Just three weeks before the case went to court in January this year, the Chief Executive of Mitie, Ruby MacGregor-Smith was awarded the CBE in the New Year’s Honours List, for services to business and diversity in business. Mitie was voted one of the Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2011. Ruby is one of a small number of women holding the position of Chief Executive in the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 and is the first Asian woman to be appointed in such a role within that group of companies.  I have shared a platform with Ruby, and can vouch for her practical and unassuming commitment to supporting women in the workplace.
Ruby MacGregor-Smith, CEO of Mitie                
Let us hope that the allegations of Sheona’s treatment and redundancy have been thoroughly investigated and any issues resolved. Let us also hope that this case does not encourage those who feel they are suffering discrimination and harassment at work to take out their frustration on innocent bystanders rather than taking their grievances to a tribunal.

Photographs: NESCOT, This is Devon, Coutts