Alice in pole position in 'man's world'

One of Labour's big dreams is to have armies of teenagers going to university. But it's not right for everyone. Steven Russell meets a young woman who has enjoyed taking a different route .

Steven Russell

One of Labour's big dreams is to have armies of teenagers going to university. But it's not right for everyone. Steven Russell meets a young woman who has enjoyed taking a different route . . . one traditionally considered to be a man's world

WHEN some friends and relatives reacted with amazement to Alice Ryan's idea of becoming an engineering apprentice, out in all weathers and scaling 30ft phone-line poles, it served only to spur her on and confound the stereotyping. After all, she reasoned, if a woman can carry a baby for nine months - as her older sister had done - why shouldn't she haul a ladder a few metres? (“When I weigh them up, I've got the better deal!” she laughs.) So she joined Openreach (the arm of the BT Group that services and maintains the wiring, fibres and connections linking homes and businesses to communications providers' networks - keeping phone and broadband services running) and took delivery of her own van and tools. As well as studying in the classroom, she's spent time out on the road with experienced engineers, learning how it's done. While they never raise an eyebrow about a female colleague in a fluorescent vest and hard hat, traditional attitudes die hard among some sections of the population, she found.

“A lot of older people think it's funny that I climb poles. Once I had a street come out to watch me! That was down Felixstowe way - about five or six people came out of their houses and you could see other curtains twitching as I climbed up.

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“I've never had any bad comments, though; just that some people are quite surprised.

“When I was shadowing with a 'buddy', and he was driving, I'd often call up the customer to say 'We're on our way.' They'd sometimes talk to me like I was in a call centre - 'When is the engineer coming?' - and I'd say 'We'll be there in a few minutes.' 'Well tell him to hurry up . . .' When we turned up, you could see they were a bit embarrassed!”

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Alice, 21 and from Ipswich, has become something of a poster-girl for apprenticeships in general, Openreach in particular, and for the involvement of women in fields where they're under-represented.

In her first year she kept a diary and was involved in a Kelly Osbourne Radio 1 documentary-style show that compared the lives of three young people who had taken different turnings on the road of life: an apprentice, someone who had gone into a job, and a university student.

Then there was a big Learning and Skills Council conference in London, attended by lots of big-wigs from top all-girls schools - “which was a bit daunting. I hate public speaking!”

Alice explained how she became an apprentice and said she thought some teachers weren't always adequately clued up to give the best careers advice. “Oooh, they didn't like that!”

But there was an excellent discussion about the options open to school-leavers. Alice says many teachers approached her afterwards, as parents, to talk about sons dropping out of university, for instance, and to ask more questions about apprenticeships. “So I won a few rounds! I just said 'It's horses for courses, and there's not just one route for everybody.'”

Last year she was named Regional Advanced Apprentice of the Year in a contest organised by the Learning and Skills Council. Judges said she'd become an ambassador for apprenticeships by promoting them at national level.

So, how did she get to where she is?

Alice was born and bred in Ipswich. She took A-levels in English literature, history, philosophy and psychology - nothing science-based or engineering-related there - and had no idea what she wanted to do afterwards.

Teachers and careers staff were steering her towards university, mum Vicky had built up savings to help her daughter should she go off to study for a degree, but Alice herself wasn't convinced. Without a burning ambition or a firm direction she was loathe to risk getting in debt, or waste mum's money, if she wasn't sure she was on the right path.

She tried and failed to land a job in retail as a kind of DIY gap year/breathing space - “'Oh come on!' I thought. 'I only want to hang clothes and have a discount!' - and finally got a job in an Ipswich bakery outlet.

The passage of time didn't see Alice warming to the idea of university - still not buying the default notion that any young person with half-decent grades should automatically be off to academe. She knew of folk struggling at university, while seeing debts mount. “A lot of them weren't even very academic, if I'm honest.” Again, it comes back to realising there's more than a single option and choosing what's right for you.

Someone she knows has been studying Beckhamology, apparently - as in David Beckham. “I've also heard of a friend of a friend who got a degree in architecture, one of the hardest, and he now runs a pet shop. I'm listening to all these stories, and sitting there at the bakery, thinking 'I still don't think this is right for me.' I thought I could always change my mind, if I had an epiphany, but I never did.”

Friends in various jobs seemed to be treading water, it seemed. To Alice, it appeared that folk in apprenticeships were making the most progress. “My boyfriend was learning to be an electrician and he was earning quite good money. I thought that sounded good, though I couldn't do electrical work.”

Being made redundant from the bakery was a jolt, and to an extent forced the issue. Her step-dad worked for BT and in passing mentioned apprenticeships. Alice did some research, liked what she saw, and told family and friends she was tempted. Some laughed, saying “That's for boys! Don't be so silly!”

“My boyfriend at the time, the one who was an apprentice, said 'You'll never manage that; that's a bloke's thing. Don't be so stupid.'” Happily, they're still good friends!

Anyway, she thought an Openreach apprenticeship sounded great. All this talk about a man's job . . . The work might have been physically demanding years ago, but now it generally involved dealing with two fiddly wires. Anyway, if it turned out she couldn't cope, she hadn't lost anything.

Those who thought she was a bit crazy are now supportive, she says. “I think, like a lot of people, they didn't really understand what it was all about.”

So Alice started in the summer of 2007 - and mum spent the university nest-egg on a new car!

In her first week she was given a hire car and pointed towards Yorkshire, for a two-week course on climbing poles. “I'd only passed my test a couple of months earlier and the furthest I'd driven on my own was Felixstowe!”

The emphasis, not surprisingly, was on safety: correctly putting up a ladder and tying it off, and using the harness and belt.

“I was a bit daunted by the idea of climbing poles, but it's not really that hard. It's a bit of a pain when it's freezing cold. I wasn't used to using those muscles, so it was a bit of a shock, but they train you, and it's such a laugh, anyway. You just learn.”

One's subconscious does sometimes kick in when you're learning to scale those poles and you suddenly find you can't move a hand. “You can also hit a nerve in the middle of your foot and get an 'Elvis leg' - it won't stop shaking. It's ever so funny when you see it. It can go on for half an hour.” Mind you, Alice admits, “I think I worry about splinters more than anything!”

Further training covers aspects such as lifting a joint-box and testing for gases.

In between “tonnes” of practical training courses and trips out on the road with experienced engineers have been residential weeks in the classroom in Staffordshire, with apprentices from around the country.

There's been a memorable camaraderie. “I finish in January” - she's just taken her final exams, in fact - “and it will be sad not to see them anymore after practically living with them for so long. You have breakfast together, go to class together and have lunch together.”

Alice's time as an apprentice, the thick end of three years, also involves taking an NVQ level 4 and a foundation degree in telecommunications and business management.

Of the class of 20 people to start the degree course, three were women - and that was considered a high ratio. There's one other female in her team of apprentices, which is about 25-strong. Neighbouring patches don't have any.

Alice thinks the low proportion is partly because girls are not interested in that type of work. She also thinks traditional attitudes and assumptions have a significant effect: a hangover of that “blue for boys, pink for girls” mentality.

She remembers a computer program at school designed to identify pupils' ideal careers. She and a boy highlighted its inherent sexism by tapping in identical answers. “But I put my gender as female, and we came up with different jobs. I kept coming up with nurse, and I hate blood! He didn't get nurse at all.”

And, talking to a careers adviser, “it was like 'You have to go to university; what do you want to do?' 'Well, I don't know. Help me . . .' Whereas with the boys, I noticed, it was more 'Why don't you do an apprenticeship in brick-laying?' There were just more options; whereas for girls it seemed that if you wanted to get anywhere you had to do a degree.”

Alice's advice to teenagers is to follow the relevant route if you have a passion or ambition - striving for medical school if you want to be a doctor, say - but to consider all the options if you really have no idea yet about the direction you want to take. Don't go to university, for example, simply to appease all the people telling you that's what's best.

“Take a step back and a little bit of time out, maybe, and try something a little different - especially if you're completely stuck: maybe something you've never ever tried before.”

ALICE Ryan is convinced she's had opportunities ? thanks to being part of the BT Group ? that would never have presented themselves if she'd simply gone to university for the sake of it.

Being with a big company, too, there's the chance to move across to other roles. She's already made a bit of a hop, her eye caught by the job of a fibre planner.

The pendulum is swinging from metal wiring such as copper to fibre optic lines, which offer faster data transmission, greater reliability and can be used to stream TV and so on.

A fibre planner goes out to customers - such as a firm building a new supermarket and wanting optical fibre to be connected to its communications box - works out what is needed and plans the job for the engineers.

It's an interesting role and you get to spend more time inside than if you were a maintenance engineer out on the road, laughs Alice, who has ambitions to progress to a management position.

What has she enjoyed most about her time as an apprenticeship?

“I just like the different lifestyle, I suppose. I like going away for the training. I think I'll miss it when I finish that, and don't keep going off to places like Wales, Portsmouth and London.”

And the worst aspects? She thinks hard. “Probably just the cold! Or the opposite, when it's too hot to be out.”

She says apprentices receive about 50% of the going rate for the job they're training for, be it in engineering, vehicle technology, customer service or other areas. Graduating sees pay increase to 80%, with further rises due over the next few years.

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