Nicola Murray Joins us as Construction Curriculum Manager

STARTING out as the only female plumbing apprentice in a cohort of 70 brought its own challenges, admits Nicola Murray.

“No female toilets on site, that was a big one,” she explains, smiling. “It just never occurred to anyone to have them, because it was so male-dominated.

“That was in the mid-90s and things have changed – there are more women in the industry, but they are still incredibly under-represented.”

Ms Murray, South Lanarkshire College’s new Curriculum Manager in Construction, did not originally plan to be a plumber.

“I wanted to be a firefighter, but everyone said – get a good trade first,” she explains. “I decided on plumbing because it made the most money, that is the honest reason.”

She jokes: “No story to tell of a dad or grandad, teaching me the ropes when I was a child – I did it purely for financial gain.

“I applied for an apprenticeship at Glasgow City Council, because they were recruiting for 70 posts and that fascinated me – 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 disadvantage – it never entered my head, not when I was considering the fire service, nor plumbing. There were challenges, of course, but I loved the experience.”

A recent CITB report found that currently, women only make up 14 per cent of the workforce in the construction sector, and workers from ethnic minorities, only six percent.

“Fixing this isn’t just about changing the culture, it’s about making the opportunities much more visible and accessible,” says Ms Murray.

“To encourage more females, we have to change the language we use around women in the industry. We should be reiterating the opportunities which exist, further down the line. For example, you can enter at an access level and progress into other areas, including HNCs in Construction Management or Quantity Surveying.

“I didn’t know that at school.”

Education, from early years, is key, she points out.

Education, from early years, is key, she points out. “Scottish Water, for example, have done great work for nurseries by providing materials on the website for staff to use in teaching the kids, talking to pre-school age children about the water cycle,” adds Ms Murray.

“To get children that young so engaged with the subject is perfect, as it gives them access to the language of the industry.”

She adds, in exasperation: “I mean, there are still signs out there that say ‘men at work’, which is ridiculous. And Bob the Builder? Bob builds while Wendy makes the tea. That paints a picture in children’s heads, which is difficult to change.”

She pauses. “There is, of course, a place for Bob the Builder, but Wendy needs her own spin-off series,” she says, smiling. “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 move into training ignited her “passion for teaching”.

“Queenslie Training Centre in Glasgow, that’s where my teaching career started,” she says. “It was a great springboard. 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 the ladder.

“Joining South Lanarkshire College has been absolutely fantastic – I have been made incredibly welcome, and I am looking forward to being part of the excellent team here.

“As curriculum manager, it’s my job to help deliver the best teaching and learning possible, working with the training and mentoring teams, recruiting and supporting students, ensuring they are ‘future-proof’ – that they are motivated, and have the skills to adapt and keep their jobs when the industry changes.”

She adds: “This industry evolves all the time – new materials and new technologies are emerging,  and the College is leading the way in preparation for PAS 2035, the new specifications for retrofitting dwellings for improved energy efficiency.

“Our emphasis is also on retraining and upskilling people to access jobs in the growing insulation industry, and in renewables and the green economy. Supporting plasterers to learn new techniques in external wall insulation, for example, or helping plumbers learn how to install heat pumps – those opportunities were less available two years ago.”

There is considerable optimism within the construction industry, post-Covid, adds Ms Murray.

“It could have gone either way, but it has been very positive,” she explains. “There is a lot to get my teeth into. I think sharing my own journey with the students can help too – I have been where they are, and I understand the challenges.

“And yes, things may have improved since I started out, but the low intake of women into the industry remains the same. That needs to change, and I will be banging that particular drum as I go forward in my new role.”

Leonie Jamieson: Case Study

THROUGHOUT her plumbing apprenticeship and college course, Leonie Jamieson was the only female taking part.

“It was a bit daunting at the start, as a 17-year-old girl, going in to this entirely male-dominated world,” she admits. “But I was never treated any differently, and I got on well and did the job. It was a brilliant experience.”

Leonie, who lives in Uddingston, originally planned to join the police force.

“It was my family who told me to get a trade under my belt first, and my dad and uncle, who are plumbers and heating engineers, half-jokingly suggested plumbing,” says the 24-year-old, smiling.

“I started researching it, and it actually sounded quite good, so I decided to go for it. The apprenticeship itself, which I did through South Lanarkshire College and Mears, was amazing. Being able to earn some money by being on site, and learning at college at the same time was the best of both worlds, and I really enjoyed it.”

Leonie impressed her bosses at Mears, and before she was even time-served, she was on the road as part of the plumbing team, working on routine maintenance with North Lanarkshire Council.

From there, she completed an HNC in Construction Management at South Lanarkshire and is now teaching evening classes at Glasgow Clyde College.

“The management course allows me to consider a supervisor role, which I’d definitely look at working towards, but I am also really interested in lecturing as it has been great to pass on my knowledge to other students,” she explains.

“I don’t think I know it all, not at all, but it’s been really interesting getting the chance to help people develop their own skills. I want to work my way up.”

The students participating in Leonie’s evening classes are predominantly female, she notes.

“It’s mainly women who want to learn some DIY, to be able to carry out tasks in the home without having to have male tradespeople in the house,” she says.

“It’s encouraging to see more women participating. There are definitely more females joining the industry since I started, but still not nearly enough. If more girls and women understood how enjoyable plumbing is, and where it can take you, I think that would help. It is such a great job, too – so much variety, and you learn so many skills.”