What do we want? More women on the tools. When do we want it? Now.

What do we want? More women on the tools.

Where are all the female apprentices? Why are so few attracted to jobs in the trades?

These are the questions I posted two weeks ago. Thank you to everyone who shared and commented, I really value all your contributions. This is a topic that is very important at BigChange – and to all our customers.

I want to return to this theme now, during an important week for women, when the whole world is talking about International Women’s Day. Every business, every product, every service benefits from input by a diverse group of individuals.

I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen it: teams perform better when they have a balance of men and women. That’s just how it is. 

This is why I was so alarmed to see the research from RatedPeople.com, claiming that women make up less than 1% of carpenters and joiners in the UK, and less than 2% of electricians, plumbers and metal workers. Without more women taking on these roles, championing women-led design, and providing role models for future generations, we are missing out on their vital contribution to the industry.

To find out why there are so few women taking this route, I caught up with Lili Baines, an apprentice at Gas Smart Heating in Brighton & Hove, to find out how she found her way into the trades – and asked how we can encourage more women to follow in her footsteps.

At BigChange, we love people like Lili, and love to see them progress and thrive. Here’s her story.

Lili’s experience

“I started thinking seriously about changing career in the summer of 2020. It was during lockdown, and I was working for a call centre. I had been to university, but it hadn’t really gone anywhere. I came out the other side saddled with loads of debt. I thought, ‘What am I doing? Is this the life I want?’

“During my school days, I was never given the opportunity to think about manual trades or vocational careers. It just wasn’t part of the careers advice when I was young. But while working from home for that call centre, and dreaming about a better life, I started Googling other options. That’s when I found Stopcocks on Facebook.

“It’s a group for women plumbers, and the page was packed with useful information about the training required. I met loads of supportive women through that network and realised that it could be easier than I had thought to start retraining.

“Unfortunately, most of the women on that group were based quite far away so they advised me to start calling up local firms to see if they needed an apprentice. I was lucky; Gas Smart Heating was the first company I found. When I looked at the website, I saw they already had a female heating engineer and the message on their ‘join the team’ page was simple: ‘Get in touch if you share our enthusiasm’.”

‘People want to give you a chance’

“I called up and explained who I was and what I wanted to achieve. I went out with the team over four Saturdays so they could assess my drive and aptitude. In life, if you show a bit of willing, people will usually give you a chance. They invited me to join as an apprentice.

“From the moment I started going out on jobs, I loved it. Doing something hands-on is completely new for me but I have always enjoyed thinking and solving problems and that’s a big part of heating and plumbing. You assess the clues to work out what’s going on. Then, you’re a hero when you get someone’s heating back on or give them hot water.

“None of my female friends work in this industry. Why aren’t there more of us? Part of the problem is that working-class jobs are often considered unskilled – even though that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“You’re told that if you don’t do well in your GCSEs, you can go and do something with your hands, but the truth is, people can make a lot more money – and develop incredible skills – by working in the trades. We need to get rid of that stigma.”

Hard to shake stereotypes

“We still live in a male-dominated world. As a girl in school, you’re taught that boys are strong – it’s always a big strong boy who is asked to carry a chair by the teacher. It’s hard to shake these labels, even when you grow into a strong-willed woman.

“But then I also noticed that many of the stereotypes applied to women are useful in this industry. Being organised, being able to communicate well, these are real assets. And the muscles will come too, in time!

“I do think that having women on the team is a huge benefit. We get a lot of jobs from women who live alone, who feel more comfortable with a woman engineer. They trust that I won’t overcharge them or take the mickey. As a woman sitting in the van, I get a lot of approaches from customers asking me to take on jobs. Women control most of the purchasing power in UK households after all.

“It’s not always easy to be an apprentice. You must make financial sacrifices in the short-term knowing that you are investing in your future. My partner and I live very frugally and that’s part of the drive to make it work. You learn as quickly as you can so that you can progress. This apprenticeship is only two and a half years, so it won’t be long till I’m on a trained gas engineer’s wage.”

Tips for employers

“To employers who are looking to attract female apprentices, I would say that it’s helpful if you already have women on your team. You don’t want to be the first and stick out like a sore thumb. I have also seen reports about a pay gap. Luckily for me, my boss believes in equal opportunities and equal pay. But there is still some sexism out there, and perhaps a lack of progression for women.

“When I first got started, my boss Steve Cahalane took into account that I might not be as strong as the other guys. So from day one, he made sure I had the best tools to make jobs easier. That means the investment in me might be a little higher, but I’m hoping that I’ll be a great return on that investment.

If you think about it, firms everywhere take a chance on a 16-year-old boy to become an apprentice. They may not know what they want to do. They might not really care about the trade. I hope I’m a better bet.”

Why we need more female apprentices

Trades Women

Not many schools nowadays invite carpenters and plumbers to their careers days to talk about the value of vocational apprenticeships and jobs in the construction trades – and even fewer focus this advice towards girls.

If you know of one that does, I’d love to hear about it, because the number of women who choose a career in construction or the trades remains shockingly low. This, despite the fact that the talent shortage means companies are crying out for skilled workers. And despite the fact wages in these fields have shot up in recent times.

This week, Rated People put out its annual trends report. It’s packed with interesting data about the home improvement boom, the most in-demand trades and the rise of eco-homes.

But there’s an eye-opening section on tradeswomen – or lack thereof.

Women make up less than 1% of carpenters and joiners in the UK, and less than 2% of electricians, plumbers and metal workers.

My jaw hit the floor when I saw those numbers.

This got me thinking about how to get more women into these roles. In fact, I recently spoke with a female apprentice to coincide with International Women’s Day.

But in the meantime, I thought I’d open the conversation by talking about women apprentices – and why I think this could be a key part of the solution.

Challenges and developments for female apprentices

To help educate me about the challenges and developments in this area, I caught up with Derek Whitehead, the Principal & CEO of Leeds College of Building (LCB).

The LCB is the only General Further Education college specialising in construction and the built environment nationally with more courses and levels of courses than any other organisation.

Approx 6,000 students are accommodated annually, with some 2,800 apprentices currently learning with the LCB.

Derek knows the world of apprenticeships inside out. Crucially, because the college works with 1,700 employers, he also has a bird’s eye view of the whole issue.

Surge in employer interest for apprentices

Derek tells me that there has been a real surge in employer interest in apprentices. That many are choosing to train new recruits from the ground up, instead of going the traditional route of hiring university graduates, particularly in level 4, 5 and Degree Apprenticeships.

This is because 80% of an apprenticeship is delivered on employers’ sites and 20% with colleges or other training organisations. This compares to traditional university pathways, where most programmes deliver 100% of the training is off the job.

The government has also done its bit to help employers choose apprenticeships through a scheme that covers all – or most of – the cost of this training, particularly for non-levy paying organisations, and other incentives.

Benefits of apprenticeships to students

For would-be apprentices, this route is also very attractive.

Universities charge steep tuition fees, in addition to students paying accommodation costs, leaving them with huge loans to repay. On the other hand, apprentices earn while they learn and don’t need to rack up these costs.

Derek says that 95% of the apprentices that come through the college are kept on in sustainable permanent employment, with the same employer usually, after completion of their apprenticeship. 

Simply put: it’s hard to think of a time when apprenticeships have looked more attractive.

And yet, of all those students studying at the college, just 7% are women. And while there are more female apprentices across areas such as transport, planning and civil engineering, there are few on the craft side, in bricklaying, plumbing or electrical.

“Yet when women do join, they excel,” says Derek. “Two of our female students recently won national awards, for example, in painting and decorating.”

More awareness needed

The college, alongside many other organisations, is calling for more awareness of the breadth and variety of trades and construction apprenticeships within schools – especially among girls and young women.

“We would love for more schools to equally promote vocational routes alongside academic routes, such as sixth form and university,” he says.

“Often, when we go into schools to talk about the opportunities we have for learners, we are presented with a very small group of students, while a bank or big corporate may address the full year 10 or year 11 cohorts.

“The better schools, of course, invite us in regularly, and carry out visits to the college, promoting good neutral careers advice, and guidance.”

He wants young people to know how much the world of construction has changed and continues to evolve.

“There used to be an idea that it could be dangerous, or that there was lots of lifting and a poor image but that’s simply not true,” he says. “Health and safety legislation means sites are superbly managed, and mechanical devices now do the heavy lifting.”

Committed employers

For women, in particular, Derek wants to get the message out that employers are committed to making construction a welcoming place for female workers, from single-sex facilities on sites to more flexibility around the needs of families and even pro-active policies to encourage more women into the industry.

He says: “It’s such a fantastic and rewarding industry for all to work in with a wide variety of daily work activity, working as part of a team, together with being part of major infrastructure and commercial projects, new housing and/or repairs and building improvement.”

The talent shortage is only going to get more acute, he warns, so we need to take action now.

“Some 225,000 vacancies are projected in our industry,” says Derek. “And that doesn’t include the 38,000 in zero-carbon areas. We need to engage everyone who is currently underrepresented in this industry, from women to people from different ethnicities.”

I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this topic, especially my customers at BigChange, who I know are always on the hunt for new talent.

Do you have any female apprentices? How have you changed your approach or processes to attract more women into the industry?

I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn from you.

Where are all the jobs for people with disabilities?

Disabled workers

Here’s one thing I know for a fact. Meaningful work is fundamental to a happy life.

Whether you’re 25 or 55, able-bodied, or have a disability, having a purpose, being productive, having some financial independence, and having structure to your days, all these things help to create balance and joy.

This is why I think it is a terrible and worrying truth that so few opportunities are available to those with disabilities in this country. Just 5.1% of people with a learning disability in England are employed. Overall, disabled people have an employment rate that is 28.4 percentage points lower than the able-bodied.

And this isn’t because people with disabilities don’t want to work. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, when asked about the value of work, all 60 participants in its study unanimously agreed that their quality of life would be or had been much better in work than out of work.

One participant said: “It gets you out of the house, you aren’t stuck in being miserable, everyone needs to get out, disabled or not, you need to get up in the morning, it’s a purpose, it’s the satisfaction when you do work.”

This won’t come as a surprise to many.

Significant barriers

Yet even though legislation has required employers to make reasonable adjustments to make work accessible for disabled people since 1996, the pathways into jobs for many with physical or mental impairments just don’t seem to exist.

Significant barriers remain, from the job application process to ease of access to prejudice.

This was not always the case. The Remploy scheme was created in 1946 to help provide employment placements for those with disabilities, giving them training, support, and a career path.

The original Remploy factories were set up for serviceman and civilians who were injured and disabled during World War Two.

These factories stayed open for 70 years, but the government decided to privatise a decade ago and in 2013, all the factories were closed or sold.

This was a tremendous loss to the disabled community. Remploy created 100,000 jobs for disabled people between 2009 and 2014 alone.

This is an issue that is close to my heart. I feel strongly that those with disabilities deserve the right to work and should be supported into suitable roles.

At BigChange, the company I founded in 2013, we have prioritised inclusivity – it’s one of our core principles. Everyone in the business, from RoadCrew to management, understands the need to support one other and embrace diversity.

We do this because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good for business! World class teams are diverse teams.

Building a more inclusive society

With that in mind, I met with Steve Ingham, CEO of the recruitment giant Page Group, this week, to discuss ways to build a more inclusive society.

Steve has long been a champion of disabled workers’ rights – and has often been a lone voice on this topic.

He said recently: “It just makes commercial sense. You could have a situation where nothing on your website mentions disability. There’s no mention in social media of anyone that’s disabled working for this company. Someone might be sitting there in a wheelchair and they’re the world’s leading cyber expert. They’re not going to come and join you if there’s little evidence that you’ve ever been an inclusive employer.”

I’m hoping that by being more proactive in talking about these issues, I can do my bit for this fight. We need to do all we can to encourage government, employers and charities to champion disabled people in the workplace.

We all have different strengths and abilities in this life and that shouldn’t determine our ability to live a purposeful and happy life. 

Help your stars to shine

Help your stars shine

I’m obsessed with career development. I have always said that people are your greatest asset in business. Helping those people to thrive and rise through your organisation is a particular focus. I truly believe that everyone who works for me has the right to a fulfilling work life, with lots of opportunities for training and advancement.

This isn’t just because failure to offer opportunities for career development is the number one reason why people leave their jobs – it has been the top reason for a decade too, in case you were wondering https://employeebenefits.co.uk/employee-retention-top-5-reasons-employees-leave-their-jobs/ .It’s because this is one of the most basic and powerful ways that you can help your colleagues. By offering career development opportunities, you help them to realise their potential, open doors for them, and show that you believe in them.  

This is why this week’s post is all about Lisa Boonin.

For those who don’t know Lisa, she is one of the stars of our RoadCrew team. I know some of our customers have spoken to Lisa over the past three years. Many of you have praised her effectiveness, positivity, and organisational genius. What you might not know is that over the last 18 months, Lisa has been spending her free time completing an HR qualification from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). And that in April this year she moves into a bright and bold new career at BigChange as an HR administrator.  

I want to talk about Lisa because she is an example of what can be achieved when you take an individual with get-up-and-go, brains, and ambition, and you support them to focus that energy on their career.

Back in 2016, Lisa came to BigChange to do work experience while she completed a business studies degree from the University of Birmingham. She worked across several departments and impressed everyone with her ability to learn quickly and her people skills. She came back after finishing her degree to take a full-time job in RoadCrew.

“BigChange was a fast-growth technology start-up, so I knew I’d have a great experience,” she says. “As a first job, being in RoadCrew has been incredible. It teaches you all kinds of skills, from communication to confidence, and helps you learn the product inside out.”

During her time on RoadCrew, supported by her manager Tansy, Lisa took on many new challenges. She began hosting customer tutorials online and had hundreds of people hanging on her every word for those 45-minute sessions. “It’s amazing what life throws at you, but it was great to step out of my comfort zone, and a real learning opportunity,” she says.

RoadCrew also helped Lisa to hone her organisational skills. “That’s my real strength,” she tells me. “I’ve learned to stay on top of tickets and field incoming queries and manage my time well. That skillset will be so valuable in everything I do in the future.”

During 2020, Lisa began thinking about her future: what path did she envision for herself? What skills did she want to hone? She decided to take a look at HR and, with some help from Sonal, our people director, she chose a course from the CIPD. “I had considered a Masters from The Open University but that would have taken much longer,” she says. “I completed this course in 18 months.” The BigChange HR team helped with some assignments and offered advice and moral support while Lisa juggled her studies alongside house-hunting and planning her wedding. “It’s been a crazy time,” she says.

Lisa is now looking forward to starting her new role in April, when she can put all her knowledge into practice. Her advice to anyone who is at a crossroads in their career: “The timing of this course was perfect because I started it during the first lockdown when there was nothing else going on. I’m young, I don’t have kids to support, and I live with my parents. My advice to anyone is to try new things. Even if you’re not absolutely certain. I could have started this new course and got six months in and hated it. But the leap of faith paid off; I’ve enjoyed every module and now I know this is what I really want to do.”

I wanted to share Lisa’s story because she inspires me, and as a reminder to all of us leaders to take the time to speak to our colleagues about how we can help them take that next step in their careers. We employ stars. Let’s help them to shine.

Would you slash sick pay for the unvaccinated?

Sick Pay

This week, IKEA and Wessex Water have made headlines for taking a controversial stance on unvaccinated employees. They have announced cuts to sick pay for unvaccinated staff who must isolate because of Covid exposure.  

I’m going to be brutally honest with you.  

When I first read about this, part of me thought: fair enough. We need to get our economy back on track. We must learn how to live with the threat of Covid over the long-term, which means a robust vaccination programme for all, not just a few. Business leaders cannot plan for growth – or even survival – when unknown numbers of people may be off work at a moment’s notice.

But then I took a pause.

Because there’s a very big difference between thinking that a move is logical and believing that it’s ethical.

Being a leader means that you are more than a steward of share price, you are responsible for the wellbeing of your team – your entire team, not just the people who are ideologically aligned with you or the needs of the business. That is non-negotiable.

I tried to imagine how I would have reacted to the challenge of unvaccinated employee absence when I was CEO of BigChange. The answer is that I would never have slashed their sick pay, especially at a time when many families are struggling financially after two tricky years. That is not something that would have sat right with me and the rest of the management team.

I’m not naïve about the complexity of this issue. Different businesses have very different needs and challenges. Do I think that the NHS should be allowed to mandate that all staff have a vaccination? I think I do. When your people meet vulnerable patients all day, every day, it makes sense to enforce such precautions. Would I have done that at BigChange, where many of our team work from home? I don’t think I would.

The Covid situation has never stopped evolving since the pandemic first started two long years ago. Right now, the Omicron strain seems to be less dangerous than previous variants, with most people (especially the vaccinated) reporting mild symptoms. To penalise the unvaccinated now that the actual risk is lower than before seems counterintuitive.

Businesses must be wary of taking actions that can be construed as corporate greed. There are always unscrupulous business leaders who see stories about supply chain issues, rising inflation, or increased labour costs, and raise their prices even though their company is entirely unaffected by all these challenges. Those leaders give business a bad name. 

Of course, there is evidence that individuals may be abusing the self-isolation rules to get out of coming to work, pretending to have had contact with someone who tested positive. Perhaps this might spur a business leader to take a tough stance. To my mind, this is no different to people who “pull sickies” and pretend to have the flu. If this is rife in your organisation, the issue is with the culture itself. You can either try and mete out punishments to prevent it happening or you can put your efforts into making your company somewhere people enjoy working. I know which route I would choose…

And then there’s the political situation. It’s unhelpful that every day there seem to be more revelations about parties at Downing Street that broke national Covid restrictions. Penalising regular people at a time when it’s clear our reigning elite are ignoring the rules with impunity is a risky move, in my opinion.

I am an entrepreneur and a business builder – I believe in making decisions that help your organisation to thrive. But before all that, I’m a human being who cares about the people around me, be that my team, community, or wider industry. Even when times are tough and our businesses struggle, let’s never lose sight of that humanity, or all is lost.

Come on Rishi, let me reward my hard-working team

Christmas Party Celebrations

After all his promises, this week’s Budget was something of a damp squib. Rishi Sunak tinkered with a few minor reforms and introduced a temporary boon to the hospitality, retail and leisure industries through a 50% business rates cut.

But you know what would help hospitality, boost worker morale, benefit the UK economy, and increase productivity? An end to the £150 cap on rewarding loyal team members with a company social.

I’m serious.

At BigChange, we usually throw two big parties each year for the whole team. These events are incredible for morale and help people across the business to meet and engage. We fly our people in from France and Ukraine, which makes everyone feel like they are part of a global organisation. It’s a wonderful way to give back to the loyal and talented individuals who make this company successful.

Last year, we weren’t able to celebrate with the team so this year, we would like to throw the Christmas party to end all Christmas parties.

Everyone is double-vaxxed. It’s as safe as it’s going to be in the near future. And people need to come together and look back over the past 18 months, to celebrate their resilience and endurance, and to look forward to a brighter future together.

There’s only one problem.

The government makes it punitively expensive to spend more than £150 per head on a party. That’s just £150 for the whole evening, which also includes VAT, taxis and overnight accommodation. We would be very lucky indeed to find a flight from Paris for that money.

If the cost per head goes over £150, by even a penny, then the whole benefit is taxable. Technically, this means the whole amount would then have to be reported on the employee’s P11D. Of course, the employer can choose to pay that back, through a PAYE Settlement Agreement.

This is absolutely ludicrous.

Why is the government making it so expensive for businesses like ours to reward our people? They have worked so hard, without any social events, for almost two years. They deserve more than a few bags of crisps and a bottle of plonk. Some businesses circumvent this rule by asking staff to contribute to the cost but we won’t do that. Instead we would shoulder the tax implications, which would double the cost of the party. Squaring that with any financial director would be challenging…

It’s time to ditch the cap on costs for staff social functions. Let UK employers give back to their people without penalising them. If you want to encourage people to keep giving their all, build camaraderie again after so long spent in isolation, and help support the mental health of our nation’s workers, this is the way to do it.

This is why I am creating a petition to ask Parliament and HMRC to scrap the cap.


Will you sign and help me, and countless other bosses like me, to show their teams how appreciated they are?