They are all also colleagues in a north London firm where
more than 10 per cent of the gas fitters are now female. The
bait? Salaries of more than £50,000, reasonable hours and the
guarantee of a job in a field facing chronic trained staff
Lorraine Wimms, 35, has just finished her training and is
about to start with the gas fitting firm TA Horn in Barnet,
where 10 of the 85 technicians are women.
She qualified while continuing to work as a haematologist,
analysing blood, for the health service.
"I had been working in the NHS for 12 years and I was
beginning to find it mind-numbing," she said.
"I had the choice of going into management and I just
couldn't bear the thought of doing the same job for another 10
years. In this job, I get to use my head and my hands, and it's
just something different."
She has taken a pay cut after her years of experience with
the NHS, but will nevertheless start on a salary of about
£30,000, more than most trainees in medicine; experienced
technicians can earn in excess of £50,000.
Her training co-ordinator is Michelle King, 31, who reached
the final of the ITV1 reality show Ladette to Lady this year, in
which binge-drinking tomboys were sent to finishing school.
She "fell into" gas fitting five years ago after leaving
school at 16 with a few qualifications and no idea what she
wanted to do. She was the first woman to join TA Horn, but had
few problems with sexism.
"Some of the older blokes had a problem but other than that
it was fine," she said. "Once they see that you know what you're
doing and you can do the job, it's fine."
The biggest problem doesn't come from fellow fitters, but
from customers. "The customers often know a woman is coming, and
I've had some answer the door with no trousers on, or put a porn
film on while I'm working," she said.
"I just ignore it, or tell them to put some clothes on. That
usually works. Women are the worst. Some of them will answer the
door in a negligee, expecting to get a man, and start
complaining they've got a bird instead."
Another fitter, 25-year-old Carla Jones, was a model with
the agency that handles Kate Moss before embarking on a
degree in African studies at the School of African and
Oriental Studies in London.
Two years into the course, she
has dropped out, retrained as a gas fitter and works
alongside Lorraine and Michelle.
She said: "Degrees are a dime a dozen; everyone has them.
If I had got a first-rate degree, I would have started on
£12,000 a year. With a trade, you will always have work and
you can go anywhere in the world."
Maria O'Brien, 34, was in marketing when she helped her
brother strip the boiler out of her late father's house.
That made her decide to train as a gas fitter. She has just
been declared apprentice of the year by the industry
Eddie Hickey, service manager at TA Horn, said: "Women
seem to make very good gas-fitters. They are better with
customers and the paperwork, and they can think around a
problem. They may not have the physical strength to lift a
boiler like a man, but they will use physics and fulcrums to
get it installed."
Local authorities and private companies are experiencing
desperate shortages of skilled staff such as plumbers,
electricians and gas fitters, as a result of a lack of
investment in vocational training. More women are now being
attracted to these jobs by grants.
The Equal Opportunities Commission is also campaigning
for girls at school to be encouraged into jobs such as gas
fitting after research showed that too many careers teachers
still stereotype by gender when advising pupils.
The training pipeline
* Gas fitting courses at college take six months to a
year, with grants and apprenticeships on offer.
* Students learn how to install, maintain and repair
boilers and central heating systems.
* Fees charged by gas fitters in some parts of the
country have increased by 30 per cent in the past year
because of the shortage of trained technicians.
* Areas with the highest vacancy rates, such as plumbing
and gas fitting, also have the lowest levels of female
* More than half of women believe the careers advice they
had at school was influenced by their gender.