WASHINGTON/LONDON - Ms Sylas DeMello got her start in construction as a child pouring the foundation and nailing boards for her family's deck with her father in Tennessee.

"It was more of a chore, but I enjoyed it," said Ms DeMello, an apprentice at Murray Electric in Burlington, Vermont. The 32-year-old makes US$18 (S$23) an hour and expects US$25 once she has her journeyman's licence next year. Her position was "an immediate step up" from an earlier US$13-an-hour job as a sous chef.

She is one of more than 375,000 apprentices in the United States, according to the Department of Labour. Just 6 per cent were women in 2012, showed a December report from the Washington-based Centre for American Progress.

Increased participation of women in such training is one way for them to become more employable and earn higher wages, some advocates say.

In Britain, the majority of new apprentices in 2012 were women. That followed a two- decade-long effort to recruit more of them into customary apprenticeship fields like construction, and expand programmes into female-dominated industries such as hairdressing.

Wage gap

THIS broadening in Britain has meant more women in lower-wage apprenticeships, while the wage advantage in the US between apprentices and non-apprentices benefits men more than women. Still, advocates say participants are better off in structured, paid programmes that provide training and experience than the alternative, which could be unemployment.

Addressing lack of women

MS LAUREN Sugerman, 56, director of Women and Work Projects at Washington-based non-profit Wider Opportunities for Women, said it is necessary to address the lack of women in non-traditional occupations - which the Department of Labour calls any field with 25 per cent or fewer women - when considering wage parity.

Ms Sugerman's career began 30 years ago as an elevator constructor in Chicago. "Nobody really knew what an elevator constructor was," she said. "I certainly didn't... I just knew it made nearly twice as much as I was making working as an interpreter."

Job advantages

WOMEN accounted for less than 2 per cent of total employment in these occupations, the Centre for American Progress report showed. Those fields are projected to grow at least 20 per cent - faster than average - by 2022, said the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

"Access to good-paying jobs is a big factor in helping to raise women out of poverty, and non-traditional jobs for women are an important part of that," said Dr Mary Gatta, a senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women who studies gender employment and wage issues.

Ms Sugerman cites other benefits. "To take care of the elevators and escalators in the world's tallest building when you're 23 is an awesome thing," she said of her work in the former Sears Tower. "It convinced me of what I could do."

Apprenticeship over university

MS CHARLOTTE Kiernan, 20, is a second-year electrical- design apprentice at Sellafield, which reprocesses atomic fuel and manages Britain's biggest store of nuclear waste in Cumbria, England. She chose the apprenticeship over a place at Manchester Metropolitan University and said she makes about £12,000 (S$25,100) per year, more than the £9,000 her friends pay in annual tuition.

"They might come out of university and start on higher than what I initially started on, but it will level out eventually, the difference being I've not got all the debt," Ms Kiernan said.

Still, much of the growth for women in the British system has been in lower-wage apprenticeships, said senior research fellow Hilary Steedman at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

'Hands-on' work

THE choice was clear for Ms DeMello. The electrician's apprentice wanted more pay and realised advanced skills would lead to more opportunities.

She likes the "hands-on" work but it has drawbacks. "I have to be able to lift and hold 50 pounds above my head for 10 minutes in a realistic day- to-day job," she said. "I don't know if some people are cut out for that, but it's a non-gender statement."