Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Male-dominated trades like construction, plumbing, and welding can offer job security and decent pay. A camp aims to show girls these careers are for them, too.

In a workshop space in Portland, Oregon, a group of 10 young girls recently learned the fine art of soldering steel.

On one day, each of them had transformed some old bike parts into miniature metal owls. It was just one of many skills these girls, ages 8 to 14, would acquire over the course of a weeklong spring break camp. They also learned how to build Adirondack chairs and a small side table, how to tie complex knots, and how to bend conduit to wire metal lamps.

The camp, held in March, was one of dozens put on by Girls Build, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls the basics of carpentry, plumbing, electricity, and other skilled trades. Founded in 2016, the camps are held in Oregon and Washington and involve an all-female team of instructors who introduce about 40 girls to as many as 10 trades in the course of a week. While one day might be devoted to learning about roofing or wiring solar panels, another day could be spent exploring auto mechanics, tree trimming, or fire fighting.

“If you want to help women get into the trades at an earlier age and start taking advantage of being in a career that they love—and working in a living-wage career—then you need to start engaging them at a younger age,” said Katie Hughes, founder and executive director of Girls Build.

At a time when women account for a fraction of the workforce in fields like construction, plumbing, and automotive repair, Hughes founded Girls Build to help get more women into the skilled trades. She organized the camps so that participants tackle challenging hands-on projects with the help of female mentors. But she also made sure to cater the camps to younger girls, so they have plenty of time to get acquainted and perhaps even fall in love with this type of work long before they’ve made any major career choices.

“I’m a carpenter. I really love working with wood, but there’s going to be others that really fall in love with sheet metal or whatever it may be,” Hughes said. “We want to make sure that we engage them in as many different activities as we can.”

Women account for less than 10 percent of all U.S. construction workers and 12 percent of repair and maintenance workers, according to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This could be because they aren’t typically encouraged to pursue the trades, or because they don’t have proper mentorship if they do. It could also be the fact that these industries are often wrongly portrayed as nothing more than messy, physical, unskilled labor.

Whatever the cause, this disparity has had an impact on equity and diversity in the trades, effectively robbing these industries of a wide array of perspectives and skills, said Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. It also means that women are largely left out of jobs that often pay more than the average starting salary for someone with a four-year degree. The jobs typically require a short, inexpensive training period, and they come with well-defined career growth.

Girls Build is not alone in its effort to train the next generation of industry workers. From the American College of the Building Arts in South Carolina, which offers a bachelor’s degree in traditional building trades, to the solar installation training program through GRID Alternatives in California, there are programs popping up across the country.

But there are some that look specifically to target girls, in the hope of not only introducing these young people to these skills, but also showcasing the opportunities that exist. There’s Rosie’s Girls, a day camp for middle school girls in Vermont that highlights skilled trades, and the Girls Can Construction Camp in Alabama, which introduces girls in 8th through 10th grades to carpentry, plumbing, welding, and electrical work.

Hughes grew up in rural Southern Oregon. She said she remembers being in high school and watching her male classmates be encouraged to go into the trades, and many quickly found lucrative jobs after graduation. But she and her female peers weren’t given that same support. Hughes eventually found her way to carpentry after graduating from college with a degree in social work and struggling to find a job in her field. She then helped her sister transition from a minimum-wage job to working as an electrician. Now she wants to help other girls along this same path.

“It’s not like if you can’t cut college, you should go into the trades,” said Hughes. “The trades are a really, really amazing option if it interests you. You will lead a very fulfilling life that you come home happy at the end of every day.”

Job opportunities in the trades are also on the rise. Employment for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is expected to grow 16 percent from 2016 to 2026, more than two times the average growth rate for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment for people who install solar panels is even higher—set to grow by 105 percent over that same decade.

The trade industry as a whole is suffering from a skills shortage. In 2017, for example, 70 percent of contractors reported difficulty finding enough workers for construction projects, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

“With the automation of many of these types of tasks within these jobs, for you to be successful at this, you’re going to have to learn the computer skills, you’re going to have to learn to operate the machine,” Smith said. “It’s not necessarily one of these ‘dirty jobs’ that you’re not going to want to participate in.”

Helping to erase whatever boundaries are keeping women out of these careers is certainly one way to help ease this shortage. Girls Build is making strides in that direction.

This year, 400 girls will take part in Girls Build—half of them will be returners, Hughes said. The camp has had so much success that this year it launched a camp specifically for girls who have already attended before and want to keep building on that knowledge. Last year, the organization added a junior councilors program, where 15-year-olds can assist the teachers, and a paid intern program for 16- to 24-year-olds.

This is not to say that every girl who walks into Girls Build will automatically be enamored with the trades. For some participants, it’s not a good fit, Hughes said. But the camps were never meant just to lay out a career path. They were also about empowering girls to interact with the physical world and learn that they could decipher the mechanics of a broken tool and tackle fixing it on their own.

“There’s something really satisfying about being a person who can fix things,” said Hughes. “I don’t want girls to be robbed of that feeling.”

Funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation was provided to support our project "The Kids’ Zone."

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