This summer, hundreds of girls in Oregon, New York and California will attend camp — but they won’t be making macaroni necklaces or friendship bracelets. Instead, Oregon campers will learn to shut off a water main break. New York campers will learn about plumbing. And California girls will design and build furniture for a women’s shelter.
When girls learn construction skills, they gain confidence, say the female founders of these three all-girls summer camps. For some girls, construction camp could even spark interest in a future lucrative, satisfying career.
Few Women Work in the Construction Trades
Over the past decades, women have made inroads into many industries, but they comprise just 9.1 percent of the construction workforce. Most of those women are in office staff or management positions. Few actually ply the skilled trades — as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and more. Tradeswomen make up less than 4 percent of the industry, a statistic that hasn’t changed since the 1970s, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“These are great jobs. They pay well,” says Katie Hughes, executive director of Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Girls Build, and a carpenter herself. The average hourly rate for construction jobs ($29.65) was 10.1 percent higher than the average for nonfarm private-sector jobs ($26.92) in May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Hughes has thrived in a construction career and wants girls to know that they can too.
Trades Are a Good Alternative to College
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Judaline Cassidy, the founder of the Tools & Tiaras girls construction camp in New York, wanted to be a lawyer. But when Cassidy’s great-grandmother (who raised her) died, Cassidy could not afford university. Trade school was free in her country, and Cassidy chose to study plumbing because in “electrical, you get shocked; plumbing, you get wet,” she says. “But then I actually fell in love with it.”
In 1989, Cassidy moved to New York City, where she initially worked as a nanny and housekeeper. She tried to join the local plumbers’ union in 1994 but was told to go home and wash the dishes. It wasn’t until a male colleague advocated for her a year and a half later that Cassidy was admitted.
Once she made it onto job sites in New York, Cassidy constantly had to look for opportunities to prove her skills. She would wait until her male colleagues headed to the bathroom, and in their absence, she would continue the task that they had been performing, surprising them with her knowledge. Today, Cassidy is an officer in her union.
Learning From Accomplished Tradeswomen
To introduce girls to a profession they might not otherwise consider, last year Cassidy founded the New York City nonprofit Tools & Tiaras and began offering workshops to teach girls about the trades. So far she and fellow tradeswomen have taught girls how to install a bathroom faucet, introducing them to soldering; how to wire a battery-powered light switch, introducing them to electrical work; and how to make a crown, introducing them to sheet metal work.
Cassidy’s inaugural summer camp this July will teach girls plumbing, carpentry, auto mechanics and more. The girls will learn from professional tradeswomen, and each lesson will include a history of that particular trade, with images that show tradeswomen working. Cassidy says it’s important that the girls see depictions of people who look like them working in the field.
All-Girls Environment Is Key
Keeping camp just for girls is a key to ensuring that the campers will be active participants, rather than take a backseat to boys, the camp founders say. Emily Pilloton, founder of Girls Garage in Berkeley, California, noticed that when she was a teacher, girls in her high school shop classes worked better when she put them in all-girls groups. “Their demeanor changed; they were working with more confidence,” she says.
Some research supports the benefit of single-sex education, while other research questions the idea. Regardless of the ongoing academic debate, the camp founders say they see the benefit.
At Pilloton’s Girls Garage camps, girls learn basic skills in handling tools, and then work to design and build a project that benefits the local community. This year girls ages 9 to 13 will make furniture and a tool wall for a local school, and 13- to 17-year-olds will design and build four planter boxes, a picnic table and benches, and a kitchen storage system for a local women’s shelter. Instructors let the older girls take the driver’s seat in the design process, Pilloton says.
Girls Garage gets dozens of applications for the 24-slot teen program. The girls come from a variety of backgrounds — some with years of working on construction projects with their dads, and others who say they’re afraid of power tools. Camp is free. Pilloton prioritizes applicants who typically wouldn’t be able to pay for summer camp, and she tries to get a diverse group in terms of geography, interests, race and age.
The Power of Trades to Change Lives
Giving campers a way to improve their socioeconomic status is a common goal of the camps. Hughes, the carpenter and founder of the Oregon camps, says a construction career has been personally rewarding and financially satisfying not only for her, but also for her two sisters. Training as an electrician allowed Hughes’ older sister to leave behind low-paying jobs (at a gas station, pizza shop and shoe store) and improve her financial situation. “Watching the change intimately, seeing her growing and being able to provide for her children and being able to pay for a birthday party — it is really important,” Hughes says.
At Hughes’ week long Girls Build camps across Oregon and Washington, girls participate in four 80-minute workshops each day. They work on a week long individual project (clocks last year, lamps the year before), a week long team project (often a playhouse) and a “one and done” that they start and finish in a single session (past projects have included a bee house and a toolbox).
The last day culminates with presentations to families and funders where the girls show off what they’ve learned. When the girls near the chop saws, the parents panic, Hughes says. Without fail, the parents ask their daughters if they really know how to operate the power tool.
“The kid will look at their parent and do this magical eye roll and say, ‘Of course I can do the chop saw,’” Hughes says. And for Hughes, that’s what camp is all about.