Building Confidence: Girls Explore the Trades

CANFIELD, Ohio – Twelve-year-old Alexandra Loftus disagreed with her mother’s idea to send her to the Northeast Ohio Let’s Build Construction Camp. She’s since changed her tune.

“I was begging her not to make me do it. But she said I would have fun and well, she was right,” Alexandra says. “I realized I’m actually pretty decent at building stuff.”

That realization didn’t just hit Alexandra. Thirteen-year-old Veronica Marvin says her fascination with construction began when her grandparents were having their roof repaired. While it interested her, she never thought she would be able to do it.

“I never thought I would be able to hammer a nail with one hit but I did,” she says. “It taught me that girls can do this too.”

The inaugural Northeast Ohio Let’s Build Construction Camp for Girls, powered by the CSI Foundation, is a free program designed for middle school and high school-age girls ages 12 through 16. The weeklong camp, held at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center in Canfield, gave young girls the opportunity to explore architecture, engineering and construction through hands-on experiences.

Camp organizer Shelly Higgins says teaching young girls the basics of carpentry, plumbing and electrical work gives them the skills and confidence to enter a male-dominated workforce. She says the all-girls environment of the camp eased the intimidation some girls might feel in a male-centric field.

“I wanted to remove boys from the element because I don’t want them to be intimidated by the boys being here,” Higgins says. “This way they know they are capable and they can do it.”

The camp is the brainchild of Higgins, who is also the architectural and national accounts director for S-5! Metal Roof Attachments. She has a passion for youth, she says, especially when it comes to getting young girls interested in the architecture, engineering and construction fields. She says girls aren’t told about the vast number of career options available.

“They need to know that there are so many careers out there that they may love. …Girls don’t even know are options to them,” Higgins says.

Camper Jennifer Bondy paints a wall at a mock job site she built with her fellow group members.

Higgins had industry experts and representatives from some of the camp sponsors come in to mentor the girls. The camp was possible, she says, because of the enthusiastic support she received from organizations such as the Construction Specifications Institute and National Women in Roofing.

Hannah Yoe and Bailey Spring, both sales representatives in the paint industry, say they wished a camp like it existed when they were growing up. Spring believes the skills the girls are taking home will affect them greatly.

“These small skills they learn right now are going to be so impactful later on,” Spring says. “I wish I had the skills that they’re learning.”

Over the last week in June, the girls were split into groups that operated as contracting companies. They were “hired” and each company had its own mock job site. The groups erected walls complete with plumbing and electrical wiring, put up siding and laid roof shingles, painted interior walls and installed carpet tiles.

The girls had help from local professionals, among them Ed Emerick, training director for the Youngstown Area Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, and Rick Boyarko, the joint apprenticeship coordinator for Local 396 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union.

“It’s a lot for 12- to 14-year-olds. But you’d be amazed by how much they actually absorbed,” Higgins says.

Yoe says the skills the girls are learning are invaluable and she’s glad more girls are interested in the trades.

“It’s so awesome for females to learn about the trades right now,” Yoe says. “We’re a minority in this industry still. But we are definitely seeing more and more over the years coming into the field.”

Women make up only 10% of the construction industry, and 14% of full-time workers in architecture and engineering, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Higgins hopes that number continues to climb and that the camp and similar initiatives help to strengthen and diversify the industry.

“My heart and my passion is youth and I wanted to do this for girls and bring them into the industry,” she says, adding that she hopes to be a future resource for the girls. “We are here as a resource and we’re going to help them and connect them with the right people. So, this isn’t just about camp. It’s about being a resource for them, to help them with whatever they want to do.”

By the end of the week, Higgins says, the girls went from being meek and reluctant to join in the activities to jumping in headfirst.

“They’ve learned to work as a team. Their confidence has risen,” she says. “They’re not afraid to tackle anything now.”

Pictured at top: Campers Araya Dellamorte and Alexandra Loftus formed a new friendship at the construction camp.