It’s not news there is a lack of skilled labor in the construction fields — but it might surprise you to know that women still face a number of barriers to helping to fill the gap. As recently as April of 2015, women represent just four percent of the workforce in natural resources, construction and maintenance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In the largest groups of construction and extraction occupations, women make up just 4.5 percent of the over 1.9 million construction laborers, 1.0 percent of the almost 1.4 million carpenters, and 1.5 percent of the nearly 727,000 supervisors of construction and extraction workers within the industry. [National Women’s Law Center Report: Women in construction/Still breaking ground 2014].
And this percentage has remained steady for over three decades. While women’s participation in other nontraditional “dirty and dangerous” jobs like firefighting and correctional officers has steadily increased in the past 30 years, women’s participation in construction has remained unchanged. Stereotypes about women’s capabilities and barriers to training have contributed to a distinctive lack of women in the field.
The Home Builder Association’s Professional Women in Building council’s (PWB) primary mission is to support the roles of women in the industry and increase awareness about available, and successful, career paths for women and girls. Formed relatively recently, the PWB is one of the Home Builder Association’s most active and diverse sub-committees.
The PWB has been raising money to fund a scholarship program since their inception. Events such as Style at the Street, participation in the HBA’s annual golf event and other activities have successfully built up the fund. Originally the PWB considered providing individual scholarships to women attending the Northwest College of Construction. However, when the opportunity to help brand an ongoing summer camp program in addition to providing scholarships was identified, the PWB knew they had found their match.
PWB member and scholarship chair Sia Howe of Lennar explains, “PWB wanted to donate the funds to help girls specifically to explore the trades and the construction world. In the course of the research, we discovered that scholarship administrator services weren’t cost effective. So we talked to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) about combining resources, and Katie Hughes, a member of that association, is the founder of Girls Build PDX. This was a great fit because we could give all the money directly to those who need it.”
Hughes also had a previous relationship with PWB Past Chair Carol Eisenlohr of Legend Homes. The two had worked together on the original Oregon Tradeswoman camp program which is now defunct. Eisenlohr is an active advocate for increasing the exposure of the construction trades as a viable career choice for girls and women. Eisenlohr explains, “When I was out in the field in North Carolina, I was the only woman working as a job superintendent. I often heard from women coming up in the trade that they were inspired and encouraged by seeing other women in the field.” Girls Build PDX is a chance to give that exposure and encouragement to younger gils who wouldn’t otherwise have access to resources and opportunities exploring construction. “Women bring certain strengths to the jobsite that are really valuable,” says Eisenlohr. “In general women are great multi-taskers — and they take the time to manage a project in detail.” Eisenlohr spent a day at the camp and enjoyed seeing the younger girls wielding large tools and gaining confidence.
Camp director Hughes, a former carpenter, and her sister learned to be resourceful at an early age. Growing up with a single mother, the girls inherited their father’s tools when he passed away. Hughes is dedicated to giving girls exposure to the joy of making things with their own hands. Part of the camp’s mission is to provide scholarships. This year, 36 percent of campers had some financial assistance. The PWB was able to provide a full ride to two campers.
Irene Veldstra, mother to camper and PWB scholarship recipient Angelena, was thrilled for the chance her daughter had to attend Girls Build. “Angelena is creative in many ways, loves art and science, and is always up to learn new things, so learning about tools, tool safety, measuring, cutting and building something was very interesting for her,” says Veldstra. Veldstra, a single mom of three, was grateful to the camp and the assistance for giving Angelena an opportunity to do something outside of her normal range of experience. Veldstra said that her daughter was also pretty excited to get, and keep, her own hard hat and safety glasses which were supplied by NW Natural.
Amanda Strickland, mother to camper and PWB scholarship recipient, Arrian, said her daughter was particularly excited to do something “like her dad” who has just been accepted into an electrical apprenticeship. “Arrian says this is the most fun she’s had at camp. She loved it so much, she is now trying to think up ways to raise money for other girls to go have the same experience she had — she wants to give back.” Strickland was impressed with the wide range of projects they were exposed to, including the encouragement to consider non-traditional jobs for girls. The camp brings professionals from different aspects of the industry in to work directly with the campers. Carpenters, plumbers, fine woodworkers, and de-constructors, to name a few, taught side by side with an educational specialist from the outdoor school and a math teacher.
The broad selection of trades represented at the camp was also a good fit for the PWB. “The HBA’s PWB membership represents a number of different businesses. It is a great way to provide an example of the opportunities there are for women in the industry. As a member of PWB, I felt it was really important to support Girls Build. It’s also a good fit for NW Natural and our mission to support diversity initiatives in our communities and opportunities for young people,” says Hartzog.
Campers worked on individual take-home projects like a poured concrete stool and a lamp. All the campers participated in a group project, building and decorating a play house together. Hughes explains, “A combination of both weeks of camp worked on a four foot by five foot playhouse. It’s very whimsical — campers framed the doors and windows, put on a shingle roof and painted it. They even built the scaffolding necessary to install the roof.” The playhouse went to a combined PWB/NAWIC social event out at this year’s NW Natural Street of Dreams® and was auctioned off to benefit Girls Build.
From the perspective of the camp administrators and sponsors, Girls Build is making excellent inroads into exciting girls about opportunities in the construction industry. Hughes recalls an older camper with a straight-A academic record who could likely choose any four year degree option being really inspired by the camp’s electrical segment. She went home and told her mom she wanted to explore that idea further. “Many girls came up to us, and many parents wrote us about how this was their favorite camp for the entire summer. We also had a lot of parents thank us for teaching their girls real, useful skills they can use — the kinds of things they don’t learn in school,” says Hughes.
Eisenlohr likes to see stereotypes about construction trade careers being broken down and believes younger generations of girls, and boys, don’t share the biases of the older generations regarding gender and race. “The more we help younger women and girls feel comfortable coming into the field, the more the demographic will shift. We want to encourage young men and women to consider the construction trades a viable career choice,” says Eisenlohr. “The millennial group is changing things — they are questioning the status quo. These younger people have the chance to change the traditional landscape. This could mean the gender gap as well.”