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Women in Skilled Trades

This Camp Empowers Young Women Through Power Tools

Photos: Courtesy of Dawn Jones Redstone

Girls Build, a summer camp in Portland, Oregon, gives young girls the opportunity to use power tools, pour concrete, wire electrical switches and shingle roofs. “Our mission is to inspire curiosity and confidence in girls through the world of building,” shares Katie Hughes, the camp’s creator and executive director. Attendees take part in four 80-minute workshops per day and practice skills many incorrectly presume women and girls are not interested in or capable of.

“The campers are excited when they see the photos, but when they arrive on the first day they can be timid or shy,” she shares. “On the last day, we invite all of the parents to the camp to see what the girls have built. It’s very loud; the girls get so excited to show off all that they’ve done. They aren’t nervous at all.”

Becoming the teacher

As a child, Hughes sharpened her skillset in her family’s backyard, building fences, repairing animal pens and fixing things that broke around the house. After high school, she spent a year volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. “We worked on 11 houses over the course of a year, doing everything from building forms for the foundation to painting the walls.” With more than ten years of teaching experience under her belt, Hughes hopes to help women and girls across the country feel more comfortable strapping on a tool belt.

Changing the statistics 

Skilled trades offer plentiful opportunities for women seeking a thriving career: high pay, affordable education and a path to becoming your own boss. But still, in the United States, women account for just 4.86 percent of professional welders, 2.4 percent of electricians, 1.7 percent of carpenters and 1.2 percent of HVAC technicians. Hughes explains that employers have reached a long overdue tipping point. “[Employers] want the best workers, and they see now that often times the best workers are women. They want the top, and they’re finally coming around to the idea that the best can be any gender.” 

Talking shop

Hughes believes that the path to encouraging women and girls to pursue careers in the trades begins at an early age. “When something needs to be built, invite your daughters to build it with you,” she urges. “Advertise shop classes with photos of girls taking shop. Go to other classes and encourage girls; say, ‘We want you in our shop class. You are welcome.’”

While Hughes hopes that Girls Build will narrow the gender gap in skilled trades, her main focus is instilling confidence in young campers.

“One of the girl’s parents said: ‘She’s been having trouble in school and she has really low self-esteem, but over the course of this week, we’ve seen her become incredibly confident,’” she recalls. “It’s heartening to know that it’s working and that girls are leaving camp feeling stronger.”

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