Summer Construction Camp Looking to Draw More Women Into the Skilled Labor Pool

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Robison Wells
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East High School in Des Moines hosts a free construction camp for girls aged 14 to 18. The class includes some lecture time and plenty of hands-on experience, such as wiring a three-way light switch.

In its third year, this camp recruits female construction professionals to teach high schoolers about lucrative career paths in the construction workforce.

"Part of it is being able to network and hear about the experiences of women that are already in the field, and then the hands-on (part) is really one of our biggest selling points," said Jeanette Thomas, an education consultant with the Iowa Department of Education. "We're also trying to address that need for the skills shortage that we have in the trades."

This year's activities include laying bricks for Rhino Materials Masonry, wiring switches for Des Moines Electrical Apprenticeship, and practicing concrete formwork with Carpenter Local #106.

Mark Smith, a representative of Carpenters Local #106 said, "They call them nontraditional jobs; that's because, traditionally, they've never been exposed or directed to it, but there's a place for every single one of them.

"And the organizations are eager to volunteer their time and resources to the girls' construction camp.

"I think they see the need," Thomas said. "They want to get these girls into these programs, and they want to keep them in Iowa ... and, again, that main thing is addressing the shortage we have."

In the 2008 Great Recession, more than 60% of workers laid off from their jobs never returned. Construction companies laid off another million workers in the early months of the pandemic; many of them haven't come back.

Women only made up 10.9% of the 10.7 million people in the construction industry in 2020.

"I've heard it time and time again: women are excellent at multitasking and are meticulous in what they do, so they are very good in the trades, very good with their hands, and being able to handle multiple things at once," said Melisa Cox, the partnership and publication manager for the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines.

"I believe that women could close that skilled trades gap that we have all over the country," she added.

Unfortunately, while programs like the one at East High School play the long game of educating young people, slowdowns in construction will persist as long as the labor shortage remains.

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