New Austin camp encourages girls to consider construction careers

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thirteen middle-school-age girls are spending the week learning valuable skills as a precursor to possible careers in the construction industry.

The group will build and wire their own lamps, pour concrete and build a free library stand over the course of the week in a bid from the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) to recruit more girls into the industry early.

“There’s just not a lot of talk about what opportunities are out there, and that’s kind of our goal is to show the kids what else there could be,” said Jordan Moore, a specialist at plumbing supplier Ferguson Enterprises and board member at NAWIC’s Austin chapter.

Moore started in the industry when she decided she’d rather start her career than stay in college. She became a plumber’s apprentice, going to clients’ houses and working with her hands. “It was very satisfying work,” she said, once she got past the initial double-take.

Clients would “usually open the door and go, ‘Oh, it’s a girl!’ she said. “So it was kind of like having a new baby every new service visit that you went on.”

This is the first camp of its kind the organization has put on in Texas, and it comes at a time when contractors say they can’t find enough workers.

A recent Associated General Contractors of America report showed construction firms expanded their workforces across much of the country between April 2018 and April 2019, with Dallas-area companies creating the second-most jobs in the nation at 9,200. 

“At the same time, many firms report they would have hired even more employees if only they could find enough qualified workers,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist.

Meanwhile, women represent just 10% of the construction industry workforce, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s lower than any other industry the agency tracks.

NAWIC hopes to convince the next generation of girls that working in the construction sector is a good way to build a career.

Ramona Gonzalez needs no convincing. “I want to be a landscape designer or a sustainable builder,” the 8th-grader said as she removed her concrete planter, imprinted with a design and the letters L-O-V-E on the corners, from a plastic mold.

Gonzalez filled her project with soil and a succulent as a gift for her mom. She’s taking classes in green architecture and design modeling to work toward her future career and saw the camp as a way to get hands-on experience.

Her planned future is filled with male-dominated spaces, but she’s not concerned. “I’ve always played a lot of co-ed sports and I’ve always been the only girl on, like, my soccer team,” she said. “I’m kind of used to it.”

By the time Gonzalez and the others in the camp are ready to join the workforce, NAWIC wants to have made progress in bringing more women into the field. 

Austin ISD is helping to introduce girls to the career path early. The NAWIC camp is using space at Crockett High School’s construction technology building, the only program in the district that offers dual-credit construction courses with Austin Community College. Students can earn up to 12 semester hours of the required 60 to earn an Associate’s of Applied Science in construction management.

Typically 10-15 students follow all the way through to the college-level classes each year, said Charla Merrel, the program’s coordinator. Next year, of 18 students taking the college courses, four are female.

Lanier High School has a smaller construction program, as well as an electrical apprenticeship program. Merrel said due to cost, the district likely won’t expand those programs to additional schools any time soon, but they encourage girls to join the classes through career fairs and parent outreach.

Anahi Avila, an 8th-grader at the camp, is out to prove she deserves the same chances as anyone else.

“We can do the same thing as a guy can do,” she said. Her family is involved in the construction industry, and she wants to follow the same path, working with her hands and building something from the ground up.

Gonzalez will keep working, too, to build her passion for sustainability into a sustainable career, no matter the stereotypes standing in her path. “I don’t accept no as an answer,” she said.

“Tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this. I can do this.’ You don’t have to let them take you down.”

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