Following an insightful interview with our very own Caitlin Loughran, manager of our bid division, this week we are examining how the educational landscape can evolve to encourage more young women to consider a career in the trades, specifically construction.
Caitlin has been in the construction industry for over a decade, and her knowledge and experience stem from a love of the tangible, hands-on nature of our business. As an area manager, she’s concerned about the scarcity of trade knowledge in the hiring market today. She notes that one major hurdle the construction industry is facing could be solved rather simply: “We have to bring trades back to the high school level. There just needs to be more accessible training for the variety of construction trades. How do we grow the industry if we don’t grow the options?” She notes that this would be an excellent path for encouraging everyone, women included, to consider a career in construction.
Caitlin’s thoughtful input got us thinking: what can high school vocational/technical programs do to encourage young women to consider careers in the construction industry? And what can parents do to support their children who choose to pursue a career in the trades? Today, we’re examining some actionable steps that both schools and parents can take.
There are many interventions schools can design to help young women become more interested in the construction field and feel that it’s a viable option for their careers. One idea that is gaining popularity is offering girls-only shop classes. This approach helps to attract young women to trade-friendly electives by eliminating one factor that can discourage them in the first place: the risk of being the only girl in the class.
Not everyone agrees that single-sex shop classes are an appropriate, or equitable, solution to the problem. Several popular programs have been canceled in anticipation of pushback or concerns over Title IX. (These classes don’t explicitly violate the terms of Title IX, but some schools choose not to offer them rather than face a potential fight.) What educators have found is that when girls are allowed to explore shop and technical classes without boys present, they gain confidence and discover abilities that they didn’t know they had.
Featured in a Hechinger Report piece on his all-girls construction class at Two Harbors High School, Kyle Chalupsky describes seeing girls defer to boys and suffer from self-consciousness that prevented them from succeeding when they participated in co-ed classes, if they signed up at all. Learning key skills in an environment where they feel comfortable allowed the girls to gain the confidence they needed to participate in co-ed programs later on.
Chalupsky describes the potential benefits of the all-girls approach as an early intervention: “Every year, the all-girls class at Two Harbors fills to capacity. Using tools ranging from measuring tape to table saws, students frame walls and build canoes and storage sheds. They feel more comfortable doing this type of work, not so self-conscious, and they don’t get overrun by the boys. There’s no chance a boy will say, ‘Get out of the way. I’ll do that.’” Once the young women have some basic knowledge and confidence in their ability to succeed in a shop class atmosphere, they can transition seamlessly into more niche shop electives.
Beyond girls-only classes, there are many things schools can do to encourage young women to try out vocational/technical programs offered by their district or county. Running interest meetings from as early as students’ ninth grade year is an important step toward building awareness and cultivating interest in attending vo-tech programs. Many vo-tech programs offered by districts or counties require students to begin in the eleventh grade, after completing earlier grades with a passing average. Many also require students to leave the school grounds for a portion of the day, making scheduling tricky. Knowing all of the requirements that vo-tech programs carry early in their high school career can make young women more likely to successfully plan for their future and look forward to joining the construction field. Trips to visit off-site vo-tech programs can help them envision how trades can fit into their future, and career days featuring women in trade careers such as the construction industry can provide them with role models and help them forge mentor relationships.
Parents and family members can help spur interest in trade careers, too. From the very early years of a child’s life, it is important to provide both boys and girls with lots of access to toys that invite them to think creatively, engineer their own solutions, and build. From traditional wooden unit blocks to bristle blocks, magnet tile blocks, Legos, and beyond, there are more products on the market now than there ever have been to encourage hands-on play from ages as young as one year. Young girls need unfettered access to these kinds of toys, as well as encouragement and reinforcement that they are for both boys and girls.
Providing children with lots of time and access to toys that ignite a love for building is a great start but involving girls and young women in fix-it projects around the home early on and throughout their high school years is a wonderful way to build on this foundation as they grow. Caitlin Loughran credits the time she spent doing exactly this for forming her love for all things hands-on. She says, “I was always the one to help my dad around the house with projects…I’ve always been a hands-on type person.” When habits are formed early in girls’ lives, they don’t feel like a journey into scary new territory where they don’t belong–they feel foundational to who they become. This is exactly the kind of mindset we need if we want not just to encourage young women to consider careers in construction but retain them for years to come as they grow into professionals like Caitlin.
This blog post is part of our series on women in construction. Get in touch to share your ideas about how schools and parents can help spark young women’s’ interest in the construction field.