Lehigh Valley's first construction camp for girls hopes to plug skills gap
While everyone knows there is a skills gap for the trades and companies across the region, state and nation, the need is even greater for women in the construction industry.
At Lehigh Valley’s first Let’s Build Construction Camp for Girls, teenagers are finding out what it’s like to explore the architecture, engineering and construction fields with hands-on experience.
The event offers 20 girls ages 14-18 the chance to learn about carpentry, electrical, masonry, plumbing and other trades by tackling the work through guided instruction. The camp runs this week, ending with a discussion on the latest construction technology. It is organized by Construction Specifications Institute Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter, Associated Builders and Contractors Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter and Lehigh Valley Architecture, Construction and Engineering, a nonprofit association.
Monday, after a tour of Lehigh Cement in Nazareth to learn about the cement-making business, the girls got right to work on the carpentry session. They worked in teams to join together two walls inside ABC’s Lehigh Valley training facility in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.
As they hammered, drilled and screwed together wooden beams, the girls, who hail from schools throughout the region, learned how to work together from the start, similar to real-life work.
Instructor Scott Didra, a former drafting and architecture teacher at Emmaus High School, showed the girls how to put together the walls and join corners, offering guidance along the way.
Jon Lattin, president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter of CSI, said he had heard about a similar construction camp for girls in the south and reached out to his CSI board to see about starting one in the Valley. Once the board expressed interest, Lattin contacted Kristen Fallon, regional membership director for ABC’s Eastern Pennsylvania chapter.
“Other camps have been trade-based,” Lattin said. “We added some other things so they can see the whole process, not just the building of it.”
That’s why the organizations focused on bringing in architecture and engineering along, with the construction trades, so the girls could see how everything is linked and gain insight into potential careers.
The week-long camp is free for the girls and underwritten entirely by the construction industry, Lattin said. A lot of support came from local companies who donated funds, tools and products. The girls also will take field trips to tour MKSD Architects in South Whitehall Township, ATAS International in Upper Macungie Township and Emmaus High School, where several student-built structures are on display, including an observatory.
Dan’s Camera, which has locations in Lower Nazareth Township and South Whitehall Township, will bring a drone and fly it over Emmaus High School to document the tour, Lattin added.
The organizers have been impressed with the girls’ enthusiasm, maturity and serious interest in learning and working together as team members.
“The ones who have more experience from tech schools are helping some of the others,” Fallon said.
She said it was important to include the different aspects of the construction industry so the girls can see which ones they are interested in.
“That’s why we wanted to target that age group, to get that spark going,” Fallon said. “We really wanted to focus on girls this year and it’s an even greater worker shortage. It’s really phenomenal to see them getting along already.”
Didra bought along former students to help as volunteers as they are almost the same age as the younger girls, she noted.
“It’s the whole empowerment that we wanted to promote,” Fallon said. “A lot of them had compelling reasons why they wanted to be a part of it.”
The camp did not just accept anyone, since organizers wanted to attract girls who expressed a strong interest. A committee of about 30 people read through the girls’ applications and made its selections based upon the compelling reasons the girls gave for wanting to join the camp, Fallon said.
“I think it’s a great opportunity, not only for people in technical schools … to see if this is something they want to do in the future,” said Ambyr Thomas, 16, a student at Upper Bucks Technical School.
She said it was also helpful for those students who may not be in technical schools but have an interest in learning about construction.
Maya Schesinger, 15, a student at Emmaus High School, joined the camp because she has an interest in property management.
“I was pretty much a beginner at this; my dad is in real estate,” Schesinger said. “I really want to manage real estate when I get older and also be able to do the work myself.”
Talia Vinson, 15, a student at Saucon Valley High School, also talked about the importance of knowing how to do the work.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to learn some skills you can do in your own home,” Vinson said. “If you want to make money, you have to get down and dirty. Plus, it’s fun.”
Though the camp has just started, it’s already received requests from organizations in Reading and Philadelphia about doing a construction camp for girls, Fallon said. Organizers already are looking at hosting future construction camps.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with the support from the community,” she said. “We all have this huge need for labor.”
Lehigh Career & Technical Institute in Schnecksville, Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School and Career Institute of Technology in Forks Township helped create the curriculum and marketing for the camp, Lattin said.
“The amount of support has been great,” he added.