WARRENTON — Local elementary school girls were busy being industrious last week on the track behind Warrenton Grade School.
They learned to drill, bend and rivet sheet metal into lanterns; operate excavators; solder copper wiring; fix leaks in a water main; mix and pour concrete into planter boxes; saw and screw lumber into stools; and build a playhouse from the ground up for a local preschool.
They were part of Girls Build, a traveling one-week summer camp that introduces girls between 8 and 14 to construction in the hopes of shrinking the gender gap.
Katie Hughes, founder of Girls Build, said the program was born in 2016 out of the concerns of women in the trades.
“A lot of tradeswomen were coming to me and saying there’s this gap where, nationally, 3 percent of tradespeople are women, but there’s no pipeline helping them get there,” she said. “There are a lot of programs set up to help women once they’re interested in the trades, once they’re adults. But that doesn’t help them get into the trades at a younger age, and doesn’t help them get into trades at a higher rate.”
The Girls Build camp travels to several different communities each summer. Hampton Lumber sponsored the camp in Warrenton, taking in students from around the county and women from the trades to teach them in rotating workshops. Warrenton volunteered a simulator to teach girls how to fix a broken water main.
Hughes said 8 to 14 years old is old enough for girls to work safely, but young enough to influence them to enter the trades in high school. She remembers teaching in a high school construction program where there was only one female in several classes.
“I taught construction for two years at a high school — juniors and seniors — and the kids who didn’t walk in the door with it at least as an idea didn’t go into (trades), no matter how excited they were,” Hughes said. “And what I also saw was the people who walked in the door, of the girls I had, most had never touched a tool before.”
Many of the girls at the local camp said they had helped out on minor construction projects and learned to use basic tools. But the imbalance in the trades was not lost on them.
“It’s important for girls to learn this stuff,” said 11-year-old Reese Long. “Boys are always doing this.”
Olivia Merila, 10, said she primarily wanted to take the camp to build cool stuff. But she also understands the need to equalize the gender makeup in the trades.
By the end of the camp on Friday, girls had finished planter boxes, stools and sheet metal lamps to take home as memories. The crown jewel was a green-and-white playhouse that will be donated to a local Head Start preschool program.
“They did the framing, sheeting; they painted everything,” said Stevia Eldritch, who works for a general contractor in Ashland and helped teach workshops. “We started with a pile of building materials.”