Construction is booming in America, but a shortage of workers has been a persistent problem — 78 percent of construction firms have difficulty filling positions. Bringing more women into these careers seems like a logical solution, but their numbers remain stubbornly low — only about 10 percent of construction workers are women.
“The thing I talk about a lot is fulfillment,” said Katie Hughes, executive director of Girls Build, a non-profit that exposes girls to the joys of building. “Not everyone is cut out for the trades but those who are should be encouraged.”
A constructive life
Hughes was inspired to found Girls Build from her own experience.
“I grew up in a rural town in southern Oregon,” she said. “Neither of my sisters went to college, and they were not encouraged to do anything else. We lived on a farm and they had these really basic skills that, had someone told them ‘this is a career you could choose,’ they would have chosen it, because they have chosen it. They just chose it when they were in their late 30s instead of when they were 18.”
Hughes chose it, too.
“I graduated from college with a degree in social work,” she said. “I already had a decent baseline of hands-on skills, but I spent a year with Habitat for Humanity and learned the ins and outs of building a house, which was really empowering and exciting.
“I began working for a nonprofit that taught adult women how to build, with the aim of landing careers in construction. I started working there teaching girls, and when I left I felt like it was the right move for me to start something on my own.”
In 2016, Hughes founded Girls Build, which offers one-week summer camps to girls ages 8-14. They learn the basics of building, including carpentry, plumbing, electricity, concrete, and sheet metal from female instructors.
Hughes wants the girls who attend her camp to see the possibilities.
“I think for the girls and their parents, it’s really interesting to find out that construction careers pay really well,” she said. “You’re opening up a door for them to have a fulfilling career.”
It was important for Hughes to ensure Girls Build was a program open to all.
“Any girl in foster care has access to our programming for free,” she said. “About 20 percent of our kids are on scholarships on top of that. We also do programming with the local girls’ prison facility, because we know that you can get into the trades if you have a legal history. And it’s a great option for them to see their way out of the cycle that they’ve gotten caught up in.”
For Hughes, the whole process has been hugely fulfilling.
“When I drive around Portland or when I go up to Orcas Island where I worked as a carpenter for a while, I’m constantly saying, ‛Oh, I built that! I built some cabinets inside that person’s house, I built those stairs, I built that house,” she said. “It’s so cliché, but you learn something new every day. It’s just a really fulfilling way to spend your day.”