GIRLS CAN Construction Camp Shows Girls that They, Too, Can Wield Tools

At the camp, female high school students build things, including their confidence.

For girls who never would have thought they could pursue a skilled trade, one annual summer camp has a message:

Yes, you can — and maybe you should.

GIRLS CAN Construction Camp, held in Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama, helps girls from the 9th grade through 11th grade see how fulfilling, and fun, working with tools can be.

During the week-long event in early June, they have the chance to learn the basics of carpentry, architectural design, electrical work, welding and plumbing. They work on projects they can take home while gaining skills they can use in their daily lives. In 2018, for example, campers made bedside tables, wired lamps, assisted in the construction of decorative metal flowers and learned how to handle some basic home plumbing tasks.

For many of them, camp is the first time they’ve held a saw or a pair of pliers or donned a hardhat.

“Breaking down the stereotypes and barriers that have prevented women from pursuing careers in the construction field is one of the main purposes of the camp,” said Rene Day, career and technical education supervisor at the Alabama Department of Education. “We want these girls to know that there are various careers in the construction industry available to them. This camp was intended to show them what some of those options are.”

The camp was started by Southern Company, one of the South’s largest energy companies. Sponsors include United Rentals. The girls, who come from local high schools, apply for admission. Many have family members working in the construction industry.

Campers receive instruction from skilled trade professionals and are assisted by volunteers from the various sponsoring companies. During lunch breaks, speakers discuss their careers in construction and related industries. At the Birmingham camp, which takes place at the Shelby County Career Center, female employees from United Rentals have described their jobs as sales reps, account managers and drivers.

At the end of the week, each camper receives her own hot pink tool bag.

Camper Kennedy Zirlott, 15, was interested in trying new things and seeing what kind of career opportunities are out there. “I might need these skills later in life,” she noted.

Shelley Miles Grissom, a national account manager at United Rentals, has been assisting girls at the Birmingham camp for seven years and observed that GIRLS CAN makes a noticeable difference in their lives. “You can see at first they’re timid and a little awkward. But by the end, you notice that the camp has not only helped their construction skills but also their networking and people skills. It builds their confidence.”

Some campers enjoy the experience so much that they reapply the following year in order to work on new projects. At least three camp graduates have gone on to construction careers. Two are employed at Southern Company, and one works for a construction contractor. 

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.