Ainsley Muller, 11, went to art camp and theater camp in summers past. This summer, she was presented an opportunity she couldn’t refuse: learning how to use a power drill, weld metal and unclog a sink.
“When my mom told me about construction camp, I knew I had to go,” she said. “Some people don’t think girls can do things like that, and they’re wrong. I had a blast.”
“I thought she’d be a good fit for it because she’s creative and hands on, and she loves science,” said Ainsley’s mom, Amy Muller, 50.
“I also wanted to show her that as women, we don’t have to depend on the men in our lives to handle the physically hard tasks that present themselves,” Muller added. “I wanted her to know that she was capable of doing these things herself.”
That’s the same message Taryn Ritchie had in mind in 2019 when she helped put on Austin’s first girls construction camp sponsored by the National Association of Women in Construction.
Ritchie is a chief estimator for Balfour Beatty, a general contractor in the Austin area. She said she’d noticed over the years that few women were working at the job sites she visited.
In 2019, women working in construction made up only 10 percent of the workforce, according to statistics by the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
“The number of women on the job is higher than it used to be, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” said Ritchie, 42.
“I wanted to shift the narrative and show girls that jobs as carpenters, plumbers and electricians are viable options,” she said.
Ritchie learned that other chapters of National Association of Women in Construction also held construction camps for girls. Girls from San Diego to Chicago have put on helmets and safety goggles and learned how to mix concrete, solder pipes together and rewire lamps.
“This industry, like many, is facing incredible workforce shortages,” said Jennifer Sproul, a co-founder of the Baltimore camp, who now runs the nonprofit Maryland Center for Construction Education and Innovation.
“The only way we can overcome [shortages] is by welcoming women with open arms,” she said. “I want to make sure that no young woman ever feels like this isn’t a place where she belongs.”
Ritchie said she felt a similar obligation.
“I thought, ‘We need to do a camp like this in Austin,’ ” she said. “I wanted to let girls know that office jobs in construction were not their only options. Why not teach them about all of the possibilities, from building houses to plumbing them?”
That first year, she said, 15 girls signed up for a camp held with support from the Austin Independent School District.
Now the camp is sponsored by the electrical contracting company Rosendin, and space for the annual event is donated by Austin Carpenters Local 1266, Ritchie said. Local construction workers — mostly women — volunteer to teach the classes.
One of this year’s instructors, Jennifer Barborka, enthusiastically got onboard to teach campers a little of what she’s learned as a fourth-year plumbing and welding apprentice.
Barborka, 42, taught the girls the basics of welding, then had them build a jewelry-holder that could double as a small hat stand.
“I was proud that every single girl completed the project, but I was even more thrilled to see how many of them were interested in my trade,” she said.
“Not everyone can afford college, and not everyone is geared toward that kind of learning,” said Barborka, who worked in a farmers market until she decided to become a plumber.
“I told the girls that if they were to join a union, they could get paid while they get on-the-job training, and not end up with a ton of debt,” she said, adding that last year as a third-year apprentice she made more than $60,000.
That sounded appealing to Taryn Smith, 14.
On the first day of camp, she was excited to discover that Ritchie, the camp director, had her same first name. Then she became intrigued at the idea of making a decent living without taking on student loan debt.
“Going to Camp NAWIC opened my eyes,” Taryn said. “A lot of the things I do in my daily life — like being on the drum line in band — are very male-dominated. Sometimes, you feel like you’re not heard or seen.
“Seeing firsthand that women are plumbers and electricians made me think that I could do the same,” she said. “When I graduate from high school, I’m definitely going to look into it.”
At the camp, Taryn said, she enjoyed working with three other girls to build a doghouse that will be donated to an Austin animal shelter.
“From start to finish, we built the frames and constructed the roof, and then we painted it,” she said.
Some of the girls also built birdhouses and a greenhouse, and every camper went home with a free Milwaukee Tool kit containing a power drill, screwdrivers, a hammer and pliers for tackling projects at home, Ritchie said.
Her own daughter, Ava Ritchie, attended the camp and learned tasks including how to clean out a p-trap under a sink and wire a lamp.
“I like knowing that I can now do these things myself without asking for help,” said Ava, 16. “Real-life skills are cool for anyone to know.”
That’s a true feeling of accomplishment, said her mother.
“My hope is that every one of these girls will want to come back next year and add some new tools to their belts,” Ritchie said.
“If the end result is that they don’t want to pay somebody $250 to unclog their sinks, that’s great,” she said. “They can do it themselves.”