Magic Camp takes mystery and fear out of construction careers for young girls

Dressed in pink shirts and pink hard hats, an engaged group of high school girls looked steadily focused on the job at hand. Some build planter boxes; others lay cement, transforming it into garden steps; and some of the young women operate saws with natural ease, like they’d worked in construction for much of their young lives.

The girls are at Tri-Tech Skills center for the Seventh Annual Magic Camp — Mentoring a Girl in Construction. The event brings together girls from eighth grade through to high school to learn about careers in construction. They weld, drill, hammer, strip wire and lay cement under the watchful eye of women professionals in the field.

Magic Camp is a free, four-day, after-school camp designed to introduce girls to careers in construction. Students from all Tri-Cities’ high schools and middle schools were invited, as well as young women from private schools and home-schooled students.

Magic Camp offers the young ladies hands-on opportunities to learn the basics of safety, carpentry, electrical, painting, plumbing, concrete and welding. They build planter boxes, concrete stepping stones, a metal bird house, weld a yard flower together, learn how to bend copper piping, operate a backhoe simulator, wire a doorbell or a light switch and assemble a lamp.

“The purpose of MAGIC is to get female students to think outside the box, so to speak, and to try out things they might not otherwise have the opportunity to,” said Aimee Bergeson, controller and office manager for Fowler Construction in Kennewick. “By utilizing female mentors from the local training programs and construction industry, the students can see the path to a career.”

Students also receive information about industry jobs and requirements to get in the field, while being introduced to successful women in construction.

Even if they decide not to pursue a career in construction or a trade, the camp shows the girls they can be makers and builders. Skills like learning to operate power tools are applicable to everyday life.

“In the long run, even if the students don’t decide on a career in construction we hope that they will have gained enough confidence to even tackle some home projects they might not otherwise try,” she added.

But they can also choose to pursue a career in the trades, one that promises good salaries, and opportunities for growth.

According to the National Association of Women in Construction, a trade organization, women in the U.S. on average earn about 82.1 percent of what males in the country earn. That gender pay gap isn’t as wide in the construction industry, where women earn about 93.4 percent what men make.

And that’s exactly what Cassie Smith, came away with — there’s a viable career path and the pay is good. Smith is a senior in Tri-Tech Skills center construction program and after graduation she hopes to join the local electrical union.

“It’s been an eye opener talking to some of the experienced women in construction and seeing how much they make and how well they do,” she said.

One of the volunteers is a former participant and a current student at Central Washington University who is studying construction management. She’ll graduate in two years.

Bethany Hiemstra was a student at Southridge High School taking engineering classes before deciding she enjoyed construction and building a lot more. That’s when she started taking classes at Tri-Tech and became a participant at the camp.

“I remember my first night at Magic Camp they asked who wanted to use the power tools and everybody stepped back — I was the first to give it a try,” said Hiemstra.s “I haven’t looked back since. I love it. I’ve even done some concrete work for my mom in her backyard.”

Magic Camp was started in 2009 with funding from local business through a partnership with Tri-Tech. Its mission to encourage girls to enter careers in construction to help address the workforce shortage impacting the industry, said Bergeson.

In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 9,813,000 people working in the construction industry. Of these, 872,000 of them, or 8.9 percent, were women.

From the beginning the Magic Camp has partnered with the National Association of Women in Construction. This unified effort allows NAWIC chapters to host the free camps with guidance and oversight by MAGIC Inc. This nationwide program embodies NAWIC’s core purpose to “enhance the success of women in the construction industry.”

It hopes to eliminate some of the barriers that might make young women opt out of careers in construction.

“For some, it is the outside world’s perception of what women should do, for those with children, sometimes it is the schedule or the distance to the job location,” said Bergeson. “Our goal with MAGIC is to help younger women see the opportunities early and to get through the training before life gets more complicated and factors arise that can impact their ability to be successful.”

At the end, the girls receive not only valuable skills but also learn about educational and scholarship opportunities in construction.

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