The success of a Pennsylvania-based camp focused on introducing young women to careers in construction is now the model for a nationwide expansion effort by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Foundation.
Founded five years ago, the Let’s Build Construction Camp day camp exposes high school female students to construction trades—including carpentry, finish trades and more—through hands-on exercises and training. Field trips during the camp allow participants to also interact with architecture, engineering and construction manufacturing professionals.
CSI, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improved project delivery processes in the built environment through research, education and scholarship, provided a grant through its foundation to expand from its two current Pennsylvania sites, in an effort to reduce the construction labor shortage, says Velma Hart, foundation CEO.
“We have developed a pilot program that provides a roadmap for CSI’s more than 120 chapters to mimic the success of the Lehigh Valley Let’s Build Construction Camp in the local market,” Hart said. “The pilot program has created guidelines to assist with the start-up and running of the camps, while leaving enough flexibility to allow CSI chapters to adapt the camps to their unique situations.”
The original Let’s Build Construction Camp is hosted at two Lehigh Valley sites: the Associated Builders and Contractors facility in Allentown and at the Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School in Bethlehem. Housed within existing buildings on those sites, it employs large open spaces to enable groups of campers to build a 6 x 8-ft wall assembly. In the future, new camp organizers will be able to work within their own communities to identify spaces to host camps, said Jon Lattin, camp co-founder.
Begun as a collaborative partnership between the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of ABC and CSI's Greater Lehigh Valley chapter, the intensive week-long day camps typically have 20 to 28 students attend each session.
During the past five years, the organization has hosted four regular camps and also an advanced camp. That includes 97 total campers in Let’s Build, with 75 first-time campers and 22 attending for at least two years, Lattin said. “In 2020 we had additional campers that were virtual, but we haven’t quantified this number. The 2020 advanced camp was all former campers because of the COVID protocols.”
The Future is Now
The camps hope to teach young women about the benefits and challenges of construction work and educate the public about the need for trained construction professionals and well-paying opportunities available.
“The benefits of a career in construction are not being shown to millennials, and much of today’s existing workforce is closing in on retirement,” Lattin said. “In addition, less than 10% of the construction workforce are women. These are all factors that drove creation of Let’s Build Construction Camp."
Lattin said the project “has been an overwhelming local success” in its effort to introduce young women to the industry.
Former camper Alizet Pena, now studying interior design at Bethlehem-based Northampton Community College, attended the camp as a high school freshman.
"I’ve always have been a hands-on person and loved building things, so my mom looked into programs I could do over the summer and found Let’s Build,” Pena said. “I learned so many things I never thought I would—to read blueprints, frame work, HVAC, plumbing, masonry, electricity, installing tiles, roofing, carpet, even windows.”
While Pena grew up helping her father with car and home repairs, she never thought of engineering or construction as a career. Attending Let’s Build helped broaden her perspective.
"Once I started seeing the different careers in construction, I realized I had an interest in designing. I let my mind open up with creativity,” she said.
Such testimony from a former camper encourages the group's organizers. “Our goal has always been simple: We want to teach young women that they have a valued place in architecture, engineering, construction and product manufacturing,” said Kristen Fallon, co-founder of Let’s Build. “It is our responsibility as industry professionals to be proactive about workforce development.”