Baker High student Sharon Pettway agreed to go to Girls Can Camp last year because she comes from a family of electricians and construction professionals, but she didn’t think she’d like it.
A year later, she’s back for a second year and rethinking her career goals.
“I didn’t think I would ever be in any field like this, but when I did the camp last year I absolutely loved it,” Pettway said. “I thought I had everything figured out – I was going to go to law school, I was going to be a lawyer – but this has made me think so much and it’s come down to be a very, very hard decision. I think this camp is amazing, just to learn, and it definitely makes you rethink everything.”
Girls Can Camp is a project of Mobile County Public Schools, the Mobile Area Education Foundation and Alabama Power, designed to introduce girls to construction and industrial trades. Nearly 20 girls are attending the camp at Bryant Career Technical Center this week, learning skills involved in welding, pipefitting, carpentry and electrical work from instructors who work in those fields and using those skills to complete projects.
“To me, it’s all about teaching young ladies skills that they don’t get in a normal classroom, that they may not get at home,” said Roger Pettis, a maintenance specialist and trainer at Alabama Power who is among the camp’s instructors. “It shows them that there’s more outside their realm of what is traditionally thought to be female occupations. They can be carpenters. They can be welders. They can be electricians. They can be all these things and a lot of times do it better than men.”
As a second-year camp attendee, Pettway is serving as a junior counselor at this year’s camp, a role she describes as “a big sister role.” She said the idea that these aren’t traditionally thought of as occupations for women is part of what’s drawn her to Girls Can Camp.
“I think especially for young women, we are categorized and stereotyped in such a terrible form: ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, because you’re a woman,’” she said, adding that the camaraderie built at the camp is another draw. “I think it was so important for us to know that we’re all family and we can all do it.”
Among the projects undertaken by campers this year were a shepherd’s staff planter in welding, a birdhouse and toolbox in carpentry, a sprinkler in pipefitting and a lamp in electrical. Even if it’s not a field in which one plans to make a career, the skills learned at Girls Can Camp will be useful throughout life, said Bobby Jo Faulkner of Theodore High, another junior counselor.
“Normally, you wouldn’t think about high school girls welding. It’s just a really useful thing to know,” Faulkner said. “For carpentry, if I have to fix something, I don’t have to hire someone to do it. I can do it myself, because I have a basic knowledge of it now.”
Several local, statewide and national businesses and organizations helped sponsor the event, including Go Build Alabama; Austal; Evonik Industries; Fluor; G.A. West; Airgas; Plumbers, Pipefitters & Service Techs Local 119; I.B.E.W. 345; and the Central Gulf Industrial Alliance.
Pettis said any girls who are inspired to pursue a career in construction and industrial trades will find job opportunities waiting.
“For years and years – mistake or not – we’ve pushed our kids to go to college. We want them to be better than us,” he said. “What that’s done is left us with a gap in people that are in craft skills – welders, carpenters – and there’s a shortage right now. There are lots and lots of opportunities for young ladies and young men in the skilled trades.”