Volunteer instructor Cathy Schernik works with campers at the construction camp that Austin, Texas, Local 520 sponsors for middle school girls.

There's more construction work than construction workers, and that means the race is on to recruit more people to the trades. Local unions across the IBEW are casting a wider net by welcoming historically underrepresented groups like women and people of color.

Some are even starting in middle school.

"Knowledge and an understanding of what the building trades are and how these careers can lead to a rewarding life are too often reserved for young men while they are in high school, or even younger," said Philadelphia Local 98 Business Manager Mark Lynch Jr. "Reaching women at a younger age, before they make their career choices, invites them into the conversation and gives them an option that they may not have known existed."

Austin, Texas, Local 520 brings members, often women, out to the construction camp to teach the girls basics like bending conduit.
From left to right, are Teila Allmond, Director Brian Myers and Elaine McGuire with Philadelphia Local 98's training arm.

That's the impetus behind Rosie's Girls, Local 98's pre-apprenticeship program for girls in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. Run through the local's training arm, Apprentice Training for the Electrical Industry, the program is for young women who are entering 11th and 12th grades.

Named after the iconic image of a woman factory worker from World War II, it is designed to introduce these young women to the electrical and building trades by familiarizing them with topic areas including safety, tools and material, the theoretical basics of electrical and telecommunications installation, and jobsite conditions.

"While there have been some Local 98 female recruitment programs in the past, we felt there was a need to reach them at a younger age, to introduce them to the field and provide them with the technical and emotional support to enter the industry," Lynch said. "Both Local 98 and ATEI wanted to demonstrate to young women that they can pursue a rewarding career with us."

Austin, Texas, Local 520 is starting even younger. It sponsors a construction camp for middle school girls put on by Rosendin Electric and the Austin chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction. The free week-long camp gives the girls a safe and supportive space to explore career paths in the construction industry while getting hands-on experience.

Outfitted with a hard hat, safety glasses and work gloves, first-year campers learn how to safely use power tools and spend the week constructing concrete planters, lamps and doghouses that are then donated to a local animal shelter.

Those seven days can be transformative, said Jolsna Thomas, president of The Rosendin Foundation, Rosendin Electric's charitable arm.

"A lot of the girls are hesitant and shy at first because they've never touched tools before. And some are very petite — the tools are as tall as they are," Thomas said. "But once they start working with the tools, their confidence increases to no bounds."

These programs offer middle and high school girls the opportunity to try out the trades at a crucial time in their education. In Texas, state law require students have to pick a career path when they enter high school.

"Without exposure through Camp NAWIC and other similar programs, girls who don't have mothers or other female role models in their families who work in construction would not know that construction could be a viable career path for them," Thomas said.

Added Local 98's Lynch: "Introducing students to these topics and receiving industry-recognized credentials at an earlier age provides them with the confidence that they can pursue this non-traditional career. Rosie's Girls is designed to demonstrate to young women that the electrical industry can offer a rewarding career with family-sustaining wages."

And as women have been proving, they are more than capable of doing the work.

"Historically, it wasn't that women couldn't thrive in the construction industry, but rather that they simply weren't afforded the same opportunities," Lynch said.

By offering these opportunities to school-age girls, these programs show them that not only are there great careers out there, but that they are wanted and will be supported as workers.

"It is very important to support our sisters in the trade," said Local 520 Vice President Marc Pendleton, who often goes out to talk to the girls during camp. "They are always great electricians."

At Camp NAWIC, nothing is pink, said Thomas. What the campers get instead are adult-size tools that they can take home and the chance to hear from women in the trades about all the opportunities that are available in the construction industry.

"To see a panel full of women, it's awesome," Thomas said. "I wish I'd seen stuff like that when I was young."

While Rosie's Girls is just getting started this year, Camp NAWIC has been around since 2019 and has camps across the country. It is even hosting another opportunity, TRF Camp Build, this summer, which will be for both girls and boys at the Austin Electrical Training Alliance.

"I intentionally established TRF Camp Build at the AETA because I wanted to showcase the amazing apprenticeship program and get the campers and their parents familiar with the facility and location," said Thomas, who previously worked as a Local 520 business development representative.

Not only do programs like Rosie's Girls and Camp NAWIC give girls the chance to work with tools, but they also expose them to the industry itself and show them how to get in, something that isn't usually afforded to girls and women unless they already know someone in the trades.

"The camp is a great opportunity," Pendleton said. "If students go through these types of programs it looks really good in their apprenticeship interview and they're more likely to get accepted."

To that end, both programs offer interview tips and mentorship opportunities as a way to set the girls up for success.

"We need to make it easy for kids who aren't children of members to get in," Thomas said. "We need to make sure that unions don't seem like country clubs."

With the coming influx of construction jobs, there's a crucial need to train as many people as possible, and that includes women and girls.

"Women stepped up to the plate during World War II and are more than ready and capable to step up now," Lynch said. "This effort to increase the number of women in our pre-apprenticeship program is about exposure to the possibilities that are available to women. And the IBEW is a great place to acquire a career and help move this country into the next age of advanced technology."