Who Build the World? Girls!
“The very first time I did this, I didn’t actually ask for help. My thought was people wouldn’t take time off of work for this, but they did want to help, and companies were so willing to invest people and funds. We have enough sponsors now that it is 100% free for participants.”
Heidi Blanck, a professor of technology and occupational sciences at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, is describing the genesis of her Women in Construction program—a series of regional events she hosts a few times a year to introduce young women to careers in the construction industry. “I started this initiative really to provide an outlet for young women to explore careers in a low-commitment, high-impact way,” Blanck says. “Career exploration is the underlying theme. I started writing grant requests, then I started advertising the event; it was a lot of trial and error at first. The inaugural event was held in 2017, and they’ve been essentially sold out ever since.”
THE WOMAN IN THE ROOM
As a graduate of NMU’s construction-management program herself, Blanck knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room—and therefore the importance of advocating for more women in the construction industry. “I was the only female in the program as a student,” she says. “When I started teaching here in 2011, there were two females in the program. We would fluctuate from one to three a year, but we were up to 20% [female participation] of incoming students last year.”
This year is even better—27% female. “This program has really grown,” Blanck says, “and I don’t think it would have without the efforts we’ve made to really target recruiting at this very under-thought-of population.”
One of Blanck’s recently graduated students was drawn to NMU’s construction-management program thanks to a Women in Construction event. If you had asked Raija Stille even five years ago what she wanted to do with her life, she wouldn’t have had an answer.
“I grew up in the Marquette area,” Stille says. “I heard about the event and that it promoted career exploration and introduced the idea of women in the industry. I was a junior in high school who didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation.”
Stille was so impressed with the Women in Construction event she attended at NMU during spring of her junior year of high school—“Teamwork, physical results and having the ability to manage were things I was interested in,” she says—that she enrolled in trade classes her senior year. The following year she started at NMU and never looked back. She filled the summer between her sophomore and junior years with a virtual-design internship and did a project-management internship the summer before her senior year.
After graduating this past May, Stille landed a job as a project engineer with The Christman Company in Lansing, working on a five-building student-housing complex for the University of Michigan, which she describes as a “super-cool project.” Would Stille be where she is today without the influence of Blanck’s Women in Construction program? “It 100% altered the path [of my life] in my opinion,” she says. “I don’t know if I ever would have been given the opportunity to explore the industry if it weren’t for that day.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Blanck founded the program because she recognized the importance of that kind of exposure and influence in the industry—particularly female-to-female. “It is incredibly important,” she says. “I know and I’ve heard now over and over again that having those experiences for the girls who come into our program gives them real information, empowers them, destigmatizes the industry. Girls come into campus to visit me and say, ‘There is a female teacher in this program; I’ll be okay.’”
Having been one of the girls who looked up to women in the industry and now being one of the women in the industry that girls look up to, Blanck knew when she threw her hard hat in the ring that Women in Construction would succeed. It had to.
The first event was held at NMU on April 7, 2017, and from there grew so consistently that two years later Blanck took it on the road to Illinois, Minnesota and other parts of Michigan and the Midwest. Today, Women in Construction is held once a year at NMU’s campus; Blanck typically aims to host two other out-of-town events per academic year. “We are still mainly in the Midwest, as far as region goes,” Blanck says, “but I’ve been asked to go beyond that, and I would love to as we continue to grow.”
Each event is free thanks to company sponsorships, with participation usually capped at 60 students, to keep a one-to-one ratio of student attendees to volunteers from the trades and NMU. Running from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with lunch provided, a typical Women in Construction program is “as hands-on as possible,” according to Blanck. The program begins with an introduction and morning exercise—similar to the way workers on a jobsite might stretch and move around to stay limber and prevent injury—after which participants are broken into three groups to complete three activities. The groups spend 50 minutes learning skills in woodshop, welding, construction management, team building, urban planning and more. Some of the volunteer trade professionals even bring simulators to enhance the hands-on experience. The program concludes with drawings and door prizes donated by sponsors, so students can return to their classrooms and home schools with encouraging swag and tools of their own.
Blanck’s favorite thing about watching girls go through the program is “the relationships we build and seeing them gain confidence,” she says. Maintaining those relationships—just as Stille has done with Blanck—is imperative not only for the future of Women in Construction but for the future of women in construction. “We build our whole program on our relationship with alumni,” Blanck says. “Once they are getting out there and making the impact and keeping it going, they come back and recruit from here. It promotes this constant circle of relationship building.”
A GIRL CAN DREAM
As an inclusive program, Women in Construction is also open to young male high-school students, as well as male volunteers and sponsors. Blanck recognizes the importance of advocating not only for women in the industry but for a well-rounded workforce and hopes to see the program continue to grow because of that.
“I have had this miniature dream of getting it into a bigger venue where we could have more participants,” Blanck says. “We turn away participants every year because we have to work within the capacity of what we have available. We—teachers and counselors—get disappointed when we turn them away. We don’t know who we are missing if we have to turn [someone] away. To be able to increase the impact at even one event a year would be great.”