She Built This City

This Nonprofit Is Working to Get More Women in Construction

She Built This City, based in North Carolina, runs educational programs to introduce women to the construction trades at an early age

The pipeline for employees starts much earlier than those aged 18 and older. Building an interest and even love for a future career often begins in childhood.

And that’s where She Built This City starts. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based nonprofit runs educational programs designed to introduce girls to the trades with hands-on activities intended to stoke their curiosity about a possible future and to attract more women to the industry. Just 11% of the total construction workforce is female, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and only 3% of tradespeople are women.

More than three years after launching, She Built This City is rapidly expanding—serving hundreds of kids, including boys; building an adult apprenticeship program for women; and, in just the last year, growing from a single staffer to six.

“We’re sparking interest with young people as early as possible to build that pipeline for the next generation, but also tapping into this market of eligible and ready-to-work employees that are women,” said Marion Pulse, She Built This City’s resource development director.

At a time when the industry is struggling with labor shortages and few female workers, construction companies want to hire women, Pulse said. They express that to the nonprofit all the time. The reasons they don’t, however, center on longtime systemic barriers that groups like She Built This City hope to fix.

“We’re looking at the whole lifespan,” Pulse said. “How do we fill this labor gap that we have with the future workforce? We’re really trying to look at it holistically.”

Hands-on Fun

Demi Knight Clark, She Built This City’s founder, had been working in the construction industry in project management roles for more than 20 years when she launched the nonprofit at the end of 2019. Her ambitious goal is to bring 50-50 equity to the industry by 2030.

The original plan was to focus on middle school girls with in-school and after-school programs, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to virtual school forced a substantial pivot. Clark bought a 1975 Airstream, converted it into a mobile tool lab and traveled to summer camps and neighborhoods to deliver programs. That summer, with Lowe’s Generation T, Clark also launched virtual shop classes.

Today, that youth-focused program continues to evolve, offering a curriculum of more than 30 hands-on build activities. One project involves building a wire suncatcher. As girls use pliers to manipulate the wire, they learn about what electricians do and how they use the tool in their work. She Built This City also has begun to offer after-school programs. At one Charlotte-area high school, the program recently led an afterschool club in a project to design animal-shaped bike racks for the local humane society; the girls learned about project management and landscape architecture in the process.

‘Barrier Removal Program’

Just as the pandemic forced a pivot in its youth programs, it also accelerated She Built This City’s plans to support women in the workforce. During the pandemic, women left their jobs at historic rates, and industries where they were prevalent—including retail, leisure and hospitality—were hit hard.

“We wanted to get those high schoolers right out of high school,” Pulse said. “But what about that single mother who is tired of working at the grocery store?”

At the end of 2021, She Built This City launched its first pre-apprenticeship program. The evening classes focused on plumbing, and 10 women graduated with the skills required for an entry-level job. In 2023, the adult programs are targeted for growth as it adds both evening and daytime class options to make room for more students and offer flexibility in schedules.

It’s a “barrier removal program,” Pulse said, and anticipates the women’s needs. The training is free; some meals are provided; women get a laptop, which they can keep after graduation; and childcare is available.

She Built This City also has launched a two-year, full-time, North Carolina-certified apprenticeship program in facilities maintenance. Women take a “tour of the trades,” Pulse said, to learn a little bit about everything.

“The goal, at the end of the two years, is you’re either staying with us to help run new crews. You’re starting your own business, whether it’s in a specific skilled trade path or a handywoman career, or you’re working with one of our employer-partners,” Pulse said.

Looking to the Future

She Built This City’s holistic look at labor issues in the industry, focusing on both the future workforce and the current one, has helped the nonprofit lure sponsors, Pulse said. They include Lowe’s, Moen, Google and a variety of construction companies. “That has really shown that She Built This City is looking at things all a little bit differently,” Pulse said.

As Clark sees it, girls and women have for too long been discouraged from even considering a career in construction. But companies also often aren’t culturally ready to retain women; many have yet to create a culture and environment where women are accepted or their needs are addressed.

Looking forward, helping the industry build workplaces where women are invited and encouraged is another lofty goal for She Built This City, Pulse said. After all, the nonprofit can encourage girls to enter construction careers and train women to work in it, but if construction companies don’t hire them—or don’t provide the support they need—it will be difficult for them to stay on board.

“As we grow, as we push more women into this space,” Pulse said, “we’re starting to have those conversations with our employer-partners and looking at it from a future state standpoint of how is She Built This City not just … training women, but future-training employers themselves.”

Read more inspiring stories of women making a difference in the industry.