By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Colleen Parisi wants to drive the heavy equipment. Michelle Ortiz can’t wait to operate a jackhammer.
And they will.
These aren’t experienced construction workers. They are Salem High School sophomores exploring potential careers.
Anyone who thinks a teenage girl can’t drive a backhoe or use a jackhammer better think again.
Twenty girls from the school will don hard hats and participate in the New Hampshire Construction Career Days program being held today and tomorrow at the Hopkinton State Fairgrounds in Hopkinton.
They will be joined by 54 classmates — all boys — who participate in the building trades program at Salem High’s Center for Career and Technical Education.
More than 1,100 students from 39 New Hampshire high schools will participate, including Pinkerton Academy, Londonderry High School and Sanborn Regional High School. There will be hands-on exhibits and demonstrations provided by more than 50 experts in the construction industry.
The event’s purpose is to give students a chance to consider careers in construction and related fields, including architecture and engineering, according to state Construction Career Days Chairman Catherine Schoenenberger. It’s organized in conjunction with the New Hampshire Departments of Education and Transportation.
“We really want the kids to be exposed to careers,” she said. “We have a talented, but shrinking, skilled workforce.”
A main focus is attracting more young women to the construction industry, increasing the career opportunities available to them, Schoenenberger said.
“We need more diversity in the workforce, especially in New Hampshire,” Shoenenberger said.
Schoenenberger owns her company, Bay State Traffic Products, and is a member of the National Association of Women in Construction.
While the association says the number of construction businesses owned by women is growing, females make up only 9.6 percent of that workforce.
Schoenenberger and Terry Berube, CTE student services coordinator at Salem High, hope to change that.
When no girls signed up for Salem’s building trades program, Berube recruited Construction Career Days candidates from science classes at the school. Usually, there are at least three or four girls in the program out of nearly 100 students, vocational teacher Bill Duchano said.
It’s not known why none registered this year, Duchano said. Having both boys and girls typically leads to a healthy competition between the sexes.
“The girls fit in just fine,” he said. “The guys don’t want the girls to show them up and the girls don’t want to be beaten out by the guys.”
Pinkerton is sending 22 girls out of 99 students to the event, CTE assistant director Tracy Untiet said. Sanborn is sending three girls and 15 boys, principal Brian Stack said.
Although the 20 young women from Salem may not necessarily become construction foremen, some signed up for the Construction Career Days because they are interested in engineering or wetlands and soil science.
The sophomores are all that point in their lives where they are deciding on potential careers and examining their options. Plus, the two-day event sounded fun, they said.
“I always think it’s a good idea to explore doing different things,” said Michelle Ortiz, 14. “I’m just looking forward to using the equipment.”
Ortiz, who is particularly interested in learning about soil science, is excited about using a jackhammer for the first time.
“It just seemed like something I never would do,” she said. “It seemed interesting to at least try it.”
Parisi, 15, said she wanted to try the heavy equipment. She hopes the event will help her narrow possible career choices.
“I decided I wanted to expand my options,” Parisi said. “I’m not sure what I want to do yet.”
Katerina Anamisis, 15, is in the same situation. She wants to attend the event to learn about marine construction, such as building bridges.
“I definitely wanted to try it this year,” she said.