Apr 14, 2024 - Economy

Trades make a comeback with Gen Z workers

Illustration of pipes against a background of tile in an upward trend like and a hand with a pipe wrench

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America’s skilled trades — from plumbing to welding to construction — need more workers as boomers retire. Gen Z-ers are stepping up to fill the gaps.

The big picture: Enrollment in vocational programs and applications for trade jobs are ticking up as younger people look to start their careers without the sky-high cost of a four-year college degree.

  • "We're finally seeing a more than subtle change within our society," says Robb Sommerfeld, co-founder of the National Center for Craftsmanship, which provides vocational training at high schools among other services. "More and more students and their parents see alternatives."

By the numbers: Vocational training programs are seeing student numbers rise as enrollment falls at four-year and community colleges, The Wall Street Journal’s Te-Ping Chen reports.

  • Enrollment in vocational programs jumped 16% last year, according to National Student Clearinghouse.
  • The median age of workers in a number of trades, like carpentry and HVAC maintenance, is falling from the mid 40s to early 40s or even high 30s.

Reality check: The labor shortage for technical jobs isn't over.

  • The construction industry alone faces a gap of a half million workers. Many more plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers have retired over the past few years than have been trained to take their places.
  • But a shift is underway as fewer young people enter universities and more get technical training.

Flashback: The number of students entering four-year colleges shot up following the 2008 recession as Millennials waited out a rough job market and loaded up on student debt.

In the current red hot labor market, particularly in the trades, many Gen Zers are making the opposite calculation.

  • 54% of Gen Z-ers say a high school diploma is enough to get a well-paying, stable job, per a New America survey.
  • 46% of parents say they would prefer if their kids pursued alternatives to four-year college, according to a recent Gallup study.
  • Many young people believe jobs in the trades will be more resilient to the rise of AI than white collar alternatives.

Zoom in: Nick Largura, CEO of Superior Construction, says his cohort of 18- to 25-year-old workers is growing.

  • "That is the pivotal moment when people are really trying to figure out what they want to do, and if you can show them a promising future in that time, you can really make a difference," he says.
  • His pitch to Gen Z workers is two-fold: Construction, like many other trades, is an industry that isn't going anywhere, despite fears about how AI will wipe out jobs across sectors. And "you get to see a physical product at the end of the day as a result of your work."

The bottom line: “There are so many people retiring that it’s hard to say if our numbers will cover all of them. … It’s still a matter of educating our country that, ‘Hey, these jobs are out there,'" Sommerfeld says.

  • "I by no means think the work is done, but the momentum is there," says Largura.
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