Why Generation Z Is Choosing Trade School Over College

students in class at trade school

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About to graduate from high school? Already finished school and weighing your options for the next step?

Then you are likely part of Generation Z, the group of Americans born in 1997 and later.1

Unlike your older siblings and parents, going to college may not be part of your life plan. You’re not alone. Your peers aren’t too keen on spending at least four more years in school and potentially taking on student debt, either.

Past Generations Pushed Toward College

For decades, young people have been pushed toward a college education instead of vocational training. After World War II, the number of well-paying blue-collar jobs in this country started to decline.2

Plus, measures like 1944’s GI Bill®* prioritized college over trade school, causing parents to discourage their children from pursuing a career in the trades.3

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As a result, vocational training has been considered a “second choice” for those who don’t make it to college. “It’s been a long-standing idea that the next generation goes to college and moves out of ‘working with your hands,’” Alison Kibler, a college professor and mother of a son who attended a masonry program, told The Atlantic.

The next generation of young people, however, isn’t as bound to these stereotypes and assumptions anymore. In fact, a 4-year college education may not adequately prepare them for the challenges they are facing as they are about to enter the workforce. Gen Z is discovering that vocational training can be the more sensible choice.

Generation Z Considering Skipping College for Trade School

trade school teacher with hands on training

These days, the pendulum has swung back somewhat in favor of vocational training and trade schools. Gen Z—individuals born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s—are increasingly skeptical of whether a college degree will really pay off. This generation is arguably facing more uncertainty and instability than previous ones.

Below are some of the factors swaying Gen Zers away from college and toward trade schools:

Student Debt Crisis

The student debt crisis is worsening4, wages have largely remained stagnant5 and the gig economy has been replacing long-term employment.6 Many Gen Zers are choosing trade school over college to avoid skyrocketing student debt and to obtain skills that are in high demand.7

Skilled Trades Demand

The skilled trades are suffering from an immense labor shortage, which means there is a lot of job potential for Gen Zers in these industries. The HVAC industry, for example, is expanding while the supply of qualified workers with HVAC training is short. As baby boomers—who make up a big part of the skilled trades workforce8—are retiring, this shortage will likely only get worse.

Generational Shift Toward Manufacturing and Skilled Trades

Gen Z is more eager to work in manufacturing compared to older generations. A survey by data and software analysis company Leaning2Lead found that 27 percent of Gen Z is willing to work in manufacturing—higher than millennials and every other generation polled.9

In addition, 43 percent of surveyed Gen Zers agreed that manufacturing jobs are “an attractive option to younger workers and the next generation of workers,” while 59 percent said trade schools “offer promising career opportunities.” Industry experts believe that these already promising numbers could get a boost if Gen Z had more opportunities to learn about skilled trades careers.9

What Generation Z Is Looking for in a Job

Generation Z shares a lot of priorities and preferences with millennials, but there are significant differences. They are more outspoken, shaped by the economic and social forces of the last decade and possibly show greater potential for the skilled trades.

The Vocal Generation

Gen Z workers want what everybody else wants, but they are much more vocal about it, Roger Casey of McDaniel College in Westminster, MI, said to the Detroit News. This is also true for millennials, but even more so for this younger cohort.

“We say what’s on our minds, and we say it loudly, maybe too loudly,” 22-year old Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman told the same publication. “We’re not keeping our heads down and doing what’s in front of you and if there’s a problem ignore it. No, if it’s a problem, let’s address it.”

What Matters to Gen Z?

When it comes to the job market, Gen Z is expected to place great emphasis on:

  • Financial security
  • Flexibility
  • Diversity in the workplace10

Gen Zers grew up when their parents were hit by the Great Recession, so it makes sense that financial security is very important to them. Given that younger workers are pushing for a greater work-life balance, flexible schedules rank high among Gen Zers (and younger millennials).11

Many skilled trades can meet these demands. HVAC jobs can pay well and are in high demand. Vocational careers like welder or solar technician frequently offer flexibility. There are concerted efforts to diversify workplaces, such as special programs to recruit women.12

The Potential of a Gen Z Workforce

Gen Zers are more independent than millennials because they weren’t raised by “helicopter” parents.10 The boomer parents of millennials are notoriously hyper- involved and often inhibit their children from solving their own problems.13 Gen X, the “latchkey kids” of the 1970s/80s, is raising Gen Z to be more like them: autonomous.14

“We don’t always need that guiding hand, because we want to learn how to do it,” young John Nobriga explained to the Detroit News. “That’s how you get connected to the company and the job. It’s going to be something you want to do and be more interesting and make you want to come back every day and work.”10

Gen Zers are digital natives. They know how to research things and they know where to look. They are natural self-starters, which makes them excellent candidates for the skilled trades. Identifying the right vocational training program, going on the job hunt and working in the field requires gumption.

Gen Z – The Future of the Skilled Trades?

The oldest Gen Zers are only now entering the workforce, so it remains to be seen if they significantly deviate from the previous generation in terms of career choices. This cohort, however, is a great fit for trade school programs and skilled trade industries.

Should more Gen Zers enroll in vocational training and enter the skilled trades, they could truly alleviate the labor shortage and help many industries in the U.S. flourish.

Additional Sources

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