Less coursework, more benchwork: Gen Z goes to trade school

Faced with a host of unique challenges, young people are turning to skilled trades.

Back-to-school shopping this year might entail a tool belt and goggles instead of textbooks and binders.

Two men in white hard hats and construction gear looking at a piece of paper.

Enrollment at US community colleges focused on vocational skills rose 16% in 2023 to its highest level since 2018, according to National Student Clearinghouse data. The number of students enrolled in four-year colleges rose just 0.8%.

Gen Z is driving that trend as a generation faced with unique challenges, per The Wall Street Journal.

  • The price to attend traditional four-year colleges has surged. Some private colleges and universities recently announced $90k+ annual tuition for the 2024-25 school year.
  • Families are facing a record amount of student loan debt, with an estimated ~$100B of new loans to be issued in 2024, up from $98B in 2023.
  • More than half of college grads get jobs after graduation that don’t use their degrees.
  • The US construction industry alone has a shortage of 500k+ workers as older tradespeople retire, driving up labor costs.

These factors have enticed young people to explore options outside of traditional schooling. In a Jobber survey of 1k Americans ages 18-20, 75% said they would be interested in paid training at a vocational school.

Adding to the temptation, 2023 was the fourth consecutive year that the median pay for new construction workers was higher than that of new hires in professional services or information industries.

The median annual pay for new construction workers rose 5.1% to ~$48k in 2023, compared to new professional hires whose pay was ~$39.5k.

Young, wild, and debt-free

The new trend means that more workers are entering skilled trade occupations, and they’re younger.

  • The number of carpenters in the US grew from 1.2m in 2013 to 1.3m in 2023, while the median age fell from 42.2 to 40.9.
  • There were 959k electricians in 2023, up from 730k in 2013, but their median age fell by 2.9 years.

More young people in the trades means skilled professions are getting a rebrand. And technology is helping: Some vocational programs are replacing outdated tools with high-tech solutions like robots.

Speaking of tech, one last reason some are turning to skilled trades: AI.

Jobber’s survey found that 34% of respondents felt trade careers could offer more job security than desk jobs as generative AI takes off.

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