Trades over degrees? Gen Z’s career shift

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How many children do you know who dream of growing up to become an HVAC technician?

While it’s easy to think of Gen Z as children depending on your age and experience, prior definitions from the Pew Research Center (which has since reevaluated how it examines age cohorts overall) would put the oldest members of that crew at around 27 years old. They’re doing more than just shaping social media culture: They’re also getting into skilled trades.

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article reported that Gen Z is transitioning into what’s being called the “toolbelt generation.” Did you immediately think of physical exertion and dirty hands? Many people do, but that’s not true for every skilled trade. These days, many of these fields have been fundamentally changed by technological advances.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), student enrollment in degree-granting institutions dropped from 18.1 million students to 15.4 million students between 2010 and 2021. While NCES projects a 9% increase through 2031, other sources are less optimistic and predict a dramatic decline starting in 2025.

But why are young people increasingly pursuing trades instead of traditional college tracks?

One reason is inflation. College is expensive. Since 1980, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board for an undergraduate degree has surged by 169%. That’s a hike that not even federal student aid can keep up with since the maximum amount that undergrads can receive per year is in the low tens of thousands of dollars.

The average cost of a trade program varies depending on the field but is often less than a four-year college degree. A recent survey of parents from home ownership-focused tech company Thumbtack found they felt skilled trades were future-proofed against AI replacing jobs; after all, you can’t have an AI-enabled carpenter or plumber yet. Plus, US Department of Labor data from FY21 shows that many skilled trades require apprenticeships.

A new apprenticeship resource in Maryland

Yvette Diamond, the cofounder and executive director of Maryland Apprenticeship Connector (MAC), is familiar with this need for apprentices and apprenticeships. MAC launched at the end of 2023 to serve as a bridge between mostly high schoolers interested in apprenticeships and employers seeking a reliable hiring pipeline. The organization hopes to expand apprenticeships to adults in the future.

“The program is a customizable training opportunity that can include college, may not include college, can start in high school [or] could start as an older adult,” said Diamond, whose father spent much of his career with IBM. “It really depends on the needs and the culture fit for the employer.”

MAC also offers expertise on construction workforce development through a partnership with the Maryland Center for Construction Education & Innovation, and biotech alongside Health Tech Alley in Columbia. Employers that receive guidance from MAC do so at no cost.

MAC works in tandem with priorities in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a state education reform plan that aims to increase the number of apprenticeships for just high school juniors and seniors up to 60,000 by the 2030-31 school year. For scale, Maryland public schools gave out only 59,735 diplomas in 2022.

In Maryland, during the 2021-2022 school year, 186 students participated in apprenticeships across 287 employers. According to a blueprint data set, there were zero student apprentices in the Baltimore City Public Schools district that year despite efforts from the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development to connect pupils with apprenticeship and workforce training providers. In the same school year, one student apprentice attended Prince George’s County Public Schools while 10 enrolled with Baltimore County Public Schools.

The Maryland State Department of Education has since published graduation data for the 2022-2023 school year, but without the apprenticeship figures MAC’s data cites.

Diamond said that MAC is currently researching to identify and create pathways into industries that might interest young people like IT and related fields. That’s where Chris Abell, the technology lead and cofounder of MAC who serves as the Carroll Technology and Innovation Council’s executive director, comes in.

“We’ve made, with [MAC, an opportunity where] you could create a three-year timeline, where you take that person from an entry-level IT [role] to entry-level cybersecurity,” said Abell. “Not only are you creating a career for that individual, but you’re potentially creating a current career pathway for the journeyman that is the mentor of that apprentice.”

Problems of culture and generational shift — or lack thereof

Some argue that experienced journeymen or masters of the trades aren’t always pleasant to work with in apprenticeships. Open Works Executive Director Will Holman shared an anecdote about his barber, a young woman with an expensive degree from an elite college who had a coveted job in policy work.

According to Holman, his barber, much like himself when he was a carpenter in his 20s — a job he mentioned he’d struggle to recommend — disliked her job and attempted to transition into autobody work. However, she encountered difficulties with “old, cranky dudes” at the shops who were frustrated with teaching her or felt she wasn’t strong enough to handle certain tasks.

“These trades are still in the stone ages as far as [the] workplace environment vis-a-vis welcoming women, queer folks,” said Holman.

Holman also said people aren’t attending college because of the financial burden. Even though carpentry got Holman through the recession, he agrees college is too expensive. But trades present other hurdles, including how physically demanding they can be and the lack of safety nets and benefits that made these jobs so appealing for older generations.

“The basic social contract our parents or grandparents might have enjoyed — good wages, pension — is also totally broken now, so a good salary isn’t enough,” said Holman. “You’re on the hook to figure out healthcare and retirement and childcare and so on.”


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