#197 – Inside Our Industry – How Gen Z is Becoming the Toolbelt Generation

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

Vocational education appears to taking hold. It is great to see enrollment in vocational training increasing, and to see the median age of those working these jobs trending downward.

How Gen Z is Becoming the Toolbelt Generation
Te-Ping Chen, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2024

America needs more plumbers, and Gen Z is answering the call.

Long beset by a labor crunch, the skilled trades are newly appealing to the youngest cohort of American workers, many of whom are choosing to leave the college path. Rising pay and new technologies in fields from welding to machine tooling are giving trade professions a face-lift, helping them shed the image of being dirty, low-end work. Growing skepticism about the return on a college education, the cost of which has soared in recent decades, is adding to their shine. 

Enrollment in vocational training programs is surging as overall enrollment in community colleges and four-year institutions has fallen. The number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% last year to its highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking such data in 2018. The ranks of students studying construction trades rose 23% during that time, while those in programs covering HVAC and vehicle maintenance and repair increased 7%. 

shortage of skilled tradespeople, brought on as older electricians, plumbers and welders retire, is driving up the cost of labor, as many sticker-shocked homeowners embarking on repairs and renovations in recent years have found. 

The median pay for new construction hires rose 5.1% to $48,089 last year. By contrast, new hires in professional services earned an annual $39,520, up 2.7% from 2022, according to data from payroll-services provider ADP. 

That’s the fourth year that median annual pay for new construction hires has eclipsed earnings for new hires in both the professional services and information sectors—such as accountants or IT maintenance workers—ADP says.  

Demand for trade apprenticeships, which let students combine work experience with a course of study often paid for by employers, has boomed lately. In a survey of high school and college-age people by software company Jobber last year, 75% said they would be interested in vocational schools offering paid, on-the-job training.

In Pennsylvania, the trades have seen an influx of workers since the pandemic, says Michael McGraw, executive director of the Pennsylvania Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. In the southeastern part of the state, where McGraw is based, someone graduating five years ago from the trade schools the association runs might have made $35,000 a year; these days it is closer to $60,000, he says. Enrollment in the association’s trade schools—where tuition costs around $3,000 a year—has risen across the board.

“After Covid, it seemed a lot of people realized the trades are a life-sustaining career path,” he says. As other businesses shut down then, more people realized that the skilled trades were reliable, well-paying paths that weren’t going away, he says. 

The number of carpenters in the U.S. grew over the past decade, while their median age fell from 42.2 to 40.9. The same was true for electricians, whose ranks grew by 229,000 workers, even as their median age fell by 2.9 years, according to federal data. Other skilled trade occupations, such as plumbing and HVAC workers, have also trended younger. 

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