Gen-Z students are choosing a trade over college. That shows they’re smart

<span>‘The construction and contracting field is a great career path for gen-Zers, and that’s great news for many of my clients in this industry.’</span><span>Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images</span>
‘The construction and contracting field is a great career path for gen-Zers, and that’s great news for many of my clients in this industry.’Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images

Just this past week I stopped by a local convenience store around 6am for a coffee before a long drive. The store at that time was – unsurprisingly – filled with contractors doing the same before their early-morning jobs started. Most of the contractors that I saw were younger and in their 20s. It was noticeable. And apparently, I’m not the only one noticing.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a growing number of gen-Zers are flocking to the construction trade.

“Enrollment in vocational training programs is surging as overall enrollment in community colleges and four-year institutions has fallen,” writes Te-Ping Chen. “The number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16 percent 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 percent during that time, while those in programs covering HVAC and vehicle maintenance and repair increased 7 percent.”

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Why the surge? There are some obvious reasons including the ridiculously high cost of tuition and a declining return on investment. By comparison, a two-year course at a trade school virtually guarantees a young plumber, electrician, welder or carpenter a job for life in an industry that is woefully understaffed and grappling with a housing shortage not seen in recent memory. Although physically demanding, most construction jobs start early and also end earlier in the day. The work is varied and challenging. The demand for these workers is high. And if there’s a desire to be entrepreneurial and start one’s own business, the construction industry is a trade with a low barrier to entry and a higher probability of building an asset of value with relatively little risk.

So why is it just recently that so many younger people are replacing a college education with these technical skills? I blame it on us, the parents. We’re the ones who have been overpaying for our kids’ education.

Almost 10 years ago I sent my three kids to overpriced schools. And why? Because my ego is too big. I whined and grumbled about the high cost of tuition and I knew that the education they were receiving did little to prepare them for their real-world job responsibilities. But how could I tell my friends and neighbors in our middle-class suburban community that my children would be attending a – gasp! – community college or a technical school? Oh, the shame!

“They must be having financial troubles if they can’t afford a college,” our friends would say. “I always knew those Marks kids weren’t so smart!”

My ego was too big and my self-confidence was too low. I know others who felt the same way. So we paid through the nose for colleges where our children – who had a great time, mind you – but spent more of that time at home or drinking beer than in the actual classroom. Lesson learned. The good news is that some parents – and their kids – are learning.

“I’ll be honest, it took me a little bit mentally to get on board,” one mother, who studied drama and art history before obtaining an MBA (imagine what that cost!), said in the Wall Street Journal article. But she soon realized the benefits.

All of this presents a great recruiting opportunity for companies in the construction field. And many of my clients and friends in this industry are jumping on it. They’re partnering with local high schools and offering apprenticeships, summer jobs and other opportunities to give students a taste for the work and a vision of the opportunities. There’s still a labor shortage, but the numbers are improving. And more technical degrees in engineering are still a good option for students that enjoy that kind of thing.

The construction and contracting field is a great career path for gen-Zers, and that’s great news for many of my clients in this industry. Judging by the early-morning crowd at the convenience store, it’s also a very encouraging and hopeful sign that younger generations are smart enough to realize the opportunity.