Today’s trend-setting teens are ditching the debt load of a four-year college degree in favor of learning trades and earning technical degrees. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, they’re questioning the expense of a college education, as well as the earnings advantage that it traditionally granted. In an economy with unemployment at record lows, jobs in the trades are once again in high demand, and command premium wages.
States across the country are spurring this trend: last year, 49 of them enacted 241 policies to support career and technical education, the preferred terms for “vocational education” or “trade school.” Even though young adults are increasingly well-educated, nearly half still aren’t attaining a college certificate or degree. And about a third of college grads end up taking a job that doesn’t require a college diploma. Even a tech career doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg famously demonstrated. Young adults can gain tech skills through coding academies, apprenticeships and online courses.
This phenomenon also dovetails with another trend: Gen Z is an extremely entrepreneurial generation. Why invest four years in a college education, to apply for a job at a big company, to eventually try to go off on your own? It’s a much quicker and cost-effective path to get the skills you need in a matter of months, and then apply them to your own business, whether that’s developing an app, overhauling a diesel engine, or highlighting someone’s hair. Especially when it’s easier than ever to promote a business and connect with customers via social media.
What does the resurgence of the trades and career education mean for brands?
* Young adults have more discretionary income. It’s wrong to assume every college-age consumer is broke and deep in debt; some might be earning high-five or low-six-figure incomes, and able to spend on travel, high fashion, luxury cars, top-shelf alcohol and other premium categories. So don’t target only fortysomethings with that Cadillac, Johnnie Walker Black or Rolex ad; also make sure you’re inviting along the twentysomething tradespeople who want to enjoy some of their hard-won success. And if people are earning a living sooner, with less debt, they’re also able to form households, partner up, have kids and buy a home sooner, so don’t forget those customers, either.
* Your B2B customer might be younger than you think. A lot of B2B campaigns are designed around outdated notions of who the target customer is: in many cases, an older white male. If you’re selling Cummins engines or Snap-on tools, your purchaser or influencer might be an 18 year-old female. Your campaign should reflect this diversity and speak to the needs of all potential customers without bias. It also needs to be on mobile and across social media, to reach these young professionals where they live. And if you can successfully sell to young entrepreneurs, imagine the “multiplier effect” as they evangelize your brand to all their customers, and across their social media channels.
* On-campus marketing only gets you so far. Historically, brands looking to connect with young adults have gone on campus, into spring break destinations, and onto the playing fields to sponsor college athletics and other student programming. However, this only gets you halfway there in reaching Adults 18-24. Think more broadly about ways to reach young adults who share a lot of the same demographics as college students, but who don’t happen to be in college: venues such as meet-ups, music festivals, nonprofits, trade associations and social justice campaigns.
It doesn’t take a college degree to realize today’s teens are rewriting the rules of education. Brands need to evolve with them, or risk being left behind at the back of the class.