Gen Z Joins The Trades

For the last eight decades, society told teens that a college degree was their ticket to middle-class prosperity. Today, with college costing more than ever, yet yielding fewer financial rewards, increasing numbers of young adults are instead picking up a hammer or wrench, and joining the skilled trades.

A recent Wall Street Journal article documents this phenomenon and discovers several causes. The first is skyrocketing tuition costs and student debt, with incoming Vanderbilt students set to pay nearly six figures a year to attend. The second is the fact that roughly half of college grads end up with jobs that don’t require a college degree. The third is the increasing concern that white-collar professions might be decimated by AI. And the fourth is the entrepreneurial orientation of Gen Z: Why join a big company, play by their rules and risk a layoff when you can learn a skilled trade, and then hang out your own shingle?

As a result, while enrollment in community colleges and four-year institutions shows just a slight increase year-over-year, enrollment in vocational-focused community colleges is up almost 20%. New construction hires earned $48,089 on average in 2023, up 5.1% year-over-year, while the starting salary in professional services averaged just $39,520, up only 2.7% year-over-year. Last year, the number of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and HVAC specialists grew vs. a decade ago, while the median ages of all those professions decreased, as boomers and Gen-Xers retired from those trades and Gen Z started taking their place.



And these skilled tradespeople are spending less to earn more. While college students graduate with six-figure debt loads, their counterparts can attend trade school for four figures a year, and graduate after two years. Better yet, many find apprenticeships where they get paid to learn on the job, and their employer pays for schooling. As a result, they can graduate debt-free; live in a low-cost city (after all, every town needs electricians and plumbers); and buy a house once they’re making mid-to-high five figures in their twenties.

With the money they’re saving on college tuition, some parents can invest in their trade-school grads’ start-ups. The WSJ profiles one such family, whose older son is attending trade school for automotive repair, and then hopes to start his own mobile detailing service, before expanding into auto-body work. His father is thrilled, and plans to invest in his son’s business, and then do the same for his younger son when he gets ready to start a welding business.

How can brands better serve these young tradespeople?

*Include them in ads. Don’t exclusively feature big-city, white-collar or “creative class” young adults in ads; also make sure to include hard-working, blue-collar folks enjoying your brand (a rarity for categories outside of blue jeans, beer and pickup trucks).

*Address their needs. These young tradespeople might need uniforms that are practical, durable and comfortable, yet stylish. They could probably use pain-relief devices and over-the-counter products to relieve discomfort after working a physically demanding shift. And if they’re starting their own business, they need workflow management and accounting software designed for their industry.

*Assume they’re starting sooner. While college grads are taking longer to reach key milestones of adulthood due to crippling debt loads, tradespeople can marry, start a family, buy a house and new car, and travel just as early as boomers and The Greatest Generation did. So if you’re marketing these services to white-collar consumers in their thirties (and beyond), consider how you might target tradespeople in their twenties, who are “adulting” a decade sooner.

By following these practices, your brand can help young tradespeople as they rebuild and repair America.

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