Gen Z Is Choosing the Trades Over Four-Year Education: What Does This Mean for Contractors?


Gen Z—young people born between 1997-2013—are decidedly shifting their focus towards the trades. In fact, in 2023, trade school enrollment jumped 16%! In this post, we'll explore some of the reasons behind this trend as well as how it’s impacting (and will continue to impact) contractors nationwide. 

Gen Z is choosing the trades. What factors are influencing their decision? 

An increasing number of students are exploring alternative educational options, including trade schools and apprenticeships in the trades. As a result, Gen Z is being dubbed by many as The Toolbelt Generation. There are several primary reasons for this trend:

  • The cost of a four-year education is a non-starter for many young people. From 1980-2020, the average cost of tuition at a four-year college increased 180% annually to $28,775 before any grants, scholarships, or financial aid. Multiply this by a minimum of four years, and students are looking at upwards of $100k for a bachelor’s degree! 

  • Obtaining an entry-level professional position in many fields is next to impossible because the market is saturated. Many students choose the trades because they don’t want to risk not landing a job out of college, and they don’t want to move back in with their parents if they can’t make a living wage or afford their student loan payments.

  • Many jobs require experience to get your foot in the door. However, upon graduating, the vast majority of four-year grads don’t have real-world experience and can have a difficult time landing a job with a degree alone. As a result, over half of four-year college graduates end up in a job that doesn’t require a costly bachelor’s degree. Economists call this underemployment. 
  • COVID destigmatized the trades by demonstrating our continual reliance upon trade services. While the economy tanked and many business professionals were laid off overnight, electricians, plumbers, machinists, and construction workers (among others!) forged ahead, providing necessary services across the globe. 

  • The rise of artificial intelligence is decreasing the demand for human services in fields such as computer programming, advertising and technical writing, finance...and the list goes on! As AI grows increasingly sophisticated, even more industries (and their employees) will be affected. However, due to the innate physical nature of trade jobs, they’re far less likely to be outsourced, adding to their appeal.

  • As opposed to enrolling in four-year school and racking up student loan debt, many high school graduates are drawn towards apprenticeship opportunities where they receive on-the-job training, work towards a certification, and get paid throughout the process.

  • In many cases, graduates in the trades make more money as new hires than their college-educated peers, and they can achieve a six-figure income in a short span of time.
    Contractors stand to benefit from an increased demand for apprenticeships. 

In recent years, an increasing number of baby boomers have retired from the trades, resulting in a labor shortage…and contractors are feeling the crunch. These retirees take with them knowledge and wisdom acquired from decades of experience, leaving behind a noticeable skills gap. Fortunately, with Gen Z's recent pivot towards the trades, the demand for apprenticeships is increasing, and contractors will benefit in several ways. 

  • Contractors will experience increased employee retention. When students are paid to learn, they’re more loyal to their employers. In fact, 92% of apprentices stay with their employer after completing their training. This dramatically decreases recruitment and training costs and minimizes the stress of seeking outside talent to fill positions within their organizations.

  • Contractors will experience healthier, more functional employee relationships. Gen Zers who pursue apprenticeships not only have a greater allegiance to their employers, but contractors also benefit from more effective communication and closer employer-employee relationships.

  • Contractors will develop a more highly skilled workforce. When contractors train students from the ground up, they train employees who learn their company inside and out. This decreases liability costs and increases workplace productivity for a profitable, thriving business.

While some choose to pursue the trade school route, young people are increasingly aware of the benefits of apprenticeship programs, and contractors need to be ready to accommodate more apprentices.
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