3 in 4 Gen Zers are interested in vocational training as uncertainty and AI shape the minds of the next ‘toolbelt generation’

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Sam Pillar is co-founder and CEO at Jobber.

Some may struggle to understand or relate to them, but it’s increasingly clear that Gen Z is a generation of doers. They take action and want to call the shots. So it isn’t surprising that many young people are enticed by entrepreneurship.

According to the first edition of Jobber’s Blue-Collar Report, in which we surveyed 1,000 people aged 18 to 20 in the U.S., nearly two-thirds (63%) said they want to start their own business at some point in their lives—and 11% already have.

That’s great news. Small business is the engine of our economy. But what businesses should they be starting? The glaringly obvious answer lies in the trades.

A case for the trades

We’ve also spoken to thousands of home service business owners—and finding reliable labor is a challenge that every one of them faces. If you’ve tried to call a plumber, an HVAC tech, or any number of tradespeople to do work around your home, you’ve likely experienced the labor shortage firsthand. 

Homes and other infrastructure are getting older. Today, the median owner-occupied home in the U.S. is 40 years old, which means there’s a growing need for repairs, maintenance, and remodeling of the aging housing stock.

At the same time, skilled workers are retiring, and there aren’t enough young people coming into the trades to take their place. Experts are predicting there will be 73,500 openings each year for electricians alone until 2032. This leads to delays in service and drives up the cost for consumers.

Answering the call for blue-collar work

The labor shortage is a major problem but also a massive opportunity for ambitious young people to come in and fill the gap. Thankfully, we’re seeing Gen Z show an interest in seizing this opportunity.

Three-quarters (75%) of our respondents say they are interested in exploring vocational schools that offer paid, on-the-job training. They’re worried about repaying loans and want to get started building their careers without going into debt. They’re also looking for stable employment. Job security was identified by respondents as one of the most important factors for selecting a career. They’re hyper-aware of advancements in technology and artificial intelligence and are concerned about pursuing jobs that could be disrupted by automation in the years ahead, many of which are in white-collar industries.

This trend is gaining momentum, and the number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges is increasing. Enrollment rose 16% last year to its highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking this data in 2018. But this isn’t enough to fill the gap.

What’s holding Gen Z back?

There’s still a stigma associated with trade careers and society continues to overstress that traditional college degrees are the only path to success. 74% of our respondents hold the belief there’s a stigma associated with going to a vocational school over a traditional four-year university and 79% say their parents want them to pursue a college education after high school, while only 5% say the same about vocational school.

Another obstacle is that Gen Z underestimates the earning potential of the trades. The majority of our survey respondents believe it’s not possible to generate seven-figure revenues in tree care, lawn care, or plumbing. However, our data of 200,000+ service pros reveals that it’s not just construction businesses that can earn big profits. More than 50% of tree care, lawn care, and plumbing businesses earn at least $1 million each year.

Chase Gallagher owns one of these businesses. Chase started his lawn care and landscaping business, CMG Landscaping, when he was just 13 years old. In the time that it took for his peers to graduate college, he’s built his business into a multi-million dollar venture and he’s pursuing his dream. His story is just one of many like it. 

It’s time for the next toolbelt generation

To address the shortage of trades workers and get more young people involved, we can start by investing in and promoting the entrepreneurial and financial opportunities provided by the trades through the media, social media, and across our communities. Parents, influencers, and educators should encourage young people to explore more diverse career options and to consider the trades as a profitable and satisfying career. Vocational programs should be promoted early on, alongside traditional colleges.

We need to support businesses that want to provide training and apprenticeship opportunities. In addition to pushing for more government funding in this area, if you know of a business that offers apprenticeships or mentors youth in your community, think of them first the next time you need some work done.

We can do a lot to reverse the stigma associated with the trades. Sharing stories like Chase’s helps, but it can also be as simple as showing respect for these workers and thanking them for everything they do. We need to recognize and value the essential work of trades professionals. Together, these actions can unlock a massive opportunity for the next generation, small businesses, and the economy.

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