All parents want their children to get a good job that pays them a livable wage. For many, that means attending a four-year college institution. But for many others, there’s an alternate path.

Many in Generation Z, those in their early 20s and younger, are looking to the security of a job in the skilled trades as opposed to a college degree.
Photo credit: Oregon Tradeswomen

If you’re one of the older members of Generation Z, that is, the older side of the roughly 7 to 22-year-old age group, you’ve grown up during the Great Recession and may have seen older siblings pay tens of thousands of dollars to a college or university that is no longer the guarantee of a good-paying job it once was. Homeownership rates have plummeted while wages have stagnated and more and more wealth seems to only trickle up to the top one percent.

All this is happening during a major construction boom. Coupled with the baby-boom generation reaching retirement, more and more construction jobs are opening up. The U.S. Department of Education reports that there will be 68 percent more job openings in infrastructure-related fields in the next five years than there are people training to fill them.

A lot of those jobs offer a solid wage, and for those who go through a union apprenticeship, you can start earning on Day 1.

“A union apprenticeship is often called ‘the other four-year degree’ for a reason,” said IBEW International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “It’s a skilled trade that you need to learn, and it’s one that pays you a good wage with benefits and the ability to retire. That’s what all working people want.”

Unfortunately, career and technical education classes, also known as CTE or vocational education, have been sidelined in favor of the more illustrious-sounding college degree.

“Starting about 30 years ago, it became a negative thing to work with your hands,” said Skip Perley, president and CEO of signatory contractor Thompson Electric Co. to Electrical Contractor Magazine. “Blue-collar opportunities became the ‘leftover’ jobs when you couldn’t make it in the white-collar world, and it became embarrassing for parents if their kids were trade or factory workers.”

Of course, they were never just “leftover” jobs, but the stigma caught on.

“Too often, the implication has been that people in the trades weren’t smart enough for college. But the truth is that people who think it doesn’t take enormous skill sets to run a $10 million construction project are dead wrong,” Perley said. “Schools have increasingly figured out that they’ve made a mistake, but we have 30 years of ingrained negative perceptions to get over.”

A 2017 report by the Brookings Institute stated that there’s been a resurgence in CTE in the past decade, citing increased scholarship in the area as well as media mentions. It also noted that in 2015 alone, 39 states instituted 125 new laws, policies or regulations relating to CTE, many of which increased funding.

As technology advances, and more people see the appeal of a job that is a skilled craft, something that comes with a sense of accomplishment not to mention the earning potential, the tide may be changing.

“The truth is electrical contracting is highly technology-driven today. It’s not just digging dirt and cutting wires, but about working with cutting-edge technology, which appeals to tech-savvy young people today,” said Kevin Tighe, the National Electrical Contractors Association’s executive director in the Electrical Contractor. “Our field is embracing changes in technology, which is helping to grow the industry and create opportunities for young people, who will help further that trend. The guts of new buildings will still come down to electrical work, and the operations behind this will attract people who use joysticks and mouses.”

While much remains to be seen with Generation Z, there’s already data suggesting this generation is more frugal and is prioritizing financial stability in a way that older generations may not have at a similar age. Fast Company reported in 2016 that 66 percent said their number one concern was drowning in debt and more than half already have savings accounts. They also rate their top three priorities as getting a job, finishing college and safeguarding money for the future. And 75 percent believe there are ways to get a good education that don’t involve going to college.

“The thing is, these construction jobs aren’t going away,” Stephenson said. “So, if you’re looking to jump start your career and want to be able to put away some money at the same time, the trades are an appealing option. It’s nice to see that the message we’ve been putting out there for years is resonating with young people. We hope to see more and more of them applying for IBEW apprenticeships in the years ahead.”