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Why Gen-Z is returning to the trades — and what it means for recruiters

In recent years, a notable shift has emerged in the career choices of Generation Z. Traditionally, higher education has been the presumed path to career success. However, growing disenchantment with the college track, coupled with rising costs and the advent of new technologies, has led many young workers to reconsider their options. Increasingly, they are turning towards skilled trades such as plumbing, electrical work, and machine tooling. This trend, aptly dubbed by the Wall Street Journal as “Gen Z Becoming the Toolbelt Generation,” reflects a significant transformation in the workforce landscape. Let’s delve into why this shift is happening and what it means for recruiters.

The rising appeal of trades — and why it makes sense

Several factors are driving Gen-Z’s growing interest in trades:

1. The burgeoning cost of college: The cost of college has been steadily rising, making higher education increasingly unaffordable for many families. According to the College Board, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for the 2023-2024 school year was $10,560 for in-state students at public colleges, $27,020 for out-of-state students, and a staggering $37,650 for private colleges . For many young people, the prospect of graduating with substantial debt is daunting.

2. Questionable ROI on degrees: The return on investment (ROI) of a college degree is being questioned. A 2023 survey conducted by Business Insider and YouGov found that only 39% of Gen Zers believed advancing their education was important to their career success . Joseph Fuller of Harvard Business School highlights that the once-clear financial advantage of a college degree has narrowed, reducing the so-called “college premium.”

3. Competitive pay and advancement opportunities: Trades offer competitive pay and opportunities for career growth. Fields like plumbing, electrical work, and machine tooling are not only well-paid but also allow workers to enter the workforce sooner without accumulating debt. For instance, new hires in construction have seen their median annual pay surpass that of professional services and information sectors for four consecutive years.

4. The (good & bad) implications of technological advancements: New technologies are reshaping trade professions, making them more attractive. Advanced tools and machinery, along with digital technologies, are helping to shed the image of these jobs as dirty or low-end. This technological facelift is particularly appealing to tech-savvy Gen Zers.

The current state of vocational education

The growing interest in trades is reflected in educational enrollment data:

  • Enrollment surge: Enrollment in vocational-focused community colleges and trade schools has surged, reaching its highest level since 2018. There was a 16% increase in 2023 alone.
  • Specific fields of growth: Enrollment in HVAC and car maintenance programs rose by 7%, while those pursuing building trades jumped by 23%.

Increased funding for apprenticeships: To support this shift, there has been a significant increase in funding for apprenticeships. For example, the Biden-Harris administration announced $200 million in grants to expand registered apprenticeships, and the Healey-Driscoll administration in Massachusetts recently allocated $5 million to expand apprenticeship programs.

Job security and AI: Amidst the rise of AI and automation, many young people perceive trades as offering greater job security compared to white-collar jobs. A 2023 survey by Jobber found that high-school and college-age respondents believed blue-collar jobs provided better job security in an AI-driven future.

Implications of a return to the trades for recruiters

Despite the growing interest, many skilled trades industries face significant hiring challenges. The U.S. is experiencing a shortage of 650,000 skilled tradespeople, causing delays in construction projects and other sectors . Here’s what recruiters need to consider:

1. Hiring strategy: Recruiters must decide whether to hire to train or hire based on existing skills and certifications. Given the specific training required for trades, this decision can impact the effectiveness of the recruitment process.

2. Recruitment channels: Traditional recruitment platforms like LinkedIn may not be as effective for skilled trades. Instead, recruiters should consider trade shows, conferences, hiring events, and specialized job boards. Outreach strategies should align with the nature of the work and the habits of potential candidates.

3. Flexibility and working conditions: It’s become clear that Gen Z values flexibility and competitive pay. While trades often involve set shifts, there is a growing recognition among employers that offering more flexible work schedules can attract and retain younger workers. This might include split shifts, transparent scheduling, and flexible PTO.

4. Speed and efficiency in hiring: The hiring process for skilled trades often moves quickly. Recruiters need to be prepared to vet candidates swiftly and efficiently. As one Reddit user noted, the process from finding a candidate to their first day on the job can happen within a week:

“The thing about STE (Skilled Trades & Engineering) that makes it different from other verticals is that it moves very quickly. It is super common for me to find a candidate, submit them to the job, interview, get an offer, and go through notice within a 1 week timeframe.  I try to submit two fully vetted candidates every day, and average about a placement per week. Placements obviously are very small – you are going for a series of base hits and not big homers. I charge 20-25% of salary depending on volume. Pay rates for candidates can range from ~20 per hour up to 40+. 12-15k fees are the norm, and you try to string together a series of them every month.” – r/recruitment Reddit user

5. Embracing technology: The trades have a reputation for being rather “old school.” To attract younger workers, companies need to modernize — and that includes their recruitment processes. Digitizing hiring not only speeds up the process but also signals that the company is technologically forward-thinking, which is increasingly crucial since digital skills are highly valued by today’s construction workers.

6. Proactive recruitment: Rather than only recruiting when there is an immediate need, companies should maintain a pipeline of interested and qualified candidates. This proactive approach helps mitigate the impact of skilled labor shortages on production and project timelines.


The trend of Gen Z returning to the trades is a response to both economic pressures and evolving job market dynamics. For recruiters, this shift presents both challenges and opportunities. By understanding the motivations behind this trend and adapting their strategies accordingly, recruiters can effectively tap into this growing pool of talent. Emphasizing the financial stability, career growth, and technological advancements in trades will be key to attracting and retaining the next generation of skilled workers.

By investing in flexible work conditions, leveraging technology in recruitment, and maintaining a proactive hiring approach, companies can not only fill current vacancies but also build a resilient workforce for the future. As the landscape of education and work continues to evolve, the trades offer a viable and attractive path for many young people seeking a stable and rewarding career without the burden of student debt. For recruiters, embracing this trend means recognizing the value and potential of skilled trades and adapting their strategies to meet the needs and preferences of Gen Z.

Want to go deeper on this topic? We’ve got a podcast episode breaking down all the details.

Check it out here: Becoming a Hiring Machine 094: What Gen Z’s Return to the Trades Means For Recruiters

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