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Skilled trades were not a career choice in Gen Z. : NPR

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Employers are struggling to find young workers to work in specialized occupations.

David Zalubowski/AP

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David Zalubowski/AP

Employers are struggling to find young workers to work in specialized occupations.

David Zalubowski/AP

Justin Mwandjalulu, 20, loves it build things.

Currently, as an apprentice carpenter, he installs drywall in homes with the rest of his construction crew. But he said he likes concrete better.

“At the end of the day, you see how it all spilled out. The result of your hard work,” he said.

Mwandjalulu dreamed of becoming a carpenter or electrician as a child. And now he is realizing that dream. But that also makes him an exception to the rule. While Gen Z – often described as people born between 1997 and 2012 – is on its way to becoming the most educated generation, fewer young people are opting for traditionally hands-on jobs in the skilled and technical industries.

Generation Z’s interest in business and skilled work has dropped

The number of young people looking for technical jobs — such as plumbing, construction and electrical work — is down 49% in 2022 compared to 2020, according to data from online recruitment platform Handshake shared with NPR.

Handshake researchers tracked how the number of applications for technical positions versus the number of job postings has changed over the past two years.

While posts for these roles — automotive technicians, equipment installers and respiratory therapists, to name a few — received around 10 applications each in 2020, they received around five per post in 2022.

The typical rate is about 19 applications per Handshake seat, according to Christine Cruzvergara, the company’s director of education strategy.

While the creation of technical positions has continued to grow, the number of students interested in applying for them has not increased.

Occupations such as automotive technician with an aging workforce have the US Chamber of Commerce warning of a “massive” shortage of skilled workers in 2023.

“For a long time our society did not speak well of specialized trades,” said Cruzvergara. “Instead, we encourage students to go to college, all go to four-year institutions, graduate and leave for white-collar jobs.”

One path does not fit all

Mwandjalulu, who lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and is in the second year of a four-year carpentry apprenticeship, found school difficult.

He immigrated with his family to the United States from Benin, Africa as a freshman.

“Man, it was hard,” he said. While his twin brother, now studying to work at the bank, excelled, Mwandjalulu said he struggled with writing and English.

“I’m not the type of guy who likes to be in the same place all day, dealing with papers and stuff,” he said.

Close to high school graduation, Mwandjalulu said he became depressed because he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Many of her older friends who went to college and graduated were struggling to find jobs.

Justin Mwandjalulu, 20, earns nearly $24 an hour as an apprentice carpenter in Iowa. He is happy to have avoided student debt.

Justin Mwandjalulu

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Justin Mwandjalulu

Justin Mwandjalulu, 20, earns nearly $24 an hour as an apprentice carpenter in Iowa. He is happy to have avoided student debt.

Justin Mwandjalulu

“I didn’t want to look like them,” he said. “I didn’t want to just spend money and take out a lot of loans and not use my papers,” he said, referring to a degree and a diploma.

According to the Department of Education, some 45 million people in the United States owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student debt.

But Mwandjalulu, who earns nearly $24 an hour as a carpenter, said he still has trouble convincing his friends, whom he keeps in touch with on Facebook and Snapchat, to follow his path.

“Not many people, especially immigrants, think outside of school,” he said.

The narrative is changing

Paul Iversen, a labor educator at the University of Iowa Labor Center, hopes to change that.

Iversen, who helps run a pre-apprenticeship program, said one reason participation in skilled trades is low among Gen Z is because the job has typically been passed down through families.

“It used to be word of mouth,” Iversen said. “But there is more need for carpenters, plumbers, plumbers and electricians than you can fill with today’s people’s family members.”

That reality is hitting home for farmer John Boyd Jr.

Boyd, 57, owns a 300-acre farm in Virginia where he grows soybeans, corn and wheat and raises cattle – just like three generations before him. But now none of his three children want to take over when he retires.

“Everyone on my farm is over 50,” said Boyd, who is president of the National Association of Black Farmers. “We need some young people with some energy, excitement and innovation.”

Michael Coleman, 28, is one of them. He received an NBFA scholarship in 2015 to study animal science at the University of Nebraska.

Coleman is now an animal health technician at the US Department of Agriculture and dreams of one day having his own farm. But sometimes he found a lonely field.

The median age of a US farmer is 57.5 years old, according to the 2017 US Agricultural Census, up from 54.9 in 2007, and Coleman said he has only met a few other farmers his age.

“We kind of stuck together,” he said.

there is a lot of need

But Coleman said he has seen more young people express an interest in agribusiness and other technical industries, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

“Especially with student loans and all that, it’s a lot cheaper to get a business and make a lot of money,” Coleman said. Most young people just haven’t had people show them how it works,” he said.

Still, filling technical and commercial positions requires active recruiting, said Iversen, who makes frequent visits to high schools in Iowa City and works with school counselors to place students in the pre-apprenticeship program.

Especially now, there is an urgency to fill open positions, Iversen said, as the federal government funnels billions into projects to improve roads and transit systems across the country.

“We have to recruit people to do these things or else our bridges will crumble,” Iversen said.