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Many in Gen Z ditch colleges for trade schools. Meet the 'toolbelt generation'

Diego Aguilar works at a trade center at East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif.
Marla Aufmuth/JVS
Diego Aguilar works at a trade center at East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif.

Sy Kirby dreaded the thought of going to college after graduating from high school. He says a four-year degree just wasn't in the cards for him or his bank account.

"I was facing a lot of pressure for a guy that knew for a fact that he wasn't going to college," Kirby says. "I knew I wasn't going to sit in a classroom, especially since I knew I wasn't going to pay for it."

Instead, at the age of 19, Kirby took a job at a local water department in southern Arkansas. He said the position helped him to develop the skills that helped him start his own construction company.

Sy Kirby, who runs his own construction company, says a four-year degree just wasn't in the cards for him or his bank account.
/ Will Anderson
Will Anderson
Sy Kirby, who runs his own construction company, says a four-year degree just wasn't in the cards for him or his bank account.

Now at age 32, Kirby finds himself mentoring many of his employees, who also opted to learn a skilled trade rather than shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to pursue a degree that they wouldn't use after graduating.

Kirby says blue-collar work is lucrative and allows him to "call the shots" in his life. But, he says the job also comes with a downside, mainly because of the stigma attached to the industry.

"I think there's a big problem with moms and dads coming home from quote-unquote 'dirty' jobs. Coming home with dirty clothes and sweating. You had a hard day's work and sometimes that's looked down upon," he says.

Kirby is among the growing number of young people who have chosen to swap college for vocational schools that offer paid, on-the-job training.

Skilled trades make a comeback

Lisa Countryman-Quiroz is the CEO of JVS, or Jewish Vocational Service, a nonprofit in San Francisco that provides career training for unemployed workers to find jobs, including in skilled trades. She says that over the years there has been a shift — with skilled trade making a comeback, especially among members of Generation Z.

"Folks have really prioritized a college education as a path to the middle class and a path to a cushy office job." But, Countryman-Quiroz says, "over the last 10 to 15 years, we are seeing a trend among young people opting out of universities. Just the crushing debt of college is becoming a barrier in and of itself."

More than half of Gen Zers say it's possible to get a well-paying job with only a high school diploma, provided one acquires other skills. That's according to a survey by New America, a Washington Think Tank that focuses on a range of public policy issues, including technology, education and the economy.

The high cost of college prompts a change in career paths

In addition, the Education Data Initiative says the average cost of college in the United States has more than doubled in the 21st century.

With that price tag increasing, many Gen Zers say they've been left with no choice but to leave the college path. Many say living with their parents until they can pay off their college debt isn't an option.

Nitzan Pelman is founder of Climb Hire, a company that helps low-income and overlooked people break into new careers. She says many young people say graduating from college with a six-figure debt is a non-starter.

"It's not a secret that the cost of college has gone up so dramatically in the last decade that it's really cost prohibitive at this point," she says.

Pelman says pursuing skilled trades can also help "level the playing field," especially for young people from less-privileged backgrounds and for people of color.

"We don't see a lot of Black men in construction, but more Latino men in construction and you don't see many women in construction. Social capital is a really big gatekeeper and a door-opener for accessing high-quality jobs and helping people break into certain industries," she says.

In 2021, President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Since then, he's been traveling the country promoting the law, which he says will open up thousands of new jobs in trades.

"You can expect to get your hands dirty and that's OK"

The high cost of college isn't the only factor driving many young people toward skilled trades. With the use of artificial intelligence on the rise, many Gen Zers see manual labor as less vulnerable to the emerging technology than white-collar alternatives. They also say vocational schools are a straight path to well-paying jobs.

Pelman says increasing salaries and new technologies in fields such as welding, plumbing and machine tooling are giving trade professions a face-lift, making them more appealing to the younger crowd.

"There are a lot of vocational jobs out there that are pretty attractive — HVAC repair and installation, electricians, solar panel installer — there's so much demand for wind turbine installers who, in many cases, make more than $100,000 a year — so there's a lot of demand for manual labor," she stresses.

That was the case for 25-year-old Diego Aguilar, who says a traditional desk job was out of the question for him. Aguilar now works full time at a trade center at East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif., after going through the JVS training program.

"When I went into a trade program I learned how much money I could make performing a very specific kind of work. You need mechanics, you need machinists, you need carpenters, operators you need painters. You can expect to get your hands dirty and that's OK," Aguilar says.

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows the number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges increased 16% from 2022 to 2023.

As for Kirby, he says his mission is to keep raising awareness about what he calls the "toolbelt generation."

"Where they can walk out of the school of hard knocks, pick an industry, work your 10 years, take your punches, take your licks and hopefully you're bringing jobs and careers back to the community," he says.

When asked if he regrets his decision to go into skilled trades, Kirby chuckles. "Not for a second," he says.

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Windsor Johnston has been a newscast anchor and reporter for NPR since 2011. As a newscaster, she writes, produces, and delivers hourly national newscasts. Occasionally, she also reports breaking news stories for NPR's Newsdesk.