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America needs carpenters and plumbers. Gen Z doesn't seem interested

Employers are struggling to find young workers to take jobs in the skilled trades.
David Zalubowski
Employers are struggling to find young workers to take jobs in the skilled trades.

Justin Mwandjalulu, 20, loves to build stuff.

These days, as a carpentry apprentice, he installs drywall in houses with the rest of his construction crew. But he said he likes concrete the best.

"At the end of the day, you see how you poured everything. The result of your hard work," he said.

Mwandjalulu dreamed of becoming a carpenter or electrician as a child. And now he's fulfilling 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 track to become the most educated generation, fewer young folks are opting for traditionally hands-on jobs in the skilled trade and technical industries.

Gen Z interest in trades and skilled work has dropped

The application rate for young people seeking technical jobs — like plumbing, building and electrical work — dropped by 49% in 2022 compared to 2020, according to data from online recruiting platform Handshake shared with NPR.

Researchers from Handshake tracked how the number of applications for technical roles vs. the number of job postings has changed over the last two years.

While postings for those roles — automotive technicians, equipment installers and respiratory therapists, to name a few — saw on average 10 applications each in 2020, they got about five per posting in 2022.

The typical rate is about 19 applications per job on Handshake, according to Christine Cruzvergara, the company's chief education strategy officer.

While the creation of technical positions has continued to grow, the number of students interested in applying for them — hasn't.

Occupations such as auto technician with aging workforces have the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warning of a "massive" shortage of skilled workers in 2023.

"For a long time, our society has not talked favorably about the skilled trades," said Cruzvergara. "We've instead encouraged students to all go to college, all go to four-year institutions, graduate, go out into white collar jobs."

One path does not fit all

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

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

"Man, it was hard," he said. While his twin brother, now studying to work in banking, excelled, Mwandjalulu said he struggled with writing and English.

"I'm not the type of guy that likes being in the same spot all day long, dealing with papers and stuff," he said.

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

"I didn't want to look like them," he said. "I didn't want to just spend money and have a lot of loans and not use my papers," he said, referring to a degree and a diploma.

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

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

"There's not a lot of people, especially immigrants, that think outside of school," he said.

The narrative is shifting

Paul Iversen, a labor educator with University of Iowa's Labor Center, hopes to change that.

Iversen, who helps helps run a pre-apprenticeship program, said one of the reasons participation in the skilled trades is low among Gen Z is because the work was once typically passed down in families.

"It used to be word-of-mouth," said Iversen. "But there's more of a need for carpenters, pipefitters, plumbers and electricians than you can fill with the family members of current people."

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 as three generations did before him. But now, none of his three children want to take over when he retires.

"Everybody on my farm is over the age of 50," said Boyd, who is the president of the National Black Farmers' Association. "We need some young people with some energy and hustle and innovation."

Michael Coleman, 28, is one of them. He received a scholarship from the NBFA in 2015 to study animal science at Alcorn State University.

Coleman is now an animal health technician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and owns his own farm. But, at times, he's found it a lonely field.

The average age of a U.S. farmer is 57.5, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, up from 54.9 in 2007, and Coleman said he's only met a couple other farmers around his age.

"We kind of stick together," he said.

There is plenty of need

But Coleman said he's seen more young people express interest in agribusiness and other technical industries, particularly after the pandemic.

"Especially with student loans and everything, it's a lot cheaper to get a trade and make a lot of money," said Coleman. Most young folks just haven't had people show them the ropes," he said.

The median salary for carpenters in 2021 was $48,260 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, that figure was $59,880, and for farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers, $73,060.

Still, filling trade and technical jobs takes active recruitment, said Iversen, who pays frequent visits to high schools around Iowa City and works with school counselors to place students in the pre-apprenticeship program.

Now especially, there's an urgency to fill open posts, said Iversen, as the federal government funnels billions into projects to upgrade roads and transit systems across the country.

"We have to recruit people to do these things or else our bridges are going to fall apart," Iversen said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 5, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this article misstated the university where Michael Coleman studied animal science. It was Alcorn State University, not the University of Nebraska.
Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.