Justin Mwandjalulu, 20, loves build stuff.
These days, as an apprentice carpenter, he installs drywall in homes with the rest of his construction crew. But he said he preferred concrete.
“At the end of the day, you see how you poured it all in. The result of your hard work,” he said.
As a child, Mwandjalulu dreamed of becoming a carpenter or an electrician. And now he is making that dream come true. But that also makes him an exception to the rule. As Gen Z – often described as people born between 1997 and 2012 – is on track to become the most educated generation, fewer young people are opting for traditionally hands-on jobs in the skilled trades and technical industries.
Gen Z’s interest in trades and skilled labor has plummeted
The number of young people seeking technical jobs – such as plumbing, construction and electrical – fell 49% in 2022 compared to 2020, according to data from online recruitment platform Handshake shared with NPR.
Handshake researchers tracked how the number of tech job applications versus job postings has changed over the past two years.
While postings for these roles — automotive technicians, equipment installers and respiratory therapists, to name a few — saw about 10 applications each in 2020, they received about five per posting in 2022.
The typical rate is about 19 applications per job on Handshake, according to Christine Cruzvergara, director of education strategy for the company.
While the creation of technical positions has continued to grow, the number of students interested in applying for them has not increased.
Professions such as auto technicians with an aging workforce have warned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of a “massive” shortage of skilled workers in 2023.
“For a long time, our society didn’t speak favorably of skilled trades,” Cruzvergara said. “We instead encouraged students to all go to college, all to go to four-year institutions, to graduate, to take white-collar jobs.”
One path does not fit all
Mwandjalulu, who lives in Iowa City, Iowa and is in her 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, that was tough,” he said. While his twin brother, who is now studying to work in the bank, excelled, Mwandjalulu said he struggled with writing and English.
“I’m not the kind of guy who likes to be in one place all day, dealing with paperwork and stuff,” he said.
Towards the end of his secondary education, Mwandjalulu said he became depressed because he did not know what he wanted to do with his life. Many of his older friends who went to college and graduated had trouble finding 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, approximately 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 was still struggling to convince his friends, with whom he keeps in touch on Facebook and Snapchat, to follow his path.
“There aren’t many people, especially immigrants, who think outside of school,” he said.
The story evolves
Paul Iversen, labor educator at the University of Iowa Labor Center, hopes to change that.
Iversen, who helps run a pre-apprenticeship program, said one reason skilled trades participation is low among Gen Z is that work was once typically passed down in families.
“It used to be word of mouth,” Iversen said. “But there are more needs for carpenters, pipe fitters, plumbers and electricians than you can fill with current people’s family members.”
This reality is stark 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, president of the National Black Farmers’ Association. “We need young people with 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 with the United States Department of Agriculture and dreams of one day owning his own farm. But sometimes he found it a lonely field.
The average age of a U.S. farmer is 57.5, according to the 2017 U.S. Agricultural Census, up from 54.9 in 2007, and Coleman said he’s only met a few other farmers from his age.
“We kind of stick together,” he said.
There is a lot of need
But Coleman said he’s seen more young people expressing interest in agribusiness and other tech industries, especially after the pandemic.
“Especially with student loans and everything, it’s a lot cheaper to get an exchange and make a lot of money,” Coleman said. Most young people just haven’t had people show them the ropes,” he said.
Still, filling business and technical jobs requires active recruiting, said Iversen, who frequently visits Iowa City high schools and works with school counselors to place students in the pre-apprenticeship program.
Now, in particular, there is an urgent need to fill vacancies, Iversen said, as the federal government invests billions in projects to upgrade roads and transit systems across the country.
“We need to recruit people to do these things or our bridges are going to crumble,” Iversen said.