Written by Mark C. Perna
Founder and CEO TFSResults.com
Lately, the national talent shortage has gotten a lot of attention. And with good reason: it’s affecting almost every industry in America. But for those in the skilled trades, the lack of qualified workers is not a new phenomenon. Also known as the skills gap, it’s a challenge they’ve been grappling with for decades.
Now, as a ‘silver tsunami’ of Baby Boomer talent retires, employers in skilled trades like construction, advanced manufacturing, electricity, healthcare, aerospace, ironworking and many others are becoming even more desperate to replace them. So why aren’t more Gen-Zers interested in these in-demand fields?
To find out, the Stanley Black & Decker Inaugural Makers Index surveyed three core groups: high schoolers aged 14-19, parents of high schoolers and skilled trade workers themselves. Unsurprisingly, the research found that many young people hold obsolete ideas about the trades, with about one in four (23%) disagreeing that skilled trades work with cutting-edge technology and one in five (18%) disagreeing that the work is high in demand.
In reality, the study found that 89% of skilled tradespeople said they work with cutting-edge technology and 94% say that their jobs are high in demand. So why is there such a big disconnect between public perception and the actual lived experience of skilled tradespeople? I’ve long believed that the skills gap starts with an awareness gap; young people and their parents simply don’t know enough about the tremendous career opportunities in skilled trades.
Stanley Black & Decker’s Makers Index focuses on the challenges facing skilled trade industries in four key areas: exposure, financial stability, accessibility and gender equality. Let’s examine the prevailing perceptions around each of these areas and the strategies to combat both the awareness gap and its concomitant skills gap.
Perception: “Young people receive thorough career counseling from their school, parents and other sources so they can make the best post-secondary choices.”
Reality: Only four in ten young people (42%) have ever connected directly with someone in a skilled trade about the career opportunities in their field. Fully 37% have never talked to anyone, at all, about the possibility of entering a skilled trade career. Only three in ten (29%) feel that they fully understand the steps to embark on a skilled trade career.
Strategy: To plan their future, Gen-Z is turning to people they know, like parents (48%), friends and classmates (44%) and teachers (43%). To reach the next generation, employers also need to reach all these groups with the value of skilled trade careers. Media is one way to make that connection. Print, online, social and other media avenues all play a role, with more than six in 10 skilled workers with less than 10 years of experience saying that media influenced their career plans.
2. Financial Stability
Perception: “Skilled trade jobs pay poorly, especially for entry-level workers.”
Only 42% of those surveyed believe that skilled trade workers earn at least $50,000. One in five young people (19%) think the starting pay for a skilled trade worker is less than $20,000.
Reality: In reality, half of current skilled trade workers with less than 10 years’ experience earn at least $50,000 to start. After five years, a person who attends trade school and then starts working will be $140,000 ahead, on average, compared to a student who enrolls in a four-year college before working.
Strategy: There are significant financial incentives to pursue a skilled trade, and more young people need to know about them. After the surveyed students were told about the financial advantages of a skilled trades pathway over college, almost half (43%) were much more positive about a skilled trade career.
Perception: “Skilled trades are hard, grueling, manual labor and that’s why young people don’t want to pursue them.”
Reality: According to the data, only 12% said their aversion to manual labor was their primary reason not to enter the skilled trades. Instead, most say they’re steering clear of these careers due to poor fit (40%) or lack of skills (56%).
Strategy: Highly physical work is not lesser than other types of work—and it can be immensely rewarding. Employers should partner with schools to let young people get their hands dirty by experiencing skilled trade careers firsthand in high school and even earlier. It’s easier to get skilled trade careers on the table while students are still in the decision-making phase of their education and training journey.
4. Gender Equality
Perception: “Skilled trade careers are a better fit for men than women.”
Teen boys are more familiar with skilled trades than teen girls (53% vs. 36%) and are more likely to consider a career in a skilled trade (64% vs. 49%). Fewer than half of the young women surveyed thought that the skilled trades would be a good path for them, compared to 69% of boys. Similarly, fathers are more than twice as likely as mothers (47% versus 22%) to say a skilled trade career is an attractive choice for their child.
Reality: The skilled trades are for everyone. I’ve previously covered the story of Megan, an enterprising young woman welder who is thriving in a career often relegated to men. Or consider the journey of Emily, who earned two college degrees only to turn to ironworking for a fulfilling career. To bridge the skills gap, we need workers of all genders to power the future of skilled trades.
Strategy: Employers need to target messaging to all students (and parents), but especially to young women to increase awareness of the skilled trades as a desirable career choice.
Why Gen-Z should consider a skilled trade
Interestingly, Stanley Black & Decker found that fully 85% of young people and 94% of parents think that skilled trade work is a good quality career option. But less than half (49%) of Gen-Z have ever considered a skilled trade career, and far fewer (16%) say they’re very likely to consider a skilled trade career.
They aren’t seeing the full picture. Young people, their parents and their career counselors may think they know all the options, but the knowledge gaps uncovered by the survey indicate that many don’t. This presents a major challenge for skilled trade employers—and the country as a whole. Without a new generation of ‘builders, makers and protectors,’ how will our economy move forward in the global marketplace?
The ballooning cost of college and university pathways may unintentionally aid the cause of skilled trade careers. How they’re going to pay for college is a major concern for young people (81%) and their parents (78%). When asked, 87% of Gen-Z and 93% of their parents agreed that starting a career sooner than it takes to finish a four-year degree is appealing. For many of these young people, a career in the skilled trades could be the answer.
As the workforce continues to reinvent itself, there has never been a better moment to start bridging the awareness gap between Gen-Z and a rewarding career in the skilled trades.
About the Author
Mark C. Perna is an international generational expert, weekly Forbes.com contributor, and podcast host. His keynotes have received over 1,000 standing ovations, and today he delivers 70+ in-person and virtual presentations annually. He is the founder and CEO of TFS Results, a full-service strategic consulting firm at the forefront of the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development. Mark, who serves on the Advisory Council for the Coalition for Career Development in Washington, DC, founded the Education with Purpose & Employment with Passion movement to help communities connect education, business, and economic pipelines.