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Young People Drive Resurgence of Skilled Trades

Posted on July 1, 2024

By Brooke Thomson
President & CEO

Anyone who has tried to find a plumber to fix a leaky pipe will attest to the fact that Massachusetts and the United States in general face a critical shortage of skilled trades people.

The scarcity is pervasive, extending from machinists and welders to construction trades such as electricians and carpenters. The dearth of people who can work with their hands has extended wait times and increased prices for businesses and homeowners alike.

The good news is that help is on the way.

Young people, many of them from Gen Z, are re-discovering the skilled trades as rising pay and interesting new technologies put to rest well-worn images of these jobs as Dickensian, low-end work. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a sector that for decades has struggled to attract young people for whom the American dream was based solely on a college degree.

Enrollment in vocational training programs is surging across the country. The number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% last year to its highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking such data in 2018. The ranks of students studying construction trades rose 23% during that time, while those in programs covering HVAC and vehicle maintenance and repair increased 7%.

Those increases make sense given that the median pay for new construction hires nationally rose 5.1% to $48,089 last year. By contrast, new hires in professional services earned an annual $39,520, up 2.7% from 2022, according to data from payroll-services provider ADP. It marks the fourth year that median annual pay for new construction hires has eclipsed earnings for new hires in both the professional services and information sectors—such as accountants or IT maintenance workers—ADP says.

None of this means that college has lost its economic attractiveness. A survey last year by the software firm Jobber found that nearly 80% of respondents said their parents wanted them to go to college. And professions dominated by college-educated workers generally earn more in the long term. Professional and business services workers, for example, make a median $78,500 compared with $69,200 in construction, according to ADP.

But questions about the return on investment as private college costs top $90,000 per year are persuading some students to instead put on tool belts and paint their names on the side of service trucks. The potential employment effects of generative AI are also a factor as even computer science graduates find that growing portions of coding work are being done automatically.

Those in the trades are generally positive about their careers: A survey last year of skilled workers by home services site Thumbtack found that 94% would encourage their own kids or family members to pursue similar occupations.

That’s good news for the Massachusetts economy, which has always relied on a balanced mix of skilled trades and technical occupations that require a college degree. It’s also good news for the rest of us the next time a pipe bursts.