Trades training is an attractive alternative to student loans for frugal Gen Zers, who seek financial success and entrepreneurial opportunities at a young age.
On top of the technology disruption and skilled labor shortages already underway, the construction industry is entering a demographic reshuffle as baby boomers continue to retire and a new crowd of young people makes its way to the industry.
Millennials have been, and continue to be, the target of training and recruitment strategies for many construction firms. While the defined age ranges for this generation vary, Pew Research carves out the years 1981 to 1996, putting millennials at ages 23 to 38 this year — well into adulthood and already on a career track, for the most part.
To better attract the next up-and-comers, a number of organizations are turning their focus to a newly defined group of young people: Generation Z. They were born between about 1995 and 2010 (ages 9 to 24), and while the research is early-stage, it looks like the financially prudent, entrepreneurial and hands-on aspects of construction will appeal more to these individuals than their millennial predecessors.
The higher ed skeptics
Student loan debt is second only to mortgage debt in the U.S., with students of the Class of 2017 graduating with an average of $39,400 in loans, according to advisory firm Student Loan Hero. But studies suggest that Gen Zers — who may have watched an older sibling struggle to afford rent or a down payment, for example — will be more hesitant to take on this financial burden and aren’t sure if the value is worth the expense.
Growing up post-9/11 and the Great Recession, this generation is in “survival mode,” according to the book “Gen Z @ Work.” While watching their Gen X parents weather the economic downturn, they’ve learned that there are clear winners and losers, and are fighting to make good financial decisions early on. National studies of 4,000 teenagers conducted for the book found that drowning in college debt is the No. 1 concern for 66% of Gen Zers, Fast Company reported, and that 75% believe there are better ways than college to get a good education.
Enter trades programs and apprenticeships.
Build Your Future, an outreach program under the umbrella of the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), is appealing to Gen Z’s financial instinct by telling young people about earn-while-you-learn job training and paths to career success — even business ownership — that don’t require a four-year degree.
‘How can I do that myself?’
Rob Kirk, BYF program manager and a former educator, told Construction Dive that Gen Zers “know how to do their research.” He encourages them to look up the demand for career tracks that require four-year degrees compared with demand for skilled tradesmen in their areas, such as through BYF’s interactive map of craft labor demand by state and track. For pragmatic Gen Zers, construction begins to look like the common-sense option, Kirk said.
This is one reason why “the pendulum is swinging back” toward interest in career and tech education (CTE), according to BYF director Jennifer Wilkerson. The middle school and high school students she works with “want to know how it works, what makes it happen and how can I do that myself,” she told Construction Dive.
And school administrators — helped by President Donald Trump’s reauthorization of CTE funding in the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 — are increasingly able to create programs that will both allow these hands-on experiences and provide students exposure to careers in construction, Wilkerson said.
BYF steps in to support these educators while developing interactive materials that allow students to independently explore careers in construction. The organization’s most popular initiative is its construction craft “trading cards,” which aren’t too different from baseball or even Pokemon cards, in theory, Wilkerson said.
Each card profiles a craft profession with a worker’s photo on the front, and details like the job description, average salary and required training on the back. Young people can flip through the cards, which are available both online and as hand-outs at career fairs and other events, to identify the roles that their interests are best matched to. For example, the electrician card reads: “If you’re into sound systems, robotics or tinkering with wires, you should think about a career as an electrician.”
Why Gen Z looks to experienced mentors
According to a study from research firm Barna Group, 66% of Gen Zers said they want to start a career before age 30 compared with 51% of millennials. In addition, six of the 10 top reasons that Gen Zers said they admire their role model pertain to career or financial success, the study found.
Young people who are exploring construction careers like to hear about the perks of the job and the options in front of them from experienced professionals, said Stephanie Davis, vice president and chief learning officer at the Greater Michigan Construction Academy (GMCA). For this reason, the Associated Builders and Contractors-affiliated program connects students with local contractors and mentors early on so they can understand what companies look for in an employee, what wages they can expect to earn and how they can grow in their career.
“That’s what they need to hear and it’s something that has really worked for them,” she told Construction Dive. “If you don’t share with them all of those possibilities, they’re really going to lose focus and might find it elsewhere.”
GMCA’s youngest enrollees, fresh out of high school, receive coaching during their first semester to choose a career track, hone their resume and practice for interviews. By the second semester, in some cases, they can be working with an ABC-member contractor that will pay for the remaining tuition and ideally keep the student on as an employee when they’re out the door.
The academy aims to help all of its students graduate debt-free. “We’re working with them daily to help them be successful right from the start,” Davis said.
Another way to satisfy Gen Z’s appetite for career success is to demonstrate how they can start out with tools and one day become construction business owners. “We’re trying to teach them that they can sign the front of the checks” if they start out with the right education and hands-on skills, Davis said. The entrepreneurial interest is there, according to research firm Universum, which surveyed 50,000 Gen Zers across 46 countries, finding that 55% are interested in starting their own company.
The industry is largely made up of small companies — more than 60% of construction workers in 2016 worked for companies with less than 50 employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But students can ride this path to the top of larger companies, as well. For example, at Sundt Construction, which is among the top 100 contractors in the U.S., 40% of management started out with tools in hand, Wilkerson said.
Getting Gen Z in the door, ready to innovate
Members of Gen Z are the true "digital natives." As they’ve grown older, things like smartphones, tablets, social media and even virtual reality (for gaming and other uses) have been the norm. They’re thoroughly comfortable with technology, and if they’ve learned anything from their resourceful Gen X parents, could come up with new ways to use tech to solve common problems faced by the industry.
Some Gen Zers are taking time to teach themselves tools and systems specific to construction, and they’ll be seeking employers who are both using this tech and exploring further ways to innovate with it, said Stacy Scopano, vice president of innovation at Skanska USA, at a conference last fall.
A Gen Z high schooler “can just download a free [CAD] kit, 3D-print it and expect the world to operate differently,” he said. “And we’ve got to fund it.”
But even if the funding is there, companies may have to tweak their marketing to get Gen Z in the door. More than other generations, this group pays close attention to the ways businesses present themselves online and on social media.
“Generation Z seems to really care about engaging with brands that have values that align with their own,” Kyle Andrew, chief marketing brand of American Eagle Outfitters, a retailer that has seen profits rise with Gen Z interest, told Fast Company. “You can’t just make stuff: You have to stand for something.”
Companies that post on their websites and to social media about their philanthropic involvement and commitment to their employees, for example, could do well to draw young people’s attention, according to Brad Benhart, associate professor of practice at Purdue Polytechnic Institute.
“Young people are looking at that and they’re establishing an opinion of the culture of that company just from their social media presence, where older generations would establish their opinion of the culture of a construction company by going into the front door,” Benhart, who works closely with construction management students, told Construction Dive.
“I think that’s something that our industry is going to have to embrace … what kind of message are you sending out to young people?"