After decades of focus on the traditional four-year college path, there is a notable resurgence happening within the skilled trades.

“Long beset by a labor crunch, the skilled trades are newly appealing to the youngest cohort of American workers, many of whom are choosing to leave the college path. Rising pay and new technologies in fields from welding to machine tooling are giving trade professions a face-lift, helping them shed the image of being dirty, low-end work,” The Wall Street Journal reported last month.

Additionally, the Education Data Initiative reports that the average cost of college has more than doubled in the 21st century. Apprenticeship programs where students can “earn while they learn” are becoming a popular alternative to accruing large amounts of debt from college tuition.

As a result, various media outlets have reported surges in vocational training programs. According to WSJ, “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%.”

With these reports, I was curious to see if our industry associations were noticing any correlation. So I reached out to the PHCC Educational Foundation and Nexstar Network.

According to Dan Quinonez, executive director of the PHCC Educational Foundation, PHCC chapters across the country have experienced notable increases in enrollment of their HVAC and plumbing programs, reflecting the broader trend in the industry.

“It's an incredibly exciting time for Gen Z to consider the trades as a pathway to a meaningful career,” he says. “Recognizing the growing interest in skilled trades among young people, the PHCC Educational Foundation, through the PHCC Academy, has been proactive in expanding its educational offerings. By modernizing curriculums, enhancing training facilities and forming partnerships with industry leaders, PHCC aims to equip the next generation of HVAC technicians and plumbers with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in their careers.”

Quinonez points to several contributing factors for this upswing in enrollment, including job security and demand, financial incentives, hands-on learning and industry innovation.

“Skilled trades like HVAC and plumbing offer stable employment prospects, regardless of economic fluctuations,” he notes. “The aging workforce in these trades, along with fewer young individuals entering the field, has created a high demand for skilled workers. Competitive wages and opportunities for career advancement make HVAC and plumbing careers increasingly appealing. These trades often provide avenues for earning while learning through apprenticeships and on-the-job training, reducing the burden of student debt. Pursuing a career in the skilled trades often requires less formal education compared to traditional four-year degree programs, offering quicker entry into the workforce.”

Kate Cinnamo, executive director of Explore the Trades, says Gen Z has found themselves in an interesting place regarding education and career readiness.

“These young adults were in junior high and high school during a pandemic and have seen firsthand how those years affected higher education and preparing for the workforce,” she explains. “Focusing on higher education alone, tuition costs are simply becoming unattainable for so many and the student loan debt balance at the end of four to five years just doesn’t hold the value it did 25 years ago. I believe that young adults are seeing the value of what the trades have to offer: lifelong skill, paid on-the-job training and the opportunity to feel accomplished every day by being able to say ‘I built that.’

“As Gen Z begins to enter the workforce, they’re looking for a career that also contributes to the greater good and the trades provide exactly that,” she continues. “The trades offer a unique combination of being a legacy industry impacted by rapid advancements, which builds and shapes our communities.”

Nexstar Network’s NexTech Academy has also seen a steady rise in enrollments in plumbing, HVAC and electrical, according to Jeff Atwell, workforce development coach, NexTech Academy and Nexstar Network

“In-house training programs as a long-term workforce development strategy are evolving into a mainstream technical training solution for many Nexstar members,” he says. “The idea of building exactly what your business needs is priceless when you consider the ROI! Given the rising workforce development trend in our industry, I would not be surprised if in-house training programs are treated and budgeted the same way that taxes or insurance are treated today... as a business necessity for owners committed to scaling their businesses by creating a sustainable pipeline of trained technical talent.”

To sustain this momentum, it's crucial to continue promoting and supporting vocational education programs, apprenticeships and training initiatives. Encouraging young individuals to explore their interests early on, providing access to mentorship opportunities and highlighting the diverse opportunities within the plumbing and HVAC industries can help nurture a pipeline of talented professionals for the future.

Atwell recommends contractors celebrate the wins of their teams to attract the next generation.

“Use social media to brag about all the great things team members are doing personally and in the community — it will send a powerful message to the general public, and it shows your company cares about its team and the community,” he says. “Second, get involved with local high schools and middle schools to get the message out about the many benefits of trades’ careers and the direct correlation to STEM courses students are enrolled in and familiar with. This can tangibly help bridge the gap between textbooks and an in-demand career path — one that provides a real and necessary service — and helps people every day. The skills gap is a very real thing, and the financial stability, growth opportunities and longevity of the career will only make it that much more attractive to our younger generations as well as individuals looking for a fresh start or those seeking to jump to a new career.”

The resurgence of skilled trades among Gen Z reflects a broader shift in attitudes toward career choices and work-life balance. As these young people navigate career choices, there’s a golden opportunity to showcase the rewarding and impactful nature of careers in plumbing and HVAC. Don’t lose the momentum.