Generation Z is showing new optimism in skilled trades. With guided pathways tied to employment opportunities, community colleges can shift perception with this key demographic.
Consider this statistic. According to a 2023 survey from Thumbtack, a home services directory, 73% of young adults (aged 18–30 according to the survey demographics) said they respected skilled trades as a career—second only to medicine. This is a stunning generational shift in the perception of a career path that for much of the late twentieth century was viewed as lacking the kind of upward mobility and social prestige that most parents want for their children.
And yet, Gen Z may be on to something. The renewed interest in trade skills is two pronged: younger generations view the cost of college more dubiously than Millennials did, and many view white collar careers as more susceptible to replacement by AI. There are also positive reasons Gen Z are wise to consider trade careers. For one, according to the same Thumbtack survey, those in the skilled trades view their jobs positively: 87% say they are happy with their jobs and would choose the same career again, and 94% would recommend their trade as a career path to friends and family.
Despite this high praise, many community colleges continue to struggle to attract enrollment into these programs, because too few effectively trace the line from the programs they offer to successful careers in their region. The missed connections fall into three rough problem areas: programs with unclear or insufficient career support, poor perceptions of trade programs and other two-year-degrees, and a lack of marketing.
Laying the Foundations: Ensuring Your Programs Support Careers
Before community colleges can promote careers or win parents over, they need to ensure their programs are preparing students for the job market and offering them sufficient opportunities to succeed. This doesn’t just mean reviewing the curriculum and credit requirements to ensure they are up to professional standards—it also means creating a throughline for students from the courses to employment.
Guided Pathways. One of the most high-profile initiatives when it comes to strengthening two-year degree programs is Guided Pathways, an initiative designed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Ascendium Education Group. Programs built around these principles reduce confusion among students about what courses will contribute toward their educational goals, improving their course completion rate and qualitatively improving their employment opportunities.
On-the-Job Training. Community colleges can work with employers in their area to create internship and apprenticeship opportunities. Employers benefit from these partnerships, because it allows them to have input into the program development so that it will match the training requirements they need. They also benefit from having a more reliable recruitment pipeline.
Career Fairs. Finally, many community colleges host career fairs to help students meet local employers. These can also be places for prospective students to learn more about potential careers, where they can ask questions about what the jobs are like, work/life balance, income expectations, and opportunities for growth.
A Perception Problem: Counteracting the Stigma of Trade Careers
It’s no secret that the trades are facing a skills gap crisis. The decades-long flight of young workers from trade careers and into white-collar work has led to a dearth of incoming talent at a time when many older workers are getting ready to retire. Long-held prejudice against the trades is part of the reason why, and it’s time community colleges changed the narrative.
Winning Over Parents. Parents are often some of the biggest promoters of negative attitudes about trade jobs. According to the “Blue Collar Report” from Jobber, 79% of Gen Z respondents said that their parents wanted them to pursue a college education, while only 5% of parents said the same about vocational school. Meanwhile, 75% of high school graduates said they were interested in exploring vocational schools with paid, on-the-job training.
High Earning Potential. Basic supply and demand dictates that as skilled trade professionals become scarcer, those left will be able to charge more for their services. But the possibilities of trade careers go beyond even this. Once again from the “Blue Collar Report,” even trade-optimistic Gen Z underestimate the earning potential of trade jobs.
For instance, 57% of Gen Z respondents did not believe that it would be possible for a plumbing business to earn more than $1 million in annual revenue. Meanwhile, 65% of plumbing companies reach that target. In the less-known field of tree maintenance, 75% of Gen Z believe that it would be impossible for a company to generate more than $1 million in annual revenue, whereas 60% of those companies do. It’s clear that the economic potential of these businesses is broadly undervalued.
New Technologies. It should come as no shock that many members of Gen Z are more comfortable around technology and eager to work in a field that allows them to put those skills to use. In fact, new technologies are helping to change the perception of the trades. You’re more and more likely to handle payment for plumbing on an iPad, and there’s plenty of room in the future for augmented reality to assist tradespeople in assessing a project, completing a task, or documenting their work.
AI-Resistant. As we touched on earlier, trade careers are likely to be difficult to replace with AI. Even if robots were advanced enough to perform plumbing tasks, it might take the general population some time to adjust to inviting one into their homes. Instead, it seems likely that the trades will be hiring for years to come.
Job Satisfaction. Finally, the positive experiences of current tradespeople deserve to be broadcast more widely—especially given the contrast in job satisfaction with the bored office worker grinding their way through commutes and office hours that run well beyond the stereotypical 9–5.
The Marketing Solution: Spreading the Word about Careers
You have the foundations laid, you’re ready to change perceptions—it’s time to talk about marketing. Even the best programs are easily overlooked when there’s no one out there to spread the word, and with enrollment on the line, community colleges can’t rely on word of mouth to do the whole job for them. After all, some of the people who might benefit most from a community college degree might not hear about the programs without well-placed marketing materials.
Showcasing Career Opportunities. If you’re running career fairs, building training and internship pathways with local employers, or developing guided pathways as part of your program, these efforts deserve marketing attention. Highlighting student success stories is also a proven way to help students see themselves in a possible career.
Lowering Barriers. Many students hesitate to sign up for classes because they assume the obstacles to completing their program will be too great. However, community colleges across the country are working hard to lower those barriers and make attaining academic goals more achievable. If your college offers support, it’s time to share the word!
Job Market Data. Most concretely, community colleges must be rigorous in sharing accurate, up-to-date information about job markets in their different employment paths. We are aware that maintaining this data across numerous career fields is time consuming. That’s why we’ve built a content library as part of our multichannel marketing platform to help community colleges easily access high-quality, researched materials that they can insert seamlessly into their communication channels.
If you want to grow enrollment, start by marketing career readiness.
We’ve focused much of this article on trade careers specifically, but the same holds true for any community college program. Even programs that aren’t typically associated with lucrative employment trajectories—yes, we’re talking about the humanities—have a median income 44% higher than those with just high school degrees. That statistic is for bachelor’s degrees, but if you have built a strong transfer program with a local university, that is the kind of information that could win over a skeptical parent.
Another reason humanities programs can struggle to attract applicants is that they often aren’t clearly tied to a career path. But humanities majors frequently possess the soft skills and communication abilities that make them well suited for white-collar careers in sales, marketing, management, human resources, and corporate administration, and understanding these possible career paths can help community colleges develop appropriate internships or work-study programs that would prepare graduates for the workforce.
The bottom line is that marketing careers grows enrollment. And for that pitch to land, community colleges need to show that it is true. That means building a career-based infrastructure, countering misconceptions (whether about trades or the humanities), and marketing job data through information-driven marketing campaigns.
If that is the kind of transformation you would like to bring to your college, contact us today.
“Guided Pathways” (American Association of Colleges and Universities)
“You can’t have an AI plumber: Why Gen Z might be ditching college for skilled trades” (Fast Company, 2023)“Why Gen Z Can Solve The Skilled Labor Shortage Crisis” (Forbes, 2023)
“Majority of Gen Z Consider College Education Important” (Gallup, 2023)
“Gen Z’s Distrust of Higher Ed a ‘Red Flag’” (Inside Higher Ed, 2022)
“Debunking Perceptions About Value of Humanities Degrees” (Inside Higher Ed, 2023)
“Jobber’s Blue Collar Report” (Jobber, 2023)