By the close of the 2020 academic year, 3.7 million high school students will have earned their diplomas alongside a collective 3 million college undergraduates. Even as millions of students graduated this spring, COVID-19 was laying bare some harsh truths about the American workforce: the service industry is precarious, the gig economy is insecure, and the skilled trades are considered essential. Young people starting out have difficulty landing jobs even in the best of times, but with 50 million currently unemployed, the current labor market is historically grim. Compounding this is the average student loan debt in America – $32,731 – a burden that can be a barrier to attaining the quality of life that leads people to seek degrees in the first place.
One thing is clear: even amidst hiring freezes, layoffs, and furloughs, a core of skilled technicians remains busy at work. The labor of building, installing, and maintaining vital national infrastructure – both residential and commercial – is still in demand. Yet the “skills gap,” the gulf between available skilled trades job openings and the workers qualified to fill them, persists. The ManpowerGroup released a recent study revealing almost 7 in 10 employers reported a talent shortage in 2019. This number is triple what it was a decade ago, as Baby Boomers retire and their positions remain vacant. But change may be coming. Recent college graduates and high school students are reevaluating their job prospects in light of the seismic shifts roiling the current economy and labor market.
So, where do digital natives come into the picture? Right where the need for creative problem-solving career-seekers and the demand for skilled tradespeople intersect. From Legos to Minecraft, kids universally embrace building, problem-solving, and engaging with new and challenging environments. We encourage our children to think expansively and explore the world around them, but push teenagers toward four-year college degrees and narrow career paths, even as the return on that investment has stagnated. With record unemployment and uncertainty looming, is it any wonder that young people are looking beyond the four-year degree? While many graduates with advanced degrees struggle to find appropriate positions, Perry Technical Institute in Washington state boasts a 94% job placement rate and is ranked number one out of 700 schools in the country for income mobility.
Despite a modern-day stigma around the trades being a fallback for low-performing students, these skilled jobs and the training that leads to them has evolved. Trade schools and programs have moved into the 21st century far more rapidly than many of their more corporate counterparts. Today, training for essential skilled jobs often involves 3D models, virtual reality, simulations, and more. The same simulation-based training methods that have safely prepared generations of pilots for flight are now being used to prepare skilled trades technicians for fieldwork, remotely. The digital natives of Generation Z– who have never known life without tech– respond to and learn from digital platforms readily. They are natural digital learners.
The main challenge the skilled trades face when recruiting new talent is that young people are steered towards academic and technological pursuits and away from hands-on work. The idea that there is dignity in working with one’s hands has been overshadowed by Americans’ white-collar aspirations. But the tides appear to be shifting. While millennials and every living generation preceding them have embraced tech zealously, Generation Z is forging a different path. Ninety percent of this new generation — having grown up immersed in technology — reports a desire for a human element in their work. More than half of high school students surveyed this year report an interest in the skilled trades, and more than half expect to learn on the job. A renewed interest in the tangible world is bringing the skilled trades back into focus.
An influx of high-tech on-the-job training has introduced another compelling element to the mix: gamification. Studies have confirmed that games satisfy an intrinsic need for motivation. But beyond motivating learners, applying gameplay features such as point scoring, competition, and leader boards to a skills training environment does something else: it makes technical training fun. While a new generation of career-seeking digital natives may find satisfaction in working with their hands, training with technology fits into their world neatly.
We still don’t know what a post-COVID-19 world will look like, but there are indications that many of the conventions we’ve taken for granted are shifting. Distance learning has become an accepted part of the canon, and alternative career paths are gaining traction. After decades of focus on technology and higher education, technology is leading the way back to the skilled trades, where opportunities flourish. The skills gap may finally be closing, with its fate currently in the hands of Generation Z.