Hot take: If we agree to stop perpetuating the narrative that a pricey college degree is the only pathway to a successful career and financial stability, I believe we can effectively tackle America’s disparate student loan debt crisis and revive a bygone era where the average American worker could afford to buy a home. While it may potentially involve literal pipeline work, this vision is hardly a pipe dream. I think it’s time for a renaissance of vocational training and the skilled trades—and business owners and leaders in trade industries have a part to play. Trade work affords students an additional pathway to success, providing them with opportunities to cultivate fulfilling careers without taking on an excessive amount of debt.
Redefining Pathways To Success
The value and perception of a four-year degree are rapidly changing. One study found that Gen Z teen interest in a four-year degree plummeted from 71% to 48% between May 2020 and September 2021. That same study shared the following finding: “A majority of today’s Gen Z teens are questioning this path and are looking to pursue more affordable education options that connect directly to careers.” And who can blame them, given the horror stories that abound about our federal student loan portfolio? Currently, around 43 million borrowers owe more than $1.6 trillion.
The Stark Reality Of Student Loan Debt
The current costs of college are frankly out of control, with many families facing sticker shock at the growing inevitability of student loan debt. A recent College Investor report offered these alarming statistics: Borrowers’ average student loan debt is $39,351, with an average monthly payment of $393. And nearly 50% of borrowers have growing loan balances.
Those numbers alone can make any average middle-class family panic, but consider the effects on families of color, who must contend with the systemic inequalities and racial disparities inherent to financial wealth. According to LendingTree’s Student Loan Hero, Black families take out student loans at higher rates than other demographics. Specifically, 30.2% of Black families have student loan debt, compared to 20% of white and 14.3% of Hispanic families.
Challenging The Status Quo
If I sound a bit preachy about this topic, it’s simply because I lived through it and want the next generation to know that success isn’t confined to the status quo. I took the traditional route after high school like many, taking on a mountain of student loan debt to attend a university to pursue my dreams of becoming a professional musician. So you can imagine my interest in roofing when I first took a job as a receptionist at a prominent local roofing company at 20 years old. Yet oddly enough, what began as merely a job to help me sustain myself through college eventually evolved into my lifelong career.
Roofing was something I never saw myself doing, but I found myself enraptured by the challenge of it all. Being a woman—a Black woman at that—in a field dominated by men, the cards were stacked against me, but I soldiered on.
That was 26 years ago, and for the past two decades now, I’ve been the chief executive officer of my own roofing company. Not only did I find passion and purpose in the roofing trade, but I also secured a lucrative salary and was eventually able to pay off all my student loans. This journey has taught me so much, but most importantly, it’s taught me that trade work must reenter the conversation about professional success when talking with students about their plans for after high school.
Assembling A Diverse Future Of Trade Work
To secure the trade industry’s future and attract young talent, we must all work to ensure that the culture of our companies addresses the ideologies of a younger workforce. Gen Z is arguably the most progressive generation to date and values companies that are diverse, inclusive and modern. Attracting young talent can be as simple as modernizing your website and exposing high school students to the skilled trades in an interactive way.
The Stanley Black & Decker inaugural Makers Index found that “young people vastly underestimate the potential earnings in the skilled trades.” There’s a common misconception among younger generations that the kind of work that gets your hands dirty or doesn’t require a college degree isn’t necessarily the most dignified or well-paying—but that’s hardly the case. It’s our professional duty to combat those misconceptions by sharing stories of our successes with younger generations in the places they occupy most frequently (i.e., social media). As Gen Z thought leader Hannah Grady Williams shared: “It’s your job to show Gen Z how a career with your company will enhance their identity and success, and showcase what they’ll learn by working with a team of other skilled professionals.”
It’s up to us to consistently attract and retain a workforce of younger workers. So, how do we do it? It’s no surprise that our industry could benefit from a bit of rebranding. We have to reclaim the narrative about our industry, modernize our outreach and engagement, meet young people where they are, and speak in a language that validates their concerns and empowers their aspirations.
When young people aren’t tethering themselves to student loan debt, prosperity will abound, and by cultivating fulfilling careers in the trades industry, their opportunities will know no limits.