The Employment Landscape for Young Workers

The employment landscape for young workers has undergone significant changes in recent years, with many struggling to find suitable job opportunities. One notable trend is the increasing number of young individuals opting for higher education rather than pursuing careers in the trades. While education is undoubtedly valuable, this historic shift has led to concerns about the availability of skilled workers in crucial industries. The decision of young people to pursue higher education often stems from the perception that a college degree is the primary pathway to success, but this shift away from vocational training may have broader implications for the labor market. What I would like to know is where and how this shift began to appear and why it is an issue now. Has it always been a concern and now it’s finally caught up to the labor market in the US? 

One of several contributing factors to the decline in young workers entering the trades is the societal emphasis on the value of a college education. Parents, teachers, and policymakers often promote the idea that a four-year college degree is the best way to secure a successful future. This cultural narrative has led many young individuals to overlook trade schools and vocational programs that provide valuable skills and career opportunities. Another contributing factor of the decline is the lack of vocational education in high schools. My dad is from the boomer generation and when anything goes wrong with my car I call him. He learned valuable skills in his high school mechanics class but nowadays we don’t see that type of education anymore so why is that? Another example is last week I attended a local youth conference in DC and led the Just Transition policy recommendations for the UN’s youth statement for COP28. I asked everyone to raise their hand if they had vocational training in their school. In a room of approximately 50 youth only 7 raised their hand. It’s no secret, vocational education has disappeared over the years in high schools. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the law that first authorized federal funding for vocational education in American schools, explicitly described vocational ed as preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree. As a result, industries that require skilled laborers, such as plumbing, electrical work, and carpentry, face shortages, leading to higher labor costs and longer project timelines. Another factor contributing to the decline in young workers entering the trades is the misconception that these careers are less prestigious or less financially rewarding compared to white-collar professions. The emphasis on college degrees as the key to higher income has led many young people to prioritize academic pursuits over vocational training. However, the reality is that skilled tradespeople can earn competitive wages and often face less student loan debt compared to their college-educated peers. It is crucial to dispel these misconceptions and highlight the value and financial stability that careers in the trades can offer. As a recent graduate from the University of New Mexico I have had many friends that have left college but the sole reason they entered was because it was the push to go to college by their high school or family pressure. Now, I will agree with my own experience. I was pushed by my family to go to college and knew of no other option except for college and that seems to be the case for many students; but what if we reimplemented policy to allow for classes in vocational education so students could get experience in these professions. Can you imagine how many students will find careers they will enjoy? By giving more young people experience in different areas of occupation this will ensure that they are given more opportunities other than a four year college.  I have many peers that have left college to pursue many other occupations not just vocational but culinary, coding, and entered the armed forces and none of those occupations were systemically pushed like college was. We need to embrace other ways of occupation to diversify our economy, not just in the trade sector but all other occupations that do not require a four year degree and not look at university as the golden standard.   

In conclusion, the shift of young workers away from trade careers in favor of pursuing higher education is a multifaceted issue. While higher education is undoubtedly valuable, the labor market requires a diverse set of skills and professionals. Encouraging young individuals to explore vocational training and promoting the importance and financial rewards of trade careers can help address the shortage of skilled workers in essential industries while ensuring that individuals have a broader range of career options to choose from.