Gen Z are shunning college to launch trade businesses and take apprenticeships

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Chase Gallagher was 12 years old when he started mowing his neighbor’s lawn for $35 a pop. At first, he only had two customers but after some aggressive leafletting—with the help of his mom—he had 10 weekly clients the following year.

Now, he’s 23 years old and part of a growing number of Gen Zers who are opting out of going to college. But—unlike some baby boomers’ assessment of the generation—they’re not pottering around their parents’ house dodging working altogether. In fact Gallagher and many others are picking up the tools and turning to traditional trades. 

“I just didn’t see the ROI in going to university,” Gallagher tells Fortune. Instead, he put his efforts into scaling his side hustle into a successful full-time business called CMG Landscaping. But, he says, it “took a lot of courage” to relay that decision to his folks.

“Your whole life from the time you’re six years old, your parents are instilling, ‘Hey, you’re going to go to college,’” Gallagher recalls how his future was seemingly mapped out for him. “It sounded great until I realized you’ve got to pay for it.”

Even the students who are choosing to go to college are choosing differently. Enrollment in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% last year to its highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking this data in 2018. 

What’s more, the same data shows a 23% surge in students studying construction trades in 2023 compared to the year before, and a 7% increase in HVAC and vehicle maintenance and repair programs.

The expectation still is to go to college—and Gen Zers don’t want to disappoint 

Growing up, most of the Gen Zers Fortune spoke to admitted they had originally planned to go to university—not because they wanted to but because it seemed like the right course of action. 

“I feel like people my age are still naturally expected to go to university—it feels like the next step that everyone takes after school,” Emily Shaw, a 20-year-old apprentice at British construction company Redrow, tells Fortune.

All the men in Shaw’s family have worked in construction since the 19th century. Now, she’s the first female in the family to follow suit, with her eyes set on becoming a quality surveyor.

“There’s still a stereotype that getting a university degree guarantees and results in a well-paid job, but I soon realized that isn’t the case,” she added. 

Likewise 20-year-old Luke Phillips had already enrolled in university when he decided it wasn’t for him. 

“I didn’t really put much thought into it,” he told Fortune. “From when I was young, it seemed like I was aiming towards university throughout school and then college.”

Phillips recalls being heavily encouraged to apply to universities in his last year in school—after all, it looks good when a high percentage of students make it into higher education—and then getting swept up in the excitement of being accepted.

“I was only 18, I was quite inexperienced in the world and didn’t really understand what other options were out there,” he says, adding that going to university was “less of a scary situation to be in than being unemployed”.

So that’s what he did, before swiftly changing his mind three months in. 

Now, Phillips has begun learning how to make jewelry at The Remarkable Goldsmiths in Dartmouth—and feels like he should be “paying for the privilege”.

“I’m getting a really good understanding of how to run a business and what being in a workshop is actually like,” he adds. “Not what tutors think it might be like, or what it was like 10 years ago.”

Gen Zers don’t want to get into debt 

Getting a degree has long been touted as a “must” for landing a lucrative career. But today Gen Zers are acutely aware that the only guarantee that comes with a degree is debt.

“It’s simple math to figure out why a young person would choose the trades industry versus college,” Gallagher, who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, said. “Let’s say you pay $50,000 a year for your college.

“Times that by four, that’s $200,000 for your investment. Plus, you’re losing four years of revenue-producing years by going to college, so you’re spending money and not making money.” 

With some colleges charging up to $95,000 this year, Gallagher thinks young people are better off getting a headstart on their careers by picking a trade, building their wealth and trying to buy a house before their peers have even graduated.

“Gen Z is possibly the most educated generation in history,” Tobba Vigfusdottir, a psychologist and the CEO of Kara Connect, an employee mental health and wellbeing platform, tells Fortune. “They’re also more worried about their finances than previous generations, having seen a few financial crises on their way to the workplace.”

Thanks to TikTok—where myriads of college-educated millennials can be caught complaining that their salary doesn’t stretch enough to move out of their childhood bedroom—Vigfusdottir adds that Gen Z knows they many never be able to afford a home of their own, even with a degree. 

Social media hasn’t only opened Gen Z’s eyes to the shortcomings experienced by recent grads, it’s given trade jobs a serious image boost.

“There definitely was a taboo against people who went into trades,” Phillips says, before swiftly adding that those preconceptions are long gone.

Instead, he notes that these days, young people are leaning towards feeling “envious” of those getting their hands dirty, realizing it’s a path to both solid earnings and the freedom of being your own boss.

Plus, they’re making bank

By 16 years old, Gallagher had already turned over $50,000 from his lawn mowing side hustle, before extending into general landscaping and hiring his “buddy Mike” to help out after school and on the weekends.

“I did more project-based work. Spring cleanups, mulchings, leaf cleanups, that type of stuff,” he says. “I had well over 35 weekly lawn mowing clients.”

Now, Gallagher’s landscaping business has nine employees, does “everything from stormwater management and drainage work to pavers and lighting,” and generated more than $1 million in revenue last year.

Yet some are still trying to convince him to go to college because that’s what “successful people” do. “It’s just not true,” he adds definitely. “You can still be a 1% income earner here in America and be a trades business owner.”

Although Gallagher is significantly out-earning most of the Gen Zers Fortune spoke, research shows that the average trade worker can still walk into a better-paying job than those who have just graduated. 

According to data from payroll services provider ADP, the median pay for professional services new hires is just shy of the $40,000 mark. Meanwhile, the average new starter in construction can expect to take home over $48,000.

Despite being historically male-dominated, Shaw insists that women too can enjoy a fruitful career in the trades industry. 

Redrow’s research found that 39% of young women working in the construction industry were enticed by the high salary, meanwhile, a quarter were drawn in by the possibility of becoming their own business owner. 

“There is more to construction than just bricklaying—there are so many opportunities for women to succeed, do well and make a difference to communities,” she adds. “In fact, the majority of the office I work in is made up of women.

“Girls of a school age need to understand that a career in construction is a possibility.”



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