Little to no education debt, low barrier to entry and a great career that stretches their skills: blue collar fields are winning the hearts and minds of Gen Z.
The blue-collar world is reinventing itself—and Gen Z is here for it. Bringing their tech-savvy to bear on traditionally low-tech trades, they’re reframing the home service industry from the inside out. And why not?
Once you get past the outdated stereotypes of blue-collar work being somehow ‘lesser’ than white-collar careers, it’s easy to see just how much the trades have going for them. Blue-collar trades like plumbing, construction, electricity, landscaping, cleaning, handiwork and others offer low barriers to entry. Apprentices in these fields earn while they learn—and rarely have to take on debt to finance their postsecondary training.
This is great news for Gen Z, who tend to be much more averse to debt than their Millennial counterparts. But it’s not the only thing that’s attractive about a blue-collar career.
“Blue-collar work is largely essential—these individuals keep our homes and offices running safely and smoothly,” says Sam Pillar, CEO of Jobber, a leading provider of home service operations management software. “Our communities couldn’t operate without them.”
I recently connected with Pillar, as well as young entrepreneur Terence Chan, about why now might be the perfect moment for Gen Z to take a good hard look at blue-collar work—and how to get started on the career journey of a lifetime. Here’s what they had to share.MORE FOR YOUEmpathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To ResearchWhy U.S. Talent Shortages Are At A 10-Year HighYou Probably Need More Friends—Here’s How To Make Them
With so many people staying home during the pandemic, many began prioritizing home improvement over things like vacations and other recreational activities. “Consumer demand in home service industries recovered faster than all other categories, and actually started growing faster than pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020,” says Pillar. “That trend is continuing in 2022.”
This dynamic only contributes to the already growing need for more skilled-trades workers. According to Jobber’s Home Service Economic Report, the demand for skilled-trade jobs is far outpacing the supply of qualified workers to fill them. This is good news for plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians and other trade professionals, who are now much less likely to encounter work shortages.
“The opportunity to fill the labor gap is wide open for entrepreneurs entering these fields,” says Pillar. “The toughest part of the business won’t be finding the next job, but instead juggling a busy schedule to accommodate existing jobs—which is a nice problem for new business owners to have.”
In a recent poll, Jobber asked 1,000 respondents about entrepreneurship and what type of businesses they would open if given the opportunity. The results underscored several persistent misperceptions about the trades.
According to the survey, only 20% of millennials were encouraged to pursue vocational school and only 9% of Gen Z were encouraged to start their own businesses. Half of Gen Z surveyed felt entrepreneurs with university degrees are likely to be more successful, while only 28% of Baby Boomers believed this to be true.
“These stats show a lack of support and general understanding of the rich opportunities that exist in blue-collar entrepreneurship,” says Pillar. “This is further emphasized by the fact that more than half of the respondents surveyed believe there is more earning potential with a traditional university than trade school education.”
Chan, who started his own plumbing business at the age of 23, demonstrates the increasing falsity of this belief. Today, Chan’s company, Impetus Plumbing & Heating, employs six people and generates more than $1 million in revenue annually. And yet, he says he wouldn’t have considered a career in plumbing if it hadn’t been suggested to him. “I think this speaks to a larger issue that many of the trades have when it comes to growing and attracting young talent,” says Chan.
Social media is one arena where Chan and other industry leaders are subverting the stereotypes surrounding the trades. “Regularly posting content on TikTok and Instagram is a great way to build your brand as a business and entrepreneur,” he says. Leveraging social media has helped Chan build a large referral network and create new streams of revenue with sponsored partnerships. “I’ve actually been able to attract most of our employees through social media,” he says.
Young people who pursue entrepreneurship in the trades or other blue-collar businesses have a big competitive advantage—they’re more tech savvy. “Many of the existing home service businesses are mom-and-pop shops that rely on pen-and-paper and often struggle with client communication,” says Pillar. Many of these businesses, he says, haven’t needed to change since they built their core loyal customer base. However, the level of service that homeowners expect is higher than ever and will only continue to grow.
Chan agrees. “Being a young business owner gives me a significant advantage over my competitors because I’ve embraced technology and software that has automated the backend of the business, allowing me to focus more of my attention on getting jobs done,” he says.
But before they can enter the trades, young people need to be made aware of the many opportunities these underappreciated fields can offer. “Education is critical in destigmatizing vocational schools early on,” says Pillar. “Trades are often deprioritized in formal education and positioned as a back-up plan for individuals who can’t earn grades high enough to be accepted into university.”
Like myself, Pillar believes that vocational schools and careers in the trades should be promoted as options that are just as valuable as going to university and pursuing white-collar or gray-collar careers. “These options are different but not lesser than,” he asserts. “Young adults need to know the true benefits of a blue-collar career path—our Salary Guides are a starting point.”
Chan’s first piece of advice for those who are considering a blue-collar career is to simply try it. “Vocational programs offer an easy way to get your foot in the door with hands-on experience. Once you find the trade that’s right for you, give it your all—there’s no easy shortcuts. Lean into learning a new skill, do the hard work that’s required and emerge a master at the craft.”
Lower-barrier blue-collar work, such as lawn or pool care, can frequently be learned by doing. “Often these types of businesses need seasonal help, so it should be fairly easy to get a summer job with them,” says Pillar. “Many of these industries also have their own certification and training programs that help bring skill sets to the next level.”
Before Chan launched his company, he spent several years as an apprentice at several companies to round out his experience, in roles ranging from residential and commercial plumbing to sales. “I intentionally sought out opportunities that would eventually line up perfectly with the company I knew I would eventually create,” he says.
Chan and Pillar agree that it’s also helpful to seek out experienced professionals in your chosen field. “These entrepreneurs are passionate about their careers and are happy to share details about their journeys and businesses,” says Pillar.
Finally, there are some skills that all business owners should have—professional skills such as customer service, communication, marketing, budgeting and managing employees are all skills that set entrepreneurs apart from skilled technicians. “You don’t have to go to business school to learn them,” says Pillar. “You can learn about and develop these skills through work experience, connecting with a mentor in your chosen industry, books and online resources.”
The necessity for skilled tradespeople is more pressing than ever—and it’s not something that fluctuates with a tough economy. “If your furnace breaks, you’re going to fix it,” says Pillar. “If your roof springs a leak, you’re going to call a roofer, regardless of a pandemic or economic conditions.”
That’s one reason that trades professionals deserve a little more respect. “When you’re in an emergency situation, like when a pipe bursts in your home, you call a plumber because their skills will save the day,” Pillar says. “We find ourselves in situations every day that we may not have the skills to resolve, but tradespeople do and we rely on them—let’s start by appreciating their work more.”
Now is an ideal moment for young people to seriously consider a blue-collar career. “Use the fact that the trades aren’t viewed as sexy businesses as an advantage,” Chan urges. “This is an aging industry that many are retiring from, and few younger people are entering. This combination is creating significant opportunities for those that are willing to dive in and disrupt it.”
Judging from the disruption Chan and his fellow entrepreneurs are causing so far, it looks like the next generation is up for the challenge. As customers increasingly demand speed and access, the up-and-coming business owners who provide it will quickly set themselves apart. It’s tech-driven, sustainable growth—and it’s Gen Z who will make it the new industry standard.