Could ‘Gen Z” Be the Solution for the Skills Gap?

Posted on 08/31/2021

It’s back-to-school time, and thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, things look a lot different than years past. As parents and students grapple with this “new normal,” many are questioning what’s next from an education standpoint. Some recent high school graduates, all part of Generation Z, are exploring opportunities they may not have considered before – careers in the skilled trades. 

According to two recent studies by ECMC Group, a nonprofit corporation focused on helping students succeed, Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2015 – and nearly 74 million strong in the U.S.) has expressed interest in the skilled trades. While American teenagers consistently believe that higher education plays a key role in their future success, Gen Z is considering different paths to take after high school vs. previous generations. In fact, more than half are open to something other than a four-year degree. 

It’s no secret that America is facing a critical skilled labor shortage – and has been for some time. Add in an unanticipated pandemic, and it’s harder than ever to find employees for not only the skilled trades, but just about every industry out there. For almost a decade, the trade skills deficit has gained more and more attention. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than seven million jobs available across the country at the end of 2019; the majority of which don’t require a four-year degree. In addition, a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that 74% of contractor firms predict a shortfall of qualified skilled trade workers; and a Deloitte study found that the skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028. On top of that, other studies show that during the next five years, 40% of the skilled labor force will retire. Yikes! 

Worth noting, those alarming statistics are pre-pandemic!

Yet, despite millions of available blue-collar jobs, there’s no one to fill them. Why?

There are a variety of reasons young adults aren’t entering the trades as they once did. Over the last several decades, most Americans have simply turned their backs on the skilled trades, and careers in the trades are no longer seen as desirable. Parents push for higher education and expensive university degrees rather than community college or trade schools. Community colleges, trade schools, and even on-the-job apprenticeship programs are seen as alternatives to education, and even the most well-intentioned parents and high school guidance counselors see apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities as “consolation prizes” only suited for kids who somehow aren’t cut out for those expensive four-year degrees. In addition, most high schools nationwide no longer offer vocational or shop classes or any type of skilled trade training opportunities that our grandparents were excited about. 

Unfortunately, there is a widespread stigma against skilled labor. And now, the skills gap is wider than it’s ever been, with no end in sight.

But the simple fact is that many people enjoy working with their hands, and the thought of spending the next 45 years stuck behind a desk and/or computer screen isn’t where they see themselves. For some, college just isn’t a good fit. While it seems all the focus these days is on Millennials, perhaps it’s Generation Z who will change the course? Some recent studies are finding that students are becoming more excited about joining a skilled trade.

Filling all those jobs in the skilled trades won’t happen overnight. Pretty serious cultural shifts will need to occur, and students need to be aware that there are lots of opportunities in the skilled trades that pay well and don’t require a college degree. While many of these jobs require some degree of training through trade schools, others require skills that can be learned on the job. 

For instance, air duct cleaning is a growing industry, and air duct cleaning technicians are in demand. These days indoor air quality (IAQ) is top-of-mind for both homeowners and facility managers. 

According to the US Census Bureau, the US population as of July 1, 2019 was 328,239,523, with 119,730,128 households. That’s a lot of air ducts! Not to mention all of the manufacturing facilities, educational institutions, hospitals, office buildings, etc. that have HVAC systems and air ducts. 

It’s actually pretty easy to get started as a HVAC systems/air duct cleaning technician. Not only does the job pay well, skills are usually learned on-the-job. The National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) offers a low-cost Ventilation Maintenance Technician (VMT) online training program that’s designed to help new HVAC cleaning technicians develop experience and skills necessary for the job. The VMT is delivered online, making it convenient for technicians to work at their own pace, with no need to travel. Plus, the VMT program content is consistent with NADCA standards and guidelines, ensuring technicians learn how to do the job right. The VMT program consists of five modules that cover topics like HVAC ductwork and access openings, basic safety, containment, cleaning methods, and equipment.

Certifications are a must to be successful in the industry. Only NADCA offers the industry’s leading certifications, the landmark Air Systems Cleaning Specialist (ASCS) certification and Certified Ventilation Inspector (CVI) certification.

Following are some ideas for ways to connect with – and recruit – young folks for your air duct cleaning business:

  • Create awareness about air duct cleaning (and why it’s a great career choice).
  • Support diverse and/or at-risk youth.
  • Reach out to local high schools and vocational schools.
  • Build relationships with local community colleges.
  • Attend job fairs through your local community and/or vocational schools.
  • Get creative with marketing tactics. Place ‘Now Hiring’ posters in places teenagers and young adults hang out.
  • Beef up your employee referral program; offer incentives to existing employees for referrals.
  • Offer paid apprenticeships, internships, and scholarship programs.
  • Develop on-the-job training programs.
  • Promote advancement and growth opportunities.
  • Offer great benefits and compensation, as well as signing bonuses.
  • Understand your target hires and what’s important to them (for instance, young people these days seek work/life balance and opportunities for advancement).