Gen Z’s Shift Toward Career Technical Education: Why are more teens choosing vocational paths?

17-year-old Joel stares at his laptop. He’s not scrolling through college brochures or polishing his personal essay. Instead, he’s reviewing job postings and salary data for electricians and plumbers. Joel’s parents, both with bachelor’s degrees, are puzzled. “Isn’t college the key to success?” they ask. But Joel, like many of his Gen Z peers, is questioning this long-held belief. With student loan debt skyrocketing and stories of college grads struggling to find jobs in their fields, he wonders if there’s another path to a fulfilling, stable career.

The Gen Z Shift

Joel’s dilemma is not unique. A growing number of Gen Z students are reconsidering the traditional four-year college route. According to a 2021 ECMC Group study, only 48% of high school students are likely to pursue a four-year degree, down from 71% in May 2020 (ECMC Group, 2021). This shift is significant, especially considering that 65% of jobs in the U.S. require postsecondary education and training beyond high school (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2020).

The appeal of vocational programs is clear. A growing number of high school students now believe their ideal path is to attend a trade or vocational school. Why? The reasons are multifaceted:

  1. Cost: The average student loan debt for college graduates in 2019 was $28,950 (TICAS, 2021). In contrast, many trade schools offer programs at a fraction of the cost.
  2. Job Security: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts robust growth in many trade fields. For example, employment of electricians is projected to grow 6% from 2022 to 2032 (BLS, 2021).
  3. Quicker Entry into the Workforce: Most vocational programs take 1-2 years to complete, allowing students to start earning sooner.

The Role of High Schools

As educators, it’s our responsibility to guide students like Joel toward paths that align with their interests, aptitudes, and career goals. This doesn’t mean discouraging college; it means presenting all viable options.

One solution is integrating comprehensive Career Technical Education (CTE) programs into high schools. Programs, like those offered by Skyrocket Education Services, provide students with hands-on experience in various trades and technical fields. Popular fields in our Curricula Catalog include nursing, construction, cosmetology, veterinary, and information technology. Skyrocket’s CTE curriculum goes beyond textbook learning, allowing students to build, code, or design in real-world settings.

The benefits of CTE are well-documented. Research by the U.S. Department of Education found that CTE concentrators had higher median annual earnings than similar students eight years after their expected graduation date (USDE, 2002). Moreover, CTE students graduated high school at higher rates than non-CTE students: the average graduation rate for CTE concentrators was 94%, compared to the national average of 86% (USDE, 2009).

The Bridge of Adaptive Education

The evolving interests of Gen Z challenge us to rethink our approach to post-secondary preparation. It’s not about college versus trades; it’s about providing diverse, viable pathways to success. By incorporating programs like Skyrocket Education’s CTE, we equip our students with practical skills, industry connections, and the confidence to pursue careers that match their passions and market demands.

As educators, our ultimate goal is to prepare students for fulfilling lives and careers. Are we ready to broaden our definition of educational success and champion all paths that lead to it?


About Skyrocket:

We partner with schools to provide comprehensive Career Technical Education without straining already limited resources. Connect with our CTE team at CTEinfo@skyrocket-ed.com today, and let’s integrate academic knowledge with technical training to give students a competitive edge in 21st-century careers.