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Gen Z Is Increasingly Turning to Trade Schools as a Fast Track to Entrepreneurship and an AI-Proof Career Trade school enrollments increased last year as undergrad degree completion dropped.

By Sherin Shibu

Key Takeaways

  • Trade schools could be a cheaper path into entrepreneurship.
  • Reports from the National Student Clearinghouse show that vocational community college enrollment grew last year.
  • The percentage of students who completed undergrad degrees dropped in the same time period.
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It's no secret that Gen Z is entrepreneurial, with research showing that the majority would take a social media creator job over a standard 9-to-5. Nearly half are going the extra mile by starting a side hustle to be able to afford "the normal stuff."

Now, new research shows that trade school could also play into Gen Z's entrepreneurial aspirations, especially with rising AI capabilities and growing education costs.

According to a January National Student Clearinghouse report, vocational community college enrollment has grown 16% since 2018. Growth was concentrated mainly in cities and suburbs, which recorded 3.5% and 3.7% respective increases in students opting for trade programs.

Related: Most Americans Don't Think Higher Education Is Worth the Cost — But This State-By-State Breakdown of College Graduates' Salaries Tells a Different Story

Last year's version of the report found that enrollment in programs across the construction, culinary, and mechanic trades increased 19.3%, 12.7%, and 11.5% respectively from 2021 to 2022.

"We're seeing that 75% of Gen Z is saying they are interested in being an entrepreneur," career coach and The Ramsey Show co-host Ken Coleman told Fox Business. "They want to work for themselves... trades offer a quicker, cheaper path to being able to work for themselves, create jobs for other people, and plug into—which is the real backbone of our economy—small business."

While students were choosing trade schools in higher numbers, fewer were deciding to go for a four-year undergraduate degree.

A separate April report from the National Student Clearinghouse detailed that the number of students completing undergraduate degrees dropped by nearly 3% in the 2022 to 2023 school year — continuing an overall decline from the previous year.

Related: The 'Bizarrely Authoritarian' U.S. Education System Inspired This Husband and Wife to Co-Found a 'Genius School' for Future Entrepreneurs and Leaders

In an NPR article published last week, Sy Kirby, a 32-year-old who owns a construction company, said he knew early that he was going to choose a trade school — and he has no regrets.

Kirby chose to work at a local water department when he was 19 years old rather than go to college, he told NPR. He calls Gen Z the "toolbelt generation," a term also used by The Wall Street Journal.

"I was facing a lot of pressure for a guy that knew for a fact that he wasn't going to college," Kirby told NPR. "I knew I wasn't going to sit in a classroom, especially since I knew I wasn't going to pay for it."

Sherin Shibu

Entrepreneur Staff

News Reporter

Sherin Shibu is a business news reporter at Entrepreneur.com. She previously worked for PCMag, Business Insider, The Messenger, and ZDNET as a reporter and copyeditor. Her areas of coverage encompass tech, business, strategy, finance, and even space. She is a Columbia University graduate.

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