CEO Column

Gen Z is Shifting to Trade Schools—and It Couldn’t Come at a Better Time

Jennifer Safavian
June 28, 2024

As thousands of students across the country graduated high school this spring, the focus of many young people has turned to higher education. While the traditional narrative dictates that success is only achieved through four-year degrees, Gen Z is challenging this outdated belief as more and more young people eschew a traditional four-year degree in favor of trade schools and workforce programs. In fact, recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse showed a 16% increase in vocational program enrollment last year. This shift reflects a broader reevaluation of educational and career pathways, driven by the changing dynamics of the job market and the escalating costs of college education. 

For the automotive industry, this shift couldn’t come at a better time. Like much of the manufacturing sector, auto manufacturing is undergoing a significant transformation. Advances in automation, technology, and artificial intelligence are driving the sector to create efficiencies, increase precision, improve safety, and transform vehicle design. This ongoing evolution is simultaneously changing the skills required to manufacture, assemble, and maintain vehicles—all while the auto industry faces a critical shortage of skilled workers. 

A career in auto manufacturing offers far more than just a job: it provides a pathway to prosperity and opportunity. Contrary to long-held misconceptions and stigmas, these roles offer competitive pay, stability, comprehensive benefits, and a promising upward trajectory. International automakers are deeply committed to bolstering their communities and workforce through significant investments in workforce development and continuing education: In fact, more than three-quarters of workforce development programs offered by Autos Drive America members focus on upskilling or reskilling the current workforce to prepare their skilled workers for the transportation and economic needs of tomorrow. 

In 2023, Autos Drive America’s member companies and partners implemented 337 workforce development programs across 36 states. These programs enabled students to earn good wages while pursuing technical education and provided current employees with opportunities to reskill and upskill their manufacturing competencies. These initiatives represent a substantial investment in the future of our industry and the individuals who power it. 

At the same time, Congress is working toward fostering a more robust ecosystem of workforce development and apprenticeship programs through the Stronger Workforce for America Act. This legislation aims to strengthen the education-to-career pipeline by aligning education opportunities with workforce needs and providing high-quality, hands-on training opportunities to job seekers and employees alike. By prioritizing legislation that empowers individuals to pursue vocational education and acquire in-demand skills, we can ensure that the automotive industry in the U.S.—and the American workforce—remains competitive in the global marketplace. 

As we look to the future, it’s essential to embrace the potential of trade schools to cultivate a skilled workforce capable of driving innovation and prosperity in the auto manufacturing industry. Together, we can forge a path to success that benefits both individuals and our nation. It’s time to trade in outdated perceptions for a brighter, more promising future in auto manufacturing.