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Many in Gen Z ditch colleges for trade schools. Meet the 'toolbelt generation'

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Many in Gen Z ditch colleges for trade schools. Meet the 'toolbelt generation'

Sy Kirby dreaded the thought of going to college after graduating from high school. He says a four-year degree just wasn’t in the cards for him or his bank account.

“I was facing a lot of pressure for a guy that knew for a fact that he wasn’t going to college,” Kirby says. “I knew I wasn’t going to sit in a classroom, especially since I knew I wasn’t going to pay for it.”

Instead, at the age of 19, Kirby took a job at a local water department in southern Arkansas. He said the position helped him to develop the skills that helped him start his own construction company.

Sy Kirby, who runs his own construction company, says a four-year degree just wasn’t in the cards for him or his bank account.

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Sy Kirby, who runs his own construction company, says a four-year degree just wasn’t in the cards for him or his bank account.

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Will Anderson

Now at age 32, Kirby finds himself mentoring many of his employees, who also opted to learn a skilled trade rather than shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to pursue a degree that they wouldn’t use after graduating.

Kirby says blue-collar work is lucrative and allows him to “call the shots” in his life. But, he says the job also comes with a downside, mainly because of the stigma attached to the industry.

“I think there’s a big problem with moms and dads coming home from quote-unquote ‘dirty’ jobs. Coming home with dirty clothes and sweating. You had a hard day’s work and sometimes that’s looked down upon,” he says.

Kirby is among the growing number of young people who have chosen to swap college for vocational schools that offer paid, on-the-job training.

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Skilled trades make a comeback

Lisa Countryman-Quiroz is the CEO of JVS, or Jewish Vocational Services, a nonprofit in San Francisco that provides career training for unemployed workers to find jobs, including in skilled trades. She says that over the years there has been a shift — with skilled trade making a comeback, especially among members of Generation Z.

“Folks have really prioritized a college education as a path to the middle class and a path to a cushy office job.” But, Countryman-Quiroz says, “over the last 10 to 15 years, we are seeing a trend among young people opting out of universities. Just the crushing debt of college is becoming a barrier in and of itself.”

More than half of Gen Zers say it’s possible to get a well-paying job with only a high school diploma, provided one acquires other skills. That’s according to a survey by New America, a Washington Think Tank that focuses on a range of public policy issues, including technology, education and the economy.

The high cost of college prompts a change in career paths

In addition, the Education Data Initiative says the average cost of college in the United States has more than doubled in the 21st century.

With that price tag increasing, many Gen Zers say they’ve been left with no choice but to leave the college path. Many say living with their parents until they can pay off their college debt isn’t an option.

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Nitzan Pelman is founder of Climb Hire, a company that helps kids out of high school pursue skilled trades. She says many young people say graduating from college with a six-figure debt is a non-starter.

“It’s not a secret that the cost of college has gone up so dramatically in the last decade that it’s really cost prohibitive at this point,” she says.

Pelman says pursuing skilled trades can also help “level the playing field,” especially for young people from less-privileged backgrounds and for people of color.

“We don’t see a lot of Black men in construction, but more Latino men in construction and you don’t see many women in construction. Social capital is a really big gatekeeper and a door-opener for accessing high-quality jobs and helping people break into certain industries,” she says.

In 2021, President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Since then, he’s been traveling the country promoting the law, which he says will open up thousands of new jobs in trades.

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“You can expect to get your hands dirty and that’s OK”

The high cost of college isn’t the only factor driving many young people toward skilled trades. With the use of artificial intelligence on the rise, many Gen Zers see manual labor as less vulnerable to the emerging technology than white-collar alternatives. They also say vocational schools are a straight path to well-paying jobs.

Pelman says increasing salaries and new technologies in fields such as welding, plumbing and machine tooling are giving trade professions a face-lift, making them more appealing to the younger crowd.

“There are a lot of vocational jobs out there that are pretty attractive — HVAC repair and installation, electricians, solar panel installer — there’s so much demand for wind turbine installers who, in many cases, make more than $100,000 a year — so there’s a lot of demand for manual labor,” she stresses.

Diego Aguilar works at a trade center at East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif.

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Diego Aguilar works at a trade center at East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif.

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That was the case for 25-year-old Diego Aguilar, who says a traditional desk job was out of the question for him. Aguilar now works full time at a trade center at East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif., after going through the JVS training program.

“When I went into a trade program I learned how much money I could make performing a very specific kind of work. You need mechanics, you need machinists, you need carpenters, operators you need painters. You can expect to get your hands dirty and that’s OK,” Aguilar says.

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows the number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges increased 16% from 2022 to 2023.

As for Kirby, he says his mission is to keep raising awareness about what he calls the “toolbelt generation.”

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“Where they can walk out of the school of hard knocks, pick an industry, work your 10 years, take your punches, take your licks and hopefully you’re bringing jobs and careers back to the community,” he says.

When asked if he regrets his decision to go into skilled trades, Kirby chuckles. “Not for a second,” he says.

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Video: Severe Storms and Tornadoes Cause Destruction in Several States

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Video: Severe Storms and Tornadoes Cause Destruction in Several States

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Severe Storms and Tornadoes Cause Destruction in Several States

Severe weather hit several parts of the United States over the weekend, killing more than 20 people and leaving hundreds of thousands without power.

[NO SPEECH]

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Persuading Europeans to work more hours misses the point

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Persuading Europeans to work more hours misses the point

Europeans are spending less time at work, and governments would like them to get back to the grindstone. That is the thrust of measures German, Dutch and British ministers have been examining to persuade part-timers to take on more hours, and full-timers to embrace overtime.

But the evidence suggests it will be an uphill battle — and that authorities worrying about a shrinking workforce would do better to help people who might otherwise not want a job at all to work a little.

Rising prosperity is the main reason the working week has shortened over time, as higher productivity and wages have allowed people to afford more leisure. In Germany, for example, it has roughly halved between 1870 and 2000. Across the OECD, people are working about 50 fewer hours each year on average than in 2010, at 1,752.

Average hours have fallen more in recent years because the mix of people in employment has changed, with more young people studying, more mothers working, older people phasing their retirement and flexible service sector jobs replacing roles in the long-hours manufacturing industry.

The latest post-pandemic drop in European working hours is more of a puzzle. The European Central Bank estimated that at the end of 2023, Eurozone employees were on average working five hours less per quarter than before 2020 — equivalent to the loss of 2mn full-time workers.

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There has been a similar shift in the UK, where average weekly hours are 20 minutes shorter than in 2019 at the end of 2022. The Office for National Statistics says this was driven by lower full-time hours among prime-age men and was equivalent to having 310,000 fewer people in employment.

The trend appears to be a European one — there has been no such recent change seen in the US, which simply laid people off during the pandemic rather than putting them on furlough.

One explanation is that employers have been “hoarding” labour — keeping staff on in slack periods while cutting hours, because they are worried they will not be able to hire easily when demand picks up. The ECB thinks this has been a factor, along with a rise in sick leave and rapid growth in public sector jobs.

But Megan Greene, a BoE policymaker, said earlier this month that while there was some evidence of labour hoarding, it was also “plausible that . . . workers may just want a better work-life balance”.

Researchers at the IMF who examined the puzzle reached a similar conclusion. They said the post-Covid drop in working hours was in fact an extension of the long-term trend seen over the past 20 years, which reflected workers’ preferences — with young people and fathers of young children driving the decline. The biggest change was in countries where incomes were catching up with richer neighbours.

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Some economists, however, believe the experience of lockdowns has made people more willing to trade pay for a less pressured lifestyle, and more able to walk away from jobs with antisocial hours.

“A lot of people started to pay more attention to their health,” said one Frankfurt-based economist, noting that Germany, with one of the sharpest drops in working hours, suffered from high rates of depression and other mental health conditions, along with the UK.

Spain has traditionally been at the other extreme. It has some of the longest working hours in Europe — combined with a long lunch break that means many employees cannot clock off till late in the evening, with family life, leisure and sleep patterns all suffering as a result.  

But even here, habits are changing. Ignacio de la Torre, chief economist at Madrid-based investment bank Arcano Partners, thinks Spanish bars and restaurants have struggled to fill vacancies since the pandemic because former waiters have begun training for better jobs.

In many countries, unions have made shorter hours a focus of collective bargaining, and some employers are experimenting with offering four-day weeks — or more flexible working patterns — as a way of attracting staff.

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The shift in habits is a challenge for European policymakers. Since productivity growth has been weak, they fear that shorter hours will exacerbate labour shortages, fuel inflationary pressures, hold back growth and make it harder to fund welfare systems.

Unless productivity growth improves, de la Torre argues, the only way to boost economic growth is to bring more people into the workforce, embrace immigration or work longer. It is unrealistic to earn the same while working less: the outcome would be “a lower salary at the end of the month”.

But Anna Ginès i Fabrellas, director of the Labor Studies Institute at the Esade law school, cites evidence that young people are willing to accept this trade-off, valuing free time “when they assess the quality of a job”.

Some policymakers think shorter hours and greater wellbeing should be the goal. Spain’s minister of labour, Yolanda Díaz, caused uproar earlier this year by suggesting restaurants should no longer open into the small hours, and the governing coalition has pledged gradual cuts to the legal maximum working week.

The IMF’s researchers made a more pragmatic argument.

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Governments can and should do more to help people who want longer hours, they said, including supporting retraining, job-hunting and childcare, as well as promoting flexible work and removing perverse incentives in tax and benefit systems.

This will have only a small effect, the IMF estimates. Some policies will simply “reshuffle hours” between mothers and fathers. But in general, most people will want to work slightly less provided their living standards advance. That means there’s a limit to what policymakers can do. 

A more realistic goal, the IMF reckons, is to raise the total number of hours worked across the economy, not least through better parental leave policies that could bring more people into work in the first place. Recent trends in the EU are promising: participation in the workforce has risen since 2020.

This feels like the better approach. If employers offer better part-time and flexible roles, people who might otherwise stay outside the labour force entirely might at least work a little — and be happier for it. That would be more productive for governments than pushing against the tide.

delphine.strauss@ft.com

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After severe weather across the South, East Coast braces for potential flooding, tornadoes

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After severe weather across the South, East Coast braces for potential flooding, tornadoes

A man looks at a damaged car after a tornado hit the day before, Sunday, May 26, 2024, in Valley View, Texas. Powerful storms left a wide trail of destruction Sunday across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas after obliterating homes and destroying a truck stop where drivers took shelter during the latest deadly weather to strike the central U.S.

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A large swath of the eastern U.S. was bracing for severe weather as the Memorial Day weekend came to a close. Deadly storms over the long weekend also knocked out power to hundreds of thousands across the South and disrupted holiday travel at busy airports in the northeast.

Severe storms were expected to stretch from Alabama to upstate New York on Monday evening, according to the National Weather Service. Forecasters said the storms could lead to intense rainfall in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, with flash flooding possible. Hail, heavy winds and tornadoes were also possible from northeast Maryland to the Catskill Mountains of New York, according to the NWS.

The threat of severe weather Monday followed a string of powerful and deadly storms that swept through the South and parts of the Midwest over the holiday weekend. At least 23 people were killed in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama and Kentucky as a result of severe weather.

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Earlier in the week, a deadly tornado also hit Iowa.

In a news conference Monday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said four people were killed in four different counties after storms ripped through most of the state Sunday. Later Monday, Beshear confirmed a fifth storm-related death.

The tiny southwestern Kentucky community of Charleston took a direct hit from a tornado, officials said.

Beshear said the twister appeared to have been on the ground for 40 miles.

“It could have been much worse,” Beshear said of this weekend’s storms. “The people of Kentucky are very weather aware with everything we’ve been through.”

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To the east of Charleston, parts of Hopkins County, Kentucky, also saw damage Sunday night. Western Kentucky, including a number of communities in Hopkins County, endured a series of devastating tornadoes in 2021 that killed 81 people.

“There were a lot of people that were just getting their lives put back together and then this,” Hopkins County emergency management director Nick Bailey was quoted by The Associated Press as saying. “Almost the same spot, the same houses and everything.”

The website Poweroutage.us reported hundreds of thousands without power on Monday. More than 120,000 customers in Kentucky were without power as of 5:30 p.m. ET, according to the website. Data showed Arkansas and West Virginia each had more than 40,000 customers without electricity.

The White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the ground conducting damage assessments with state and local authorities. President Biden has directed federal agencies to provide support as needed.

Holiday travel had also been disrupted as a result of the weekend storms.

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According to the flight-tracking website Flight Aware, more than 400 flights in the U.S. had been canceled as of 5:30 p.m. Monday — and another 5,200-plus flights had been delayed. New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey were most affected by delays and cancellations.

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