Gen Z Right for the Trades?

It seems like only yesterday that millennials were the hot topic among hiring managers. Back before house prices shot up and the entire generation was forever linked to the words “avocado toast,” the questions being asked ranged from: Are millennials too entitled to flip burgers? to Did participation trophies create workers who won’t even try?

Fast forward to 2024, and a new generation has entered the chat. In what seems like the blink of an eye, Gen Z has gone from children hoarding fidget spinners to real, live young adults in the workforce. Just as quickly, strong opinions have formed on whether Gen Z is cut out for a career in those industries hungriest for boots on the ground: the trades.

Some of more negative viewpoints sound like this:

“Gen Z is lazy and entitled.”

“They can’t think for themselves — when they finish a task, they go back on their phones until you tell them what to do.”

“When they make a mistake, you have to be careful what you tell them. They’re too soft.”

Andrea Lovell, who co-owns Heron Plumbing with her husband Dale, sees a kernel of truth in some of those takes. She and Dale work with high school seniors through the Gateway Programme, which provides structured, real-world learning for students looking at a specific career path. Once a week, instead of going to school, students are invited on site to try out a trade and see if it’s right for them. Although Andrea says they’ve welcomed some “really good” students, others haven’t been up to the tasks. “We’ve had a couple that are there to waste time. We’ve ended up sending them back, because it’s a health and safety issue for us; they can’t be watching or playing on their phone on a construction site. It seems like some just want to be on their devices all the time and don’t listen when asked to put them away.”

Andrea’s experience is that the majority of Gen Zs don’t seem to be prepared for the reality of a career in the trades. “We’ve got some Gen Zs working for us at the moment who are really good, but they seem to want everything now. They don’t realise that to own a company, you’ve got to have the hard work behind you. To become a contract manager, there’s a process — you can’t just go from an apprentice to the top job. We’ve got one who’s a really hard worker, but he wants the top job even before he’s finished his apprenticeship. They seem to want everything now, instead of having to work for it.”

As the mother of two Gen Z teens herself, Andrea knows that not every young person’s work ethic is so “delulu” (short for “delusional” in current slang). At the same time, she says, the never-before-seen influences and disruptions experienced in their short lifetimes are taking their toll.

“Social media is showing people their age out there with all this money, and they think, ‘I can do that, I can get there, I can make all this money doing whatever.’ They’re seeing all these people who aren’t working hard, who aren’t dedicated. And I think that creates that feeling of ‘I want it all now.’”

For most of Gen Z, a sense of school/work/life boundaries and predictability was tossed out the window during their formative years, thanks to Covid-19. And although Andrea says that some young people who walk through her doors just aren’t willing to make the sacrifices needed to succeed — “It’s not like working at an office, where you start at 9am. You have to be onsite at 7 in the morning” — she suspects that others showing little motivation may not have made the choice to pursue an apprenticeship entirely themselves. “Kids finish school and they don’t know what they want to do, and their parents tell them, ‘Go into a trade.’ And that might not be what they’re passionate about — the parents just think a trade will be good for them. So we don’t take workers direct out of high school anymore unless they’ve done Gateway with us and they’re really good.”

Nick Hackett, Assistant Principal at Massey High School, agrees that confirming a genuine interest in the trades is critical. Massey is a leading provider of trades education through the Auckland West Vocational Academies (AWVA), hands-on programmes that let students experience a number of trades.

“Early childhood, hospitality, tourism, automative engineering — we have a garage with two hoists,” says Nick. “We are certainly one of the most well-known schools to do this, particularly in construction.”

From Year 11, students looking to enter the construction academy can dip their toes in the water by using an hour per school week to get a taste of the work. If they choose to continue, as Nick says most students do, Years 12 and 13 see the students develop their skills and confidence full-time by building real homes that are later trucked offsite.

“We have a building site here at the back of the school,” says Nick, “and we build roughly five houses each year under contract for Kāinga Ora. The houses are three or four bedrooms, so 110 sqm or 120sqm each, and they have to conform to all the Auckland Council and Kāinga Ora regulations.”

The students’ education, as described by Nick, is thorough. “Once we get to Year 12, which is when the academy really starts, our students spend their whole school day, five days a week, learning building skills. They’re obviously new to the building site, so they start off with health and safety and the safe use of tools.”

By the end of their time in the AWVA, students should have confidence, a growing skill set, and no doubt as to whether the trades are right for them. According to Nick, this makes a big difference to how employable they are.

“We’re not a tertiary polytechnic,” he says, “we’re a high school that has a tertiary programme. One huge advantage with that is if you’re starting out at a polytechnic and you do something wrong, then you get embarrassed, and then you don’t want to turn up, and then you’re probably crossed off the list. Whereas the students know us, we know them, and we just want to bring them back on board and get rid of whatever obstacles are in their way to achieving success. For a lot of students, especially males, they need that extra time in the school environment because they tend to mature a bit later. By the time they leave here at 18, they’re so much more sensible than they might have been when they were 16.”

Nick says that he hasn’t noticed a real difference between the attitudes of his Gen Z students and the millennials who came before them, and that enrollment in the AWVA shows no signs of slowing down.

“The interest has definitely increased. When we started in 2012, we built one house a year. Now we can build five.” 

Nick’s take on young people’s gravitation to the trades is supported by government data. According to Stats NZ, the number of 15 to 25-year-olds employed in the construction trade has increased by 11% over the past six years, outpacing the rate of employment in any capacity by the same group. What’s more, the most distinctive period of growth has been over the past two years. With the number of overseas workers having dropped during Covid and not yet recovered, it can be inferred that Gen Zs born here in New Zealand are happily filling those roles.

Andrea say that the key to managing Gen Z workers is to balance honesty with compassion — and an open mind. “We’ve seen a lot more people with depression and anxiey, so it’s about looking after your staff and watching out for signals that something’s wrong. Listen to them, listen to their needs, because their needs are different. Be open to different ways of learning; everybody learns differently, but Gen Z overall needs more praise. When they’re doing something right, praise them.”

It also helps to see the positives in what Gen Z brings to the workforce. “With a lot of them wanting things now, it means at least they’ve got goals. So what you need to do is tamp it down and say, ‘That’s great that you’ve got your goal, and these are the realistic milestones you need to reach before you get there.’” Another benefit? “Everything’s online now, and Gen Z is very good with technology. They don’t need a lot of training there — they pick that stuff up so much quicker than older staff, and they adapt to changes in technology really well.”

Above all, both Andrea and Nick emphasise that there are some great workers to be had among those young adults who really want to learn the trade and do well, and they’re desperately needed.

“There’s so much potential in the students when they’re doing something they really want to do,” says Nick. “We have relationships with building firms and they’re very keen to take our students.”

And the opportunities are certainly there, for the right people.

“We are short apprentices within the plumbing industry,” says Andrea. “We just don’t have enough — there’s a real shortage. But we’ve learned from experience not to take just anyone who decides they want to be a plumber — you have to have an aptitude for it. I think it’s important for parents and Gen Z to know that the trades aren’t just a job. It’s a career.”

Special thanks to Stats NZ, Andrea Lowell of Heron Plumbing (, and Nick Hackett of Massey High School for contributing to this article. To find out more about the trades academies at Massey High School, visit