Jamie Chambers, director of member success for the Delaware Contractors Association, used to find it hard to make parents of middle school students understand that jobs in construction are more than digging ditches on the side of the road for $7 an hour, according to Katie Tabeling of the Delaware Business Times.

“It’s a generational wish parents have for their kids; they don’t want them to work hard and make no money,” Chambers said. “But, these days, there’s good-paying jobs that fit with anyone’s interests, from flying drones to interior design to drafting.”

There are still parents who think that, but Generation Z (people born in 1997 or after) is helping to change that. The National Student Clearinghouse reported that enrollment for public, four-year universities increased by 2.4 percent last year, the first growth after years where people were worried about high tuition costs and, more recently, in-person education.

In addition to growth in four-year colleges, the National Student Clearinghouse also reported that vocational institutions had a boost of 17 percent in 2023.

“We’re seeing a lot more interest, specifically from Generation Z,” said John Gooden, chief operating officer for M. Davis & Sons, Inc. “I think someone got smart and realized that you need to start marketing this on social media, and it’s working. We’ve had three senior people retire in the last four months, and we’re seeing a lot of diversity moving up the ranks now.”

At northern Delaware vocational technical schools, the number of students that were offered employment opportunities after graduation is on the rise. A survey of all four high schools in the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District found that 19 percent of its 1,059 students were offered jobs, though the survey was not filled out by all students, which includes those headed into health care, cosmetology, IT and other fields.

In Delaware, the salaries for construction jobs have gone up but the workforce has slightly shrunk in the past five years. In 2023, the average construction worker earned $61,318 working 40-hour weeks — a 16 percent increase from 2016. However, the workforce shrunk by 4 percent.

Nevertheless, Chambers said that major changes have made a difference with the incoming tradespeople. The Delaware Pathways program launched in 2018, exposing 23,000 students to various trades or career options that do not require a bachelor’s degree.

“Back then, we had one person coming in for every four retiring,” Chambers said. “With all the work that’s been done in the past four years, it’s created more of a pipeline to get kids involved. The Pathways program has also opened doors to broader topics, like road infrastructure or electrical work. Simulators give the option to learn about operating dump trucks or other heavy machinery.”

The state awarded grant funding to the DCA and other partnerships for apprentice programs to afford students the opportunities to earn while they learn skills with construction companies. The average age for a registered apprentice is 26, while state officials would like to see it around 18.

“Certainly, there’s a place for college degrees, but, for a long time, the skilled trades did not have a clear path forward,” said Jazelle Plummer, DOL apprenticeship and training manager. “But the pathways that start around 10th grade are really designed to get our students in the headspace of what they can do for their futures and maybe these jobs are worth a look. Employers all have their preferences, depending on whether they want someone new to start training in their processes or [someone] more experienced.”

According to Delaware’s DOL, there were 1,656 registered apprentices in training with 417 employers across 20 occupation categories in 2023. Companies range from as large as Allan Myers and M. Davis to companies with as few as five employees. Plummer said that participant numbers ebb and flow with enrollment and graduations between September and January.

Historically, the program has not seen an uptick, depending on broader economic challenges. In fact, COVID may have had a net-zero impact; much of the training work may have been restricted due to space restrictions, but Delaware was one of the few states that allowed construction work to continue.

While the problem of perception of low pay and hard work is still there, Chambers added that she is having faith that the tide is turning with more outreach to middle school students.

“‘Earn while you learn’ is a phrase that really hits home with parents because a lot of kids aren’t going to college because it’s so expensive,” Chambers said. “An apprenticeship grants the opportunity to work for five years and get your licenses. When a sixth grader goes home and shares that these jobs have health benefits, a pension and good pay, that child may not understand. But the parents will.”

M. Davis traditionally hires apprentices straight out of high school, some starting as early as their senior year in a co-op program. Gooden said that they do see participants coming from traditional high schools. On average, the company hires 80 apprentices in a cycle that follows a school year.

“It’s very different today than what it was 20 years ago,” Gooden said. “People who were coming to train had a father, an uncle, a brother or someone working in construction trades. It’s become a different animal, and it’s moved beyond schools and into a lot of other programs.”

Gooden said that marketing is key to continuing the upward trend, especially having companies do it themselves.

“We’re on Instagram, but we’re also thinking outside the box,” Gooden said. “We’ve got like 15 sophomores coming to see electrical and welding in a summer camp. Seeing that firsthand and offering an opportunity to try and wire a switch are critical.”