Why Gen Z could be the answer to declining apprentice numbers

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

By 2025, 31% of the Australian workforce will be from Generation Z (Gen Z), sometimes termed Post-Millennials.  Categorised as those born between 1995 and 2009, this generation have had digital technologies at their fingertips for their entire schooling and are unlikely to remember life before Google. 

Gen Z are the largest generation ever, accounting for around 20% of the Australian population. With skills shortages upon us or looming in most of our traditional trades, enticing them into apprenticeships must be a priority for all stakeholders from vocational education and training (VET) providers, to employers and regulators.

Evolving to meet the demands of emerging generations is key but change on this scale isn’t easy. Couple this with the fact that Gen Z are likely to have many careers in their lifetimes and attracting them to apprenticeships presents a challenge – but, in my opinion, not an insurmountable one.

Apprenticeships have much to offer

The previous generation, Gen Y, typically have high-levels of student debt, often from degrees that haven’t led to careers in their field of study.  Influenced by this, Gen Z are likely to be more gun shy when it comes to student debt. They are also multi-modal learners, meaning they don’t want to sit in a classroom passively listening – they want to be out there ‘doing’. 

In this sense, apprenticeships offer a clear advantage.  Many university degrees rely heavily on academic learning with practical application only beginning in the later stages. Apprenticeships, on the other hand, offer on-the-job learning (and earning!) from the outset.  

It’s the traditional Master/Apprentice model that will need to adapt.  Traditionally, in the first twelve months an apprentice is given unskilled labour tasks, like sweeping the shop floor.  Gen Z are different – they are tech-savvy, entrepreneurial in nature, and have little patience for repetitive tasks, so need to be engaged on a different level.

Expecting long-term loyalty from an apprentice is also a thing of the past. Gen Z will have five careers and seventeen jobs in their lifetimes. In Australia, under 25’s keep the same job for an average of 20 months, compared to 80 months for the 45+ age group. This high job mobility is a defining factor of the emerging generations and businesses need to come to terms with it.

Business mindsets will need to shift

We’re experiencing something unique in our labour market – we have four generations currently in the workforce, and it’s not uncommon to see a Baby Boomer managing a Gen Z employee.  Gen Z want to be led by collaborative leaders, who bring them in to decisions and give them opportunities to contribute beyond the confines of their role and experience.  Conversely, baby boomers are typically ‘directive’ leaders who prefer to set firm guidelines and stay in their own lanes. 

Gen Z apprentices will want to work on projects that have real outcomes, not just sweep the shop floor. They’ll want to know why things are being done in a certain way – and “because that’s how we do it” isn’t what they want to hear.  In fact, this answer can be a red rag to a bull!

Being so entrenched in the digital world, Gen Z bring a wealth of knowledge about technology, social media and other digital platforms and are incredibly innovative in their approach. Savvy businesses who can embrace what they bring, rather than being stuck in the mindset of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ will benefit.

Investing in training is also key.  A recent Deloitte study found that only 3 in 10 Gen Z employees across the globe feel they have developed the skills and knowledgethey will need to thrive in the workforce.

The VET sector can play a key role 

The high job mobility of Gen Z presents a number of challenges for our education sector – a key one being that learning needs to be continual and flexible. 

I’ve talked before about how the VET sector is being challenged to adapt to a more flexible, digital learning model. Gen Z will respond to this shorter, sharper needs-based learning model, that leverages digital platforms, gamification and virtual reality.  

The competency-based nature of VET means the sector is well-placed to respond, and I believe it is a challenge we can face head on, as long as we have the support of industry regulators. It’s no secret that the rigid assessment framework and long consultation period required to make changes to courses is not future-proof, and this is nowhere more evident than when it comes to meeting the learning needs of Generation Z.  

But, if employers, the sector and regulators can collaborate to evolve, apprenticeships can offer the right mix of practical application and study along with the ability to earn while you learn to attract Generation Z, and quite possibly, stave off skill shortages in the process.