Trades and Careers Information Page

Updated April 27, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Contrary to what some people believe, it is possible to enjoy a successful and lucrative career without a traditional four-year college degree. Trade school, sometimes referred to as a vocational school, provides a practical alternative to baccalaureate degrees and can offer a similar, or in some cases better, return on investment than a BA or BS. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the different types of degrees one can earn through a vocational/trade school. We’ll also compare some of the similarities and differences among trade school degrees and more conventional undergraduate degree programs. Finally, we’ll address some of the questions you may have about trade school and career-prep degrees. It is our hope that you’ll gain some insight into what trade and career degrees have to offer so you can decide for yourself if these types of educational programs are right for you.

The Trade School Advantage

Historically, trade school has been looked down upon as the inferior postsecondary choice for students who couldn’t get into a “real” college. Depending on your talents, interests, and career goals, there could be many reasons to choose vocational school over a traditional four-year college though. First and foremost, trade school tends to have a bigger payoff in the short-term. While a bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete on average, trade school can be finished in half the time. That means vocational school graduates enter the workforce and begin earning a regular salary much sooner than bachelor’s degree hopefuls. Trade school is usually much less expensive too, meaning students will be less likely to take on burdensome student loans that could offset their earnings for years to come.

The admission requirements for trade/vocational school tend to be less stringent than those of a college or university, too. This means that students who didn’t perform well in high school don’t have to give up on their hopes for a successful professional career. A high school diploma or GED equivalent is usually all it takes to get into trade school whereas a four-year degree program usually requires a minimum GPA and SAT or ACT score.

Should You Attend a Trade School or Vocational School?

To say that trade school or vocational school is better than a traditional undergraduate degree –or vice versa, for that matter—is too broad a generalization. The fact is that some students are better suited for a four-year academic degree, and some are better served learning a trade. If you’ve struggled to sit still in your high school classrooms and prefer working with your hands, for instance, then trade school may be a better fit for you than a traditional collegiate environment. On the other hand, if you love burying your nose in a book or fancy yourself a math geek, then a bachelor’s program may be exactly what you need.

Your short-term and long-term financial goals may also come into play when deciding on a baccalaureate or vocational program. Bachelor’s degrees may prove more profitable in the long run (depending on your major), but a vocational degree can help you begin earning more money right away. Keep in mind, too, that graduates of trade school usually enter the workforce right away. While this is sometimes the case with bachelor’s degree recipients as well, they also have the option of continuing their studies in a graduate degree program.

Is Trade School Really Worth It?

Earning a trade school degree can trigger big payoffs in the short-term. Consider the following occupations and their mean annual wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These are positions that individuals can qualify for immediately upon graduation from vocational school.

  • Nuclear Technicians: $80,370
  • Boilermakers: $62,260
  • Line Installers and Repairers: $64,190
  • Aircraft and Avionics Equipment Mechanics and Technicians: $61,260
  • Stationary Engineers and Boiler Operators: $59,890
  • Construction and Building Inspectors: $59,090
  • Electrical and Electronics Installers and Repairers: $57,210
  • Wind Turbine Technicians: $53,880
  • Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters: $52,590
  • Industrial Machinery Mechanics, Machinery Maintenance Workers, and Millwrights: $50,440
  • Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers: $47,080
  • Diesel Service Technicians and Mechanics: $46,360
  • Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators: $46,150
  • Construction Equipment Operators: $46,080
  • Carpenters: $45,170
  • Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers: $42,480
  • Automotive Body and Glass Repairers: $40,580
  • Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $40,240
  • Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics: $39,550
  • Solar Photovoltaic Installers: $39,490

Keep in mind that many of these positions require no formal training beyond a high school diploma, and these salary numbers reflect the earnings of all workers. That means a vocational degree may position you to earn significantly more.

Degrees for Trades and Careers: Areas of Study

If you’re interested in pursuing a degree program designed to prepare you for a trade, then there’s good news: the options are virtually limitless. Dozens and dozens of degree possibilities are available depending on which field you want to enter after graduation. Below we list some of these choices:

  • Accounting Technology
  • Culinary Arts
  • Computer Programming
  • Welding Technology
  • Landscape Management
  • Veterinary Technology
  • Construction Science
  • Paralegal Studies
  • Fire Science
  • Diesel Technology
  • Medical Coding and Billing
  • Cosmetology
  • Paramedic Studies
  • Hotel and Restaurant Management
  • Drafting
  • Automotive Technology
  • Funeral Service Technology
  • Natural Resources Management
  • Electrical Technology
  • Business Management Technology
  • Industrial Maintenance Technology
  • Paralegal Studies
  • Criminal Justice

What Should I Study in Trade/Vocational School?

With so many possibilities for trade school and vocational degrees, it can be hard to know which area of study is right for you. While some students graduate high school knowing exactly what career path they want to pursue, others aren’t so sure. These students may need counsel deciding which program to enroll in, and there are many different factors to consider. For example, individuals will want to evaluate their natural talents so that they can choose a program that plays to these strengths. Weaknesses may also need to be considered in order to avoid programs that may prove too challenging. Having weighed their vocational inclinations, students may also want to do some investigation into their career options once they graduate from certain degree programs. Looking into what the day-to-day duties of a particular job as well as the salary they can expect to earn in a certain occupation, for example, can help them decide what to study in trade school. Researching a career’s predicted outlook can also be a good way to ensure that students choose a vocational degree that will make them employable after graduation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports job growth predictions in numerous occupations for the next decade on their website.

Trade School Degrees: Curriculum

The curriculum for a trade school or vocational degree will differ significantly from that of a traditional four-year degree. For instance, trade school degrees tend to be very career-focused and hands-on, allowing you to practice your desired craft in real-world settings. For example, in a cosmetology program, for example, you’ll not only read about different hair styling techniques, you’ll also practice cutting and styling hair on mannequins and on real clients. Even online trade school degree programs emphasize experiential learning and provide opportunities for students to engage in authentic learning experiences.

The curriculum for trade school and vocational degrees is typically delivered by experts in the field who are either currently practicing the trade or who have retired from the field. These professionals give students an inside look into the day-to-day practices of their desired occupation and can advise them on how to be successful in their chosen field.

Specific coursework for trade school degrees will vary considerably from program to program, of course. Even so, many courses may overlap, particularly those that focus on general education and soft skills such as professional communication and effective business practices, for example.

Trade School Online Degrees

In recent years, trade school has become even more accessible, thanks to distance education technology. This is especially true for those individuals who are already working full-time and want to begin a new career or advance in their current occupations. Prospective students can now find degree programs for their chosen trade either entirely online or via a hybrid format. These programs often have other options designed to make learning a trade more convenient as well. These include accelerated tracks that can help one finish a vocational degree in less than two years as well as part-time formats that allow an individual to work towards their degree while keeping a full-time job. When considering an online trade or vocational school, it is important to look for an accredited program. These degree options offer quality academic instruction as well as resources to help students succeed during the program and beyond graduation. Trade degrees from accredited online vocational schools carry as much weight as degrees from traditional trade schools.

Frequently-Asked Questions About Trade Degrees

Making the choice to attend a vocational/trade school over a more traditional college or university is a big decision, so it’s understandable that you may have some questions. Below, we’ll address some of the most common questions students have about pursuing a career-preparatory program.

Q: Do I need a trade school degree to land a job in my chosen field?

A: It depends on your chosen field as well as the particular employer. Not all trades require degrees or even certificates from vocational schools. Some employers will hire high school graduates and provide on-the-job training. Even so, a trade school degree can set you apart from other applicants, and in some fields, this can mean the difference between a job and the unemployment line. Trade school degree programs can also make you feel more prepared and confident as you enter the workforce.

Q: Do I need a license or certification in addition to a trade school degree?

A: Possibly, but it depends on the career path you plan to pursue. Some occupations may require a professional license or certificate prior to employment in the field. In these cases, a degree program may help you prepare for licensing requirements, including any professional tests or examinations. For other career opportunities, a standalone degree from a vocational/trade school is sufficient.

Q: Where can I find out more information about trades and careers?

A: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports occupational information about a variety of different trades and careers on its website. Some of this information includes salary predictions, job outlook, employment requirements, and the like. The BLS can also point you to other resources for your chosen occupations such as licensing agencies and professional associations, for instance.

Q: Can I work while attending trade school or vocational school?

A: Yes, it is possible to work, even full-time, while working towards a trade school/vocational degree. Some degree programs offer flexible scheduling options such as part-time formats as well as evening and weekend classes. Hybrid and online programs are another option, allowing you to work on your trade school degree from the convenience of your home and on your own time.

Q: How long will it take to earn a degree from a trade school or vocational school?

A: Usually, about two years. This can vary, though, depending on the specific program and the amount of coursework you intend to take on. Accelerated options exist that can allow you to finish the program in less time if you intend to study full-time. On the other hand, you may elect to study part-time at a more relaxed pace and take longer to finish your vocational/trade degree.

Q: Do trade schools offer career services?

A: Most of the time, yes. Some trade schools even offer career placement. At a minimum, most will provide services that will help you find employment such as resume help, interview practice, and job search assistance.

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