The 5 Biggest Challenges of Trade School

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  • Vocational training can offer students an affordable path to lucrative careers.
  • Trade schools follow rigorous schedules to cover skills in just a few months or years.
  • Some students may find that their trade credentials limit them to one industry.
  • Prospective students should weigh the pros and cons of trade school before enrolling.

Many individuals begin rewarding and profitable careers after obtaining vocational training. They may prefer the stimulating, results-driven work that many trades offer. Learning a trade can present significant advantages. For example, trade schools and community colleges tend to be more affordable and less time-consuming than four-year schools. Students can also begin earning wages in their fields quickly through apprenticeships or externships.

Many graduates find attractive trade jobs that provide lucrative, stable employment. However, trade schools can present their own set of challenges and may not be compatible with everyone's goals or abilities. Prospective students should take the pros and cons of trade school into account.

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What Is a Trade School?

Trade schools offer hands-on training in specialized areas like carpentry, welding, dental hygiene, culinary arts, masonry, and plumbing. Through experiential learning, vocational training equips students with the concrete skills they'll use in the daily functions of their jobs.

Vocational programs tend to be more affordable than four-year degree programs. Although costs vary among programs and institutions, the average total cost of attendance at a two-year school for the 2018-19 academic year was about $11,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In contrast, the total average cost of attending a four-year public college in 2018-2019 was more than $28,000.

Vocational programs typically take under two years to complete. Many programs only last a few months. This is a big draw for students who wish to start earning wages in their field as soon as possible. In contrast, many non-trade careers require a four-year or graduate-level degree.

The 5 Biggest Challenges of Trade School

  • Rigorous Schedule

    An accelerated path to employment can be a huge advantage for students who want to join the workforce quickly. Trade schools typically cover many essential skills in just a few years or months. As such, vocational programs may adhere to rigorous, fast-paced schedules. Unlike universities, they may not have breaks throughout the year.

    Some individuals may find it challenging to balance the demands of trade school alongside work obligations or other commitments. However, many vocational schools and technical colleges do offer evening courses and other scheduling accommodations.

  • A Shift to Remote Learning

    The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift toward remote learning options at many trade schools. More software-focused fields, such as coding or graphic design, can be taught effectively through remote learning platforms. However, for programs that emphasize hands-on training, operating in remote or hybrid formats can pose challenges.

    Often, students need supervised practice using tools and equipment that cannot be easily replicated online. Many trade schools use online classes for theory-based training but are unable to adequately simulate workshop or lab environments using remote platforms.

    Some programs have adapted with individualized projects or workshop hours. Others have put hands-on requirements put on hold for now, but these will be resumed when in-person learning is possible. This has caused delays in some students' program completion.

  • Class Competition

    When trade school classes graduate together, the job market can become flooded with similarly qualified people pursuing jobs. Especially in regions where markets might be saturated, there may be a great deal of competition for entry-level work or apprenticeships.

    When deciding on a trade, students may want to take their field's projected growth into account. Many trade school programs can lead to growing, in-demand careers. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of jobs for respiratory therapists will grow 19% between 2019 and 2029, while jobs for wind turbine technicians will grow 61% during the same period. However, increasing demand is not universal among vocational fields — many trades are projected to have far slower rates of growth.

    Students who want to map out their career paths after graduation can take advantage of their school's career resources. Many trade schools help budding professionals pursue certifications, write resumes, and reach out to potential job networks. Students can also attend trade shows and other events to connect with possible employers.

  • Trade School Stigma

    Although trade jobs can provide good earnings and stable employment, there is an enduring stigma around trade schools being "less than" four-year colleges. In reality, many vocational jobs pay as well as or better than white-collar jobs. For example, according to the BLS, radiation therapists earned a median annual salary of $86,850 as of May 2020. Elevator and escalator installers and repairers earned a median annual wage of $88,540.

    Even so, prejudice from friends, family, and community members can be difficult to bear emotionally. Younger students who often depend on the support and guidance from loved ones might be especially put off by this stigma.

  • Limited Job Growth

    Limited potential for job growth is a common practical concern for individuals pursuing work in trades. The skills taught in trade school are very particular and may not be transferable to roles outside of specific niches.

    Although opportunities in many vocational fields will likely grow over time, not all vocational fields have substantial projected growth rates. For example, the BLS projects that jobs for boilermakers will grow only 1% between 2019 and 2029, while jobs for line installers and repairers won't grow at all.

    To keep up with the evolving demands of their trades, professionals should attend courses, workshops, industry events, and certification programs throughout their careers. Computer literacy and familiarity with cutting-edge equipment can help professionals compete with others in their field. Tradespeople should also hone soft skills like networking, management, and self-promotion.

Is Trade School Still Worth It?

With many rewarding and in-demand career opportunities, tradespeople often earn above-average salaries and report high job satisfaction. According to PayScale, as of August 2021, the average job satisfaction reported by both electricians and HVAC technicians was "highly satisfied."

Trade school can be an excellent option for students who are not interested in or unable to attend a four-year university. Vocational programs often enable students to pursue stable and lucrative careers. As tuition and other college costs continue to rise, many individuals feel that vocational training offers a better return on their investment.

Frequently Asked Questions About Trade School

What are the pros and cons of trade school?

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Professionals with vocational training often enjoy stimulating, in-demand work and good pay. However, the challenges of trade school may deter some learners. The highly specialized training provided by trade schools can limit the breadth of learners' career options, and even skilled workers are not immune to a competitive job market. Hands-on work can also be challenging and physically demanding.

Why do people look down on trade schools?

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Many people equate academics with professional success or social capital and belittle the value of vocational training. While four-year colleges can offer students many opportunities, college is not the only way to find fulfilling employment.

Are trade schools worth it?

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Even with its challenges, vocational training can be an excellent fit for individuals interested in concrete, results-driven work. Trade school can offer students a cost-effective, streamlined path to a lucrative career.


Feature Image: Westend61 / Getty Images

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