Are Trade Schools Worth It?

Updated on May 24, 2023
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  • Students interested in specific trades might find vocational schools an excellent option.
  • Trade schools may offer certificates, diplomas, or associate degrees.
  • For students preparing for specialized jobs, trade schools present benefits and downsides.
  • Trade school students do not have to enroll in general education courses.

What Is a Trade School?

Many people know trade schools as vocational schools or technical colleges. Trade schools provide specialized training for many in-demand occupations. While an associate degree program at a community or technical college can provide hands-on training, trade schools offer more focused education geared toward specific industries and career paths.

Trade schools can offer students relatively quick, cost-effective paths to profitable jobs. In two years or less, a student can train for a job as a cosmetologist, healthcare worker, auto mechanic, or other highly skilled professional.

Recent trade school graduate, Pariz Young, spoke to his own experience: "During COVID-19, I attended Fortis College in Landover, Maryland, and later received my degree through All-State Career School in Baltimore." At the age of 19 with a baby on the way, he enrolled in trade school and later completed the HVACR program at All-State Career School, quickly entering the field as a service tech/installer.

Trade schools can function as public or private institutions, with some operating as for-profit enterprises. These institutions often award certificates instead of degrees, and some offer credits that students can transfer to other schools. High school students can sometimes take advantage of vocational training, depending on their district and opportunities available in their area.

Trade School Graduate

Portrait of Pariz Young

Pariz Young

Pariz Young is a hardworking young man born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. While having a baby on the way at the age of 19, he enrolled in trade school (Fortis College in Landover, MD) and completed the HVAC-R (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration) program at All-State Career School in Baltimore, quickly adapting into the field as a service tech/installer.

Trade School Jobs

Trade schools vary in the programs and credentials they offer, but they typically provide hands-on training. Specialized trade school jobs can be found in construction, healthcare, personal services, mechanical trades, and other diverse industries. Trade school graduates can also pursue careers in avionics, graphic design, corrections, criminal justice, and culinary arts.

Depending on where they live, students may not have to wait for high school graduation to start learning a trade. Some vocational programs partner with high schools to offer hands-on training. Other trade schools allow learners to attend technical classes in conjunction with their standard coursework.

Educational requirements for trades vary across industries. For example, some auto mechanics and cosmetologists must obtain a license to work. Other trade school graduates might serve as apprentices when they start a job or while still in school. The following represent a few popular trade school jobs.


Carpenters perform various tasks on residential and commercial sites. Their work typically involves constructing, installing, and repairing the structures and frameworks of houses and buildings. Some carpenters work in domestic residences where they build or install cabinets, drywall, and other components. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), carpenters made a median annual wage of $49,520 in May 2020.


Most electricians hold licenses and work for contractors. Much of their work involves installing and testing control grids, lighting systems, and communication networks. They also use blueprints to determine proper circuit placement and identify and repair problems in electrical mechanisms. According to the BLS, electricians earned a median annual salary of $56,900 in May 2020.

Automotive Mechanics and Technicians

Automotive mechanics and technicians inspect, service, repair, and maintain cars and some trucks. Many auto mechanics work on traditional engines, transmissions, and other parts, although they also need to know how to service electronic systems in newer cars. Automotive technicians and mechanics made a median annual salary of $44,050 in May 2020, according to the BLS.

Construction Managers

Also called project managers or general contractors, these professionals oversee all aspects of a construction project, including budgeting, personnel, materials, and resource allocation. The BLS reports that construction managers made a median yearly wage of $97,180 in May 2020. Although many companies may require these managers to hold a bachelor's degree, students can begin their construction career path by attending a trade school.

HVAC Mechanics and Installers

HVAC refers to systems that control heating, ventilation, and air conditioning for a building or facility. HVAC mechanics repair and maintain these systems. They also replace essential parts to keep components running properly and make sure that systems adhere to government standards and requirements. According to the BLS, heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers earned a median annual wage of $50,590 as of May 2020.

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists generally work in dentists' offices where they help patients adopt and maintain healthy oral hygiene habits. They assist dentists in performing regular check-ups, cleaning teeth, and checking for signs of oral cancer and gum disease. The BLS reports that dental hygienists made a median yearly salary of $77,090 in May 2020.


Cosmetologists include hairstylists, barbers, and nail technicians. They offer various hair, grooming, and beauty services. Some of these professionals operate their own salons and take on advertising and managerial tasks. Most of these professionals need a license to maintain their jobs. According to the BLS, barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists earned a median annual salary of $27,630 in May 2020, although this number does not include tips.

What Are the Benefits of Trade Schools?

With the current demand for skilled trades, many high school graduates find themselves weighing the pros and cons of trade school. Vocational schools can provide educational opportunities for students who are unable or uninterested in attending college. Young has many good things to say about his educational choices. He said the biggest benefits were "the instructors who have the experience and drive to teach those of us who were willing to learn. The overall experience was life-changing and effective in more than one area."

A trade school credential costs significantly less than a four-year degree, providing a relatively fast route toward gainful employment. Some trade school programs take two years to complete, while others require one year or less.

“The overall experience was life-changing and effective in more than one area.”

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Another benefit of attending trade school is gaining access to jobs that typically remain secure during recessions and other unstable times. For instance, electrical, culinary, and mechanical trades generally remain in high demand, even during economic downturns. Because of their potential to provide steady work, vocational occupations often increase in attractiveness during times of high unemployment.

Trade professionals may also perform tasks that meet other immediate needs. For example, some companies rely on machine technicians to repair essential equipment workers need to do their jobs. While the demand for skilled work enables them to earn a competitive wage, some tradespeople derive their job satisfaction from providing valuable hands-on services.

The Pros and Cons of Trade Schools


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    Specific Training: Trade school students usually don't have to take general education classes. Their courses focus more on the technical and applied aspects of their chosen occupation.
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    Hands-On Learning: Many trade school courses provide applied training so that students can immediately carry out tasks they learn.
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    Lower Costs: Trade schools tend to offer lower costs than four-year institutions. However, tuition and fees vary by school.
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    Quicker Career Start: Many trade school students learn skills that prepare them for employment immediately after graduation, just a year or two after enrollment.


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    Rigorous Class Schedule: Trade school students enroll in a limited selection of classes that provide a more direct path to employment or apprenticeship after schooling.
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    Less Skill Adaptability: A skill that a student learns in trade school might be so specific that it can't be applied to another trade or job opportunity. A trade school credential often relates to just one occupation.
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    No Guarantee of Financial Aid: Trade school students can gain equal access to financial aid if their programs last at least 15 weeks. Students in shorter programs might struggle to find aid, although they may still have access to federal loans or grants.
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    Less Job Flexibility: Unlike the curricula at most colleges and universities, trade schools generally do not offer courses that provide broad knowledge that students can apply toward various career paths.

Will Attending a Trade School Get You a Job?

For some students, trade school might be more beneficial than a traditional college program. Sixty-five percent of college respondents to Third Way's May 2021 survey indicated that postsecondary education is not "worth the cost." In contrast, the job prospects for trade school graduates appear promising, with some individuals earning higher wages than bachelor's degree-holders.

Indeed reports that some of the highest-paying jobs for trade school graduates include plumbers, electricians, and dental hygienists. For example, dental hygienists regularly make $70,000-$80,000, and workers in the top 10% of their field take home more than $104,000 annually, according to the BLS.

“I secured my first HVACR job while still enrolled in school approximately six months into the program.”

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Trade school can provide a streamlined path to steady employment. "I secured my first HVACR job while still enrolled in school approximately six months into the program. I obtained my current job at BGE right after graduating," Young explained. However, keep in mind that immediate employment gains early on might give way to fewer career advancement opportunities later.

People who graduate with bachelor's degrees or graduate degrees tend to earn more over their lifetimes than students who attain trade diplomas. In 2019, college graduates enjoyed an 87% employment rate, compared to 80% for those who had completed some college and 74% for those who only graduated from high school. Nonetheless, trade school graduates who develop skills related to an in-demand field can find positive job prospects, even without a four-year degree.

Are Trade Schools Worth It?

Postsecondary education looks different for everyone and may not always entail attending a college or university. Many job-seekers can gain access to profitable and fulfilling careers by enrolling in trade school, especially considering the relative affordability of programs offered by vocational institutions compared to those provided by four-year schools. For instance, completing an entire trade school program might cost the same as one year of a bachelor's degree program.

However, depending on the kind of work a student is interested in, trade schools might not be a good fit. Vocational schools and community colleges typically offer training in specific skills that do not always apply to other career tracks. Also, students who want job flexibility might prefer to enroll in a community college where they earn credits that can transfer to a four-year institution.

Vocational training can lead to early employment but may also limit a person's adaptability and career opportunities in the later stages of their working life. To boost their employability, people with vocational training might also work to develop strong soft skills, such as leadership and communication abilities. Demonstrating soft skills can help offset training that might become outdated and can help workers maintain occupational versatility.

Frequently Asked Questions About Trade Schools

What are the disadvantages of attending a trade school?

Prospective students should consider the disadvantages when asking themselves, "Are trade schools worth it?" For instance, vocational training might not benefit students who want to pursue a bachelor's degree in the future, partly because their credits may not transfer to another school. Also, a certificate in a specific trade or skill might prove difficult to apply to other occupations.

Is trade school better than college?

Trade schools can offer an advantage for students pursuing specific occupations. Unlike degree programs at community colleges and four-year schools, trade school programs generally take less time to complete because their curricula do not include general education requirements. Trade school tuition also tends to cost less than tuition at community and four-year colleges.

What percentage of trade school students graduate with jobs?

The specific percentage of successful job placements varies by school and occupation. Nevertheless, after trade school, students are primed for reliable employment — especially if they attend an institution with solid industry connections.

Feature Image: Maskot / Maskot / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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