Trades Career Guide

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What Is a Trade?

A trade is a skilled job that requires specialized training. Though trades can sometimes be taught at colleges and universities, they are more commonly offered at technical colleges and trade schools. Trades generally don’t require a traditional four-year degree. Trade jobs can be as diverse as dental hygienist and air traffic controller to firefighter and electrician.

Why Should I Pursue a Trade?

The cost of a traditional four-year degree continues to rise each year, and the return on investment from a bachelor’s degree is up for debate. Trades careers usually cost far less money to pursue, and many pay just as much or more than careers that require a college degree.

The demand for skilled trades is also strong, as there is currently a skilled trades labor shortage. Solid pay, coupled with stable employment, translates to promising career opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions About Trades

What trades pay the most?

There are an abundance of trades that pay well and don't require a four-year degree. Two of the highest paying trade jobs are within the aviation industry: commercial pilot and air traffic controller.

According to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), commercial pilots earn a median salary of $134,630, while air traffic controllers make a median salary of $129,750. The BLS projects that commercial pilot jobs will grow 13% from 2020-2030.

Other high-earning trades professionals include elevator installer and repair workers, who made a median salary of $97,860 in 2021, and nuclear power plant operators, who brought home a median salary of $94,790 that same year.

What is the fastest trade to learn?

Truck driving is generally the fastest trade to learn, with a commercial driver's license program taking about 3-7 weeks to complete. Many trades can be learned in 1-2 years, with careers like medical assistant and medical coder taking as little as nine months.

Programs to become a certified personal trainer can be completed in as little as one month, and personal trainer jobs are projected to grow a staggering 39% from 2020-2030, according to the BLS.

What are the happiest trade jobs?

According to a survey conducted by Payscale, firefighting is the trade with the highest level of career satisfaction; 83% of firefighters indicated they are satisfied with their job.

Other trades that scored highly for job satisfaction include power plant operators at 81%, dental hygienists at 79%, and surgical technicians at 77%. Dental hygienists were also ranked as having the second-highest job satisfaction out of all occupations in a 2019 Glassdoor survey.

Trade school costs, on average, $33,00 to complete. Comparatively, that amount is often the price of one year's tuition at some colleges and universities. When evaluating cost, it's also important to remember that trade school programs generally only take a couple of years to complete. That means an extra 1-2 years of added income.

Applying to trade school is usually quite similar to applying to a college or university, though there are some distinct differences. Trade schools rarely require written essays for admission and generally don't ask for SAT or ACT scores. Instead, trade schools may ask the applicant to take a placement exam to determine fit. Almost all trade schools accept online applications.

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