A Parent’s Guide to Trade School
Not all jobs need a degree. Trade schools help prepare students for fulfilling careers. Know your child's options when it comes to trade school.
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- Trade and vocational schools focus on building practical skills for graduates.
- Graduates of trade programs can enter the workforce quickly.
- Trade school takes less time than a four-year degree, making it time- and cost-effective.
- Students may benefit from trade schools' small, interactive learning environments.
Since 1990, the average annual tuition and fees at a public four-year college has almost tripled from $3,800 to $10,560, per CollegeBoard's Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020 report. Additionally, many bachelor's degree-holders continue to pay for their education beyond graduation. According to 2021 data from the Federal Reserve, 55% of 18-29-year-olds with bachelor's degrees have education-related debt.
But not all good jobs need a college degree. Many high-paying trade school careers in dynamic and in-demand fields only take a one-year certificate to get started. Trade schools offer a career-focused education so that students can enter the workforce prepared for a lucrative career — and with less debt weighing them down.
What Is Trade School?
If you are a parent whose child is considering trade school, there are many key factors to know upfront.
Trade schools are postsecondary institutions that aim to prepare students for in-demand jobs in healthcare, construction, manufacturing, IT, legal, and other fields. Trade schools go by many names, including technical schools, vocational schools, and career and technical education (CTE). Many high schools and community colleges offer trades or vocational training programs.
Students who enroll in a vocational or technical school can expect to:
- Focus on a specific career, opposed to a general major
- Learn technical knowledge and practical skills through a combination of classroom and hands-on learning
- Prepare for relevant licensing exams their profession may require
- Complete their program, usually within a few months to a year
- Earn a professional certificate or diploma
There are several misconceptions about the skilled trades. When you think about careers in the trades, you might only imagine construction laborers or mechanics. But many more industries are seeking technical, specialized roles that students can train for in trade school. Consider medical assistants and IT technicians as a couple of examples.
Accredited Trade Schools
If your child is researching trade schools, you will find that some schools are "accredited." If a school is labeled as such, an accrediting agency has approved the school's curriculum and practices. Accrediting agencies also evaluate instructor qualifications, student success rates, and other measures.
Outside of indicating general quality, accreditation matters for two other reasons:
- Financial Aid: Typically, students can qualify for federal aid and scholarships if they enroll in an appropriately accredited program.
- Career Impact: In many states, technical and specialized roles require a license (e.g., licensed practical nurses, licensed plumbers). You may have to graduate from an accredited program to get a license.
Trade school accreditation is not a one-size-fits-all. There are different types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic.
The Department of Education authorizes agencies around the country to grant institutional accreditation. You can find out if your child's school is accredited by searching for it in the Council For Higher Education Accreditation's online directory.
Programmatic accreditation is typically governed by an industry association or a state regulatory agency. For example, the Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities oversees accreditation for veterinary technician programs. As a rule of thumb, if your child needs a license, certification, or other state approval to work in their trade, they will likely need to attend an accredited program.
Everything to Know About Trade Schools
There is a lot your child has to consider when choosing the next steps of their career, and it's important for you to know too! Learning about the basics of trades and technical schooling can help you decide if trade school is right for your family.
Trade school students can graduate in significantly less time than it takes to earn a four-year degree. Vocational or technical school programs take anywhere from a few weeks to two years, with most programs lasting about a year.
If your child pursues an associate degree instead of a certification program, they will study for about two years. In most circumstances, trade school graduates can enter the workforce faster than students who opt to complete a bachelor's degree.
- HVAC technician training programs take six months to two years to complete.
- Licensed practical nurses typically go to school for 9-18 months.
- Medical coding certificate programs last 1-2 years.
Some trades require a multi-year apprenticeship component. Electricians may apprentice for 4-5 years before working without supervision. Apprentices are usually paid for their work, and their employer or union may even reimburse their trade school costs.
How much is trade school? The cost of trade school varies widely, typically from $5,000 to $30,000 or more. It all depends on the type of school your child attends (public or private), the length of the program, the delivery format (online or in person), and whether or not they qualify for financial aid.
Look into your local community colleges for affordable vocational training. These institutions cost in-district students just $3,770 a year in tuition, on average, according to CollegeBoard's report mentioned above. In comparison, the average cost of a private four-year college is $37,650 a year or $150,600 in total.
Since different types of trade schools aim to teach students the practical skills they will need for specific careers, classes focus on hands-on learning and acquiring relevant knowledge.
Trade school classes frequently incorporate many forms of learning, including:
- Classroom or Online Learning: Trade school students may learn concepts through in-person, online, or hybrid courses. Online courses have been especially prevalent with the recent pandemic, but in-person training is still required for some trades, like cosmetology or HVAC.
- Virtual Simulation: Today, instructors in some skilled trades, such as welding, are using virtual reality to help students train faster and gain comfort with techniques before diving into using powerful tools.
- Lab or Shop Class: Shop classes serve as a place to gain experience and experiment in a relatively low-stakes environment. Welding students learn to perfect welds and work with different metals. Allied health professionals might practice taking vital signs on a mannequin first and then on an actor.
- Practicum, Internship, or Apprenticeship: Some accredited trade programs include an in-field training component. In legal and medical professions, this is often called a practicum. Students work under the supervision of a licensed professional. In mechanical and construction fields, it's usually called an apprenticeship.
Trade schools often offer the added benefit of small class sizes, meaning more direct support from instructors. When your child is considering programs, it's helpful for you both to visit the school in person to see where and how learning happens.
Many trade schools offer career services with in-area employers. In addition, trade schools employ real working professionals as instructors and practicum supervisors. Students can graduate with industry contacts to start their network.
If your child is pursuing a trade that requires licensure, look for trade schools that include licensing exam prep classes. Many trade schools even publish their students' exam pass rates. In many careers, becoming licensed or certified is one of the first steps to getting hired.
In addition, many skilled trades are in high demand right now. Healthcare especially needs qualified technical professionals following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trade School vs. College
The data shows that bachelor's degree-holders earn more in their lifetime than workers with less education. In BestColleges' 2021 Alternative Education Pathways Report, most of the business leaders who were surveyed said a college degree was important for long-term success. (Even though just 40% said college graduates were prepared to succeed in their first job.)
At the same time, college just isn't for everyone. It is a high-risk investment that may or may not pay off, depending on your major and finances.
When it comes to trade school versus college, the choice will differ for everyone. Compared to colleges, trade schools typically offer shorter and much cheaper programs. Vocational schools also train students to enter into in-demand careers, which can lead to steady employment or opportunities to work as an independent contractor.
Consider the value of trade school if you:
- Have a job in mind that does not require a degree
- Want to enter the workforce quickly into a job that can offer steady employment
- Are interested in becoming an independent contractor or small-business owner
- Might want to go to college one day, but not right now
Do not rule out associate degree pathways, either. Associate degree programs, which can be found online and at local community colleges, cost less than a four-year degree and take half the time. Plus, community colleges offer student life benefits and scholarships. Many schools also offer programs that fast-track associate degree-holders toward a bachelor's degree.
The Trade School Stigma
Unfortunately, misconceptions about trade schools persist and may prevent students and their parents from seriously considering careers in the trades. You may have once assumed that technical schools were only for students unable to get into a university. However, trade schools offer several benefits, including hands-on challenges, career-focused education, and certain employment opportunities, that cannot be replicated in four-year degree programs.
Given the rising cost of college and a shifting workforce and economy, employers may be changing their tune about trade school. In the BestColleges' report mentioned above, 85% of business leader respondents said alternative education pathways, including vocational training, make for viable alternatives to college. Sixty-four percent agreed that employers should nix their degree hiring requirements.
Most skilled trades are robust against economic fluctuations. Despite their limitations on preparing students to pursue other careers, the skilled trades are incredibly reliable, having steady job growth even during the most difficult of times. Roles like electrician and LPN typically stay in high demand, no matter the economic climate.
Trade School Careers
The world relies on skilled tradespeople and technicians to help solve complex challenges in areas like healthcare, technology, housing, and environmental stewardship. A trade school career can prove highly rewarding, both professionally and personally.
Skilled tradespeople report high personal satisfaction with their work. Eighty-three percent of tradespeople surveyed in Angi's 2021 Skilled Trades in America Report said they were satisfied with their career. The most common reasons for satisfaction included compensation, flexibility, and — the most popular — finding meaning and value in their work.
Careers in the trades can also pay off financially. Consider some of the following top trade school careers with their median salary and projected job growth, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2020 Median Salary
Projected Job Growth 2020-2030
2020 Median Salary
Projected Job Growth 2020-2030
2020 Median Salary
Projected Job Growth 2020-2030
Frequently Asked Questions About Trade Schools
Some trade schools accept federal student aid, but some do not. Ask a counselor at your prospective school if it accepts federal financial aid. Then, find out if your family is eligible for federal aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) the year before your child intends to enroll.
Also, make sure to search for scholarships. Industry associations often offer scholarships for students pursuing the trades, such as the American Welding Society's Welder Training Scholarship.
The highest-paying trade school careers include:
- Elevator installers and repairers
- Radiation therapists
- Web developers
- Dental hygienists
- Diagnostic sonographers
- Respiratory therapists
- Wind turbine technicians
- IT technicians
In addition, there are several more high-paying trades jobs in the mechanical, medical, legal, and tech sectors. Of course, specific salaries depend on the state, the employer, and the work experience of the employee.
Not all trade schools require a high school diploma, but you will usually need at least a GED credential. If your prospective school does not require a GED certificate, keep in mind that some employers and state licensing boards may still desire it.
Obtaining a high school or GED diploma is usually the first step in being employed in the skilled trades. Postsecondary schooling is more flexible than this requirement.
Feature Image: Maskot / Maskot / Getty Images
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