What Kinds of Trade Schools Are There?

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  • Many lucrative trades train workers in less than one year.
  • Trade schools offer specialized education in growing fields like HVAC, medicine, and IT.
  • Trade schools often accept new students who have no prior experience.
  • Learning a trade usually costs less than pursuing a bachelor's degree.

What is trade school? Trade schools train students in specific professions or trades. These institutions often provide learners with a less expensive, faster alternative to traditional college and can lead to well-paying careers. They also specialize in hands-on training that is unique to trade jobs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the prevalence of occupational licenses in fields such as law, healthcare, and education has increased significantly in the last 50 years. As of 2018, over 43 million workers held certifications or licenses.

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However, the BLS reported a decrease in college enrollment in 2020, with 62.7% of recent high school graduates enrolled in college — a drop from 66.2% in 2019. About 16.5 million people ages 16-24 were not in school at all, representing 43.9% of all people in that age group.

Although this enrollment drop was heavily influenced by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of high school graduates don't go on to pursue a postsecondary education every year. However, individuals who don't enroll in college may be interested in trade school as a way to increase their earning potential without committing to a full degree program.

Unlike traditional higher education, trade schools often train people to enter the workforce in months rather than years. They can prepare students for careers in fields like welding, carpeting, HVAC, medicine, and criminal justice.

Keep reading to learn more about the different kinds of trade schools, how to enroll, and what you can learn.

What Are Trade Schools?

Trade schools provide specific training for skilled crafts. Students may enroll in trade school — sometimes called vocational school — immediately following high school or after gaining some work experience. Trade schools can be stand-alone institutions or housed within a community college.

People as young as 16 can begin trade school, as long as they meet a school's requirements. Programs at trade schools provide hands-on experience through labs and workplaces. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some trade schools now offer virtual labs as well.

Students can pursue many specialities. For example, trade school programs in welding can prepare students for jobs in automotive fabrication or construction. HVAC trade schools can offer students the specialized skills needed to work as apprentices under licensed HVAC technicians. Many programs prepare students for trade school jobs in 6-12 months.

Should I Enroll in a Trade School?

You don't need any experience in your target field to enroll in trade school. When picking a school, begin by finding a program that suits your career goals. Although some schools welcome junior- and senior-level high school students, trade school programs may require applicants to have a high school or GED diploma. These programs usually last 6-24 months.

Online or hybrid delivery formats provide flexible learning environments. These may be especially appealing to students who have other commitments, such as children or work.

Trade schools typically provide specific career training at lower costs than four-year colleges. According to the College Board, the average in-district tuition for two-year colleges, which may offer trade programs, was $3,770 annually in 2020-21. In contrast, the average yearly tuition for in-state students attending public four-year colleges was $10,560.

Trade jobs also are known for their stability. Even during challenging economic times, many trade school jobs, such as auto mechanic, electrician, and medical assistant, are usually needed.

Different Types of Trade Schools

Carpentry: Carpentry trade schools teach students theory and practical woodworking skills in 9-24 months. As an example, a certificate at Southwestern Community College requires 16 credits and takes less than one year to earn, whereas an associate degree at Bates Technical School requires 116 credits and takes about two years. Shop classes often provide hands-on training in construction. Lectures cover how to read blueprints and understand safety principles.

CDL: Commercial driver's license (CDL) programs teach students how to drive commercial trucks, such as a truck with a trailer. Students can earn a CDL in about 6-24 weeks. Potential program options include those offered at Wiregrass Georgia Technical College and Coastal Pines Technical College. Coursework covers safety protocols and practical driving skills, such as parallel parking, turning, and coupling and uncoupling.

Computer Information Systems/IT: Training in computer information systems or information technology (IT) offers students the chance to study topics like cybersecurity, networking, and even game design. Diplomas, certificates, and associate degree programs can prepare students for entry-level careers in IT in 6-24 months. For example, Clovis Community College and Coastal Pines Technical College offer online and in-person instruction in networking and computer information systems.

Cosmetology: Cosmetology trade schools teach students the art of doing makeup, nails, hair, and skincare in about 1-2 years. Students work in stimulated salons with paying customers. As an example, Olney Central College and Pamlico Community College offer cosmetology programs that help prepare graduates for licensing exams in their states.

Criminal Justice: Students can prepare for a career in the criminal justice system by pursuing a two-year associate degree in criminal justice or a one-year certificate. Students in these programs often study criminology, constitutional law, criminal investigation, and research methods. Lewis and Clark Community College and Wilkes Community College are two schools that offer criminal justice programs.

Culinary Arts: Through cooking labs, online tutorials, and on-the-job experiences, students can learn the fundamentals of culinary arts. Participants typically study subjects like cooking, baking, purchasing, financial accounting, and sanitation and safety. As an example, Southwestern Community College and Wilkes Community College offer certificate and associate degree programs that usually take 1-2 years to complete.

Electrical: Trade schools usually offer specialized two-year associate degree programs or one-year basic electricity technician certificate programs that teach students about direct and alternating current circuits. As an example, students can gain hands-on training related to topics like industrial motor controls, basic wiring practices, and conduit bending at Pamlico Community College. And Frontier Community College's electrical distribution systems program teaches students how to climb utility poles and understand transformer theory.

HVAC: Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians can train for the job through certificate and associate degree programs, which generally take 1-2 years to finish. Class topics include mechanical refrigeration, heating and cooling theory, and electrical components. HVAC programs at schools like Southwestern Community College and West Kentucky Community and Technical College offer students the opportunity to gain firsthand experience in the field.

Mechanic/Auto Mechanic: Students enrolled in auto mechanic trade school programs often learn how to service and repair domestic and foreign cars using multimeters, scanners, and other tools. Courses may cover topics such as transmissions, brake systems, and climate control systems. Penn Foster College and Olney Central College are two schools that offer automotive technician and technology programs.

Medical Assisting: Earning a degree or certificate in medical assisting can teach aspiring medical assistants about office protocol, pharmacology, and medical insurance management. Many programs, such as those offered at Wiregrass Georgia Technical College and Coastal Pines Technical College, take 1-2 years.

Welding: Earning a welding certificate often takes 9-18 months. As an example, welding students at Pamlico Community College and Lincoln Trail College must complete 18-20 credits to receive a certificate. Lessons focus on different welding processes, including gas metal arc welding, plate and pipe welding, sanitary welding, and shielded metal arc welding.

Wellness/Massage: A wellness and massage certificate program usually covers medical terminology, musculoskeletal anatomy and physiology, and ethics for massage therapists. Colleges, such as Wiregrass Georgia Technical College and Olney Central College, offer diplomas and certificates in massage therapy. Programs usually take less than one year to complete.

Frequently Asked Questions About Trade Schools

What are the best-paying trade jobs?

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Top-paying trade school jobs include HVAC technicians, electricians, and radiology technicians. According to the BLS, the top 10% of HVAC technicians earned more than $80,820 a year in May 2020. Additionally, the highest 10% of electricians and radiologic and MRI technicians took home more than $90,000 annually.

Are trade schools worth it?

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If you want to learn a specific skill in a relatively short period of time, a trade school can help you achieve that goal. Trade schools usually cost less to attend than four-year colleges and offer pathways to apprenticeships and externships as carpenters, HVAC technicians, food preparers, and massage therapists.

What trade can I learn in six months?

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You can complete the CDL program and earn your license to drive a commercial vehicle in less than six months. Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers earned a median annual salary of $47,130, as of May 2020. CDL license requirements vary by state.

Feature Image: Thana Prasongsin / Moment / Getty Images

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