Vocational schools, also known as trade schools, career colleges, and technical colleges, train students for skills-based careers. Unlike students at four-year institutions, students in vocational programs participate in hands-on learning experiences related to their chosen professions. After graduating, students may go on to practice their trades immediately, take licensing tests and then begin practicing, or begin apprenticeships to further their knowledge before setting out on their own. If you have your heart set on a specific skills-based career, vocational education may be the best way to achieve your goals.


What is vocational education?

Vocational education trains students to become skilled professionals in their trades. Students will leave their programs as masters of a trade, having gained experience with the necessary tools and newest technologies to perform well in their fields.

What is a trade?

A trade is an occupation that requires a certain skill set, traditionally involving manual labor or working with one’s hands.

When does vocational education start?

While vocational schools are typically attended by high school graduates, there are also Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs throughout the United States offered to younger students. Some high schools have CTE programs, and their students take both academic and vocational classes to prepare themselves for trade careers later on. Some of these CTE students may join the workforce immediately after high school graduation, but others choose to sharpen their skills and gain even more experience by attending postsecondary vocational school.

Who should consider a vocational education?

If you are eager to join the workforce in a skills-based career in the field you love, enrolling in a vocational program may be the right choice for you. Vocational programs can jump-start your career. If you have an interest in building and woodworking, for example, they can help you become a carpenter. If you are more interested in customer service and beauty, they can help you become a hairdresser. In fact, these programs can help you begin any one of dozens of careers.

These vocations do not require four-year college degrees, because a traditional college is not going to impart the skills needed to perform these jobs well. A shorter, hands-on vocational education is the right choice in these cases. Remember, though, that vocational schools offer specific training that is unlikely to overlap with the skills needed for other jobs. The credits you earn in vocational school are unlikely to transfer to other institutions if you decide to switch careers or return to school later on. Vocational education, then, is best for passionate students who can foresee themselves working in their fields of choice for years.

What types of programs are available?

There are programs of vocational study in nearly every trade imaginable, ranging from traditional options like construction, vehicle services, and cosmetology to newer options in healthcare, business, and engineering. This book provides an all-inclusive list of majors at over 3,800 U.S. institutions, including those available at vocational and technical schools. The following list offers some specific opportunities and programs to give you an idea of what is available, but it is nowhere near comprehensive.

  • Administrative assistant
  • Accounting
  • Automotive mechanics or technology
  • Beauty and cosmetology
  • Business administration
  • Carpentry
  • Culinary arts
  • Dental hygienics
  • Electrical maintenance technology
  • Event planning
  • Fashion
  • Firefighting
  • Funeral services
  • Graphic design
  • Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC)
  • Information technology
  • Jewelry repair
  • Law enforcement
  • Massage therapy
  • Medical assisting
  • Medical coding and billing
  • Nursing
  • Paralegal studies
  • Paramedics
  • Physical therapy
  • Plumbing
  • Sommelier
  • Underwater welding
  • Video game design

Why should I consider vocational school over traditional college?

If you know that you want to become a skilled tradesperson, you are probably already aware that a vocational education is right for you. A traditional college will not provide the skilled knowledge that you need, so working toward a bachelor’s degree is not a good use of your time or money.

For those of you who are wavering (for instance, you could see yourself as both a chef and a teacher), read on to learn about some of the benefits of a vocational school. Remember, you are never stuck doing just one thing. If you try college and realize that you’d rather be learning a trade, you can always switch to a vocational school, and vice versa. Your only constraints are time and money (but there’s plenty of financial aid out there for vocational students as well).

  • Four-year colleges can be expensive. The average cost of attendance (COA) at a four-year institution after grants and scholarships ranges between $12,224 and $21,470 annually depending on whether the school is public or private. For a two-year school, COA ranges between $7,314 and $18,244, and for a less-than-two-year program, the range is between $10,085 and $16,446. Annually, attending a four-year school, whether it is public or private, is much more expensive than attending a two-year or less-than-two-year program. Since you will graduate sooner if you attend a vocational school, you will be saving two years’ worth of money, (upwards of $40,000), and you will be joining the workforce sooner than you would otherwise. You’ll begin earning money years before your peers do.
  • You’ll spend less time in school. Traditional undergraduate programs last four years, but less than 40% of full-time, four-year college students graduate on schedule. Vocational schools last between one and two years. When you attend a shorter program and care about what you’re learning, you improve your chances of graduating on time. At traditional four-year institutions, students don’t even have to declare a major until sophomore year. In that same amount of time, a full-time vocational student has already graduated and started a career. That said, you still have to be motivated to be a full-time student to complete your education on time. It can be easy to take only night classes or to work around a part-time job, but if you make education your priority, you can be done with school earlier (thereby saving money) and begin your career sooner (thereby making more money).
  • There is a certain amount of job security. Students who graduate from four-year institutions with humanities degrees, for example, may have trouble finding jobs related to their fields or any jobs at all. While studying for your license or certification or earning your certificate or associate’s degree in a trade, you will gain experience in your field and graduate from vocational school fully qualified to begin an apprenticeship or begin working right away. If the job market turns sour, skilled tradespeople are likely to maintain their employment because their trades are necessary for a functional society. For instance, working in a call center would not be a sustainable job in the long run because there is no reason that call centers have to be in the United States. Plumbers, on the other hand, are always needed because they must be able to perform tasks on-site. If the job outlook for your profession isn’t so great, you may want to reconsider.
  • The U.S. needs skilled tradesmen now more than ever. The baby boomer generation (people who were born after World War II) is reaching retirement age. Of the 600,000 jobs for electricians in the United States, 300,000 will be available for millennials to fill within the next 10 years. That’s just the projection for one of many skilled trades; the trends are similar among all skilled professions. As baby boomers retire, positions open up for students who are getting their education now. Finding a job will not prove too difficult for a student who has had the right training.

How do I know if vocational education is right for me?

Try to find yourself a mentor who is currently working in your prospective profession. He or she can help you understand career-specific, day-to-day activities and give you an idea of the salary you can expect after graduation. Ask if you can shadow your mentor to get a feel for a typical workday. After meeting or spending the day with your mentor, reflect on the experience. Was the job something you could see yourself doing for a long period of time, or would you lose interest after a few months? Were you excited by the potential of becoming a professional in the field, or were you bored? If you are even the least bit unsure, take some time to evaluate your options before jumping into a program. If you are certain you have found your chosen career, ask your mentor if he or she can recommend any accredited programs in your area.

What credentials are necessary to perform my trade?

Some trades require students to undergo in-depth classroom training or pass rigorous exams before they can work in the field. If you are interested in a vocational career, you may need a specific certificate, certification, license, or degree to practice your trade. The credentials you need for your career depend on the vocation you pursue and the state you live in. Vocational schools can help you achieve the necessary credentials.

It is important to know which credentials are required of professionals in your prospective field before you start college. Read job listings to learn which credentials they require before you settle on a program. The necessary certifications and licenses may differ between the states (this is particularly true for any teaching-related jobs); be sure to check on job requirements in the state in which you plan to live for the long term. You will need to attend a school that helps you achieve your required credentials.

Are there any trades that don’t require professionals to have any credentials?

Some companies will give entry-level employees on-the-job training and do not require certificates or degrees. For example, if you are interested in culinary arts, consider getting a job in a restaurant or hotel kitchen and learning everything you can while working before deciding to go to culinary school. You could always go back to school later, but it may be helpful to gain direct experience before making a large financial and time commitment to a training program. You could decide you like pastry-making better than soups, and that’s a great thing to know, since you’ll likely pick a focus area once you’re enrolled in school. That said, entry-level positions and on-the-job training will only take you so far. Depending on your field, you may have to return to school at some point.

Where can I find more information?

  • “Who Needs College? The Swiss Opt for Vocational School” by Helena Bachmann of Time Magazine describes the prevalence of vocational training in the Swiss education system. On average, two-thirds of Swiss teenagers will go on to attend trade schools and participate in apprenticeships after finishing secondary school. Switzerland has a low unemployment rate for young people, and students who have completed vocational school go on to earn respectable salaries.
  • “The Voc-Ed Makeover” by Juana Summers of National Public Radio describes the changes that are occurring in vocational education in the United States. In Massachusetts, the dropout rate is much lower at a CTE high school than at nearby high schools. Summers also touches on the prevalence of vocational education in Germany, Abu Dhabi, and Finland.

Page last updated: 07/2017