Is Trade School Right for You?
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After high school, not everyone wants to attend a four-year university.
As the cost of college degrees continues to rise, many students see the benefits of attending a trade or vocational school, which provide clear pathways to sustainable careers.
Trade schools offer affordable training and education in practical fields, qualifying students for skilled, well-paying careers immediately after graduation. Read on to learn what types of training trade schools offer, the cost of attendance, and potential trade school jobs you could pursue after graduation.
What Is a Trade School?
Trade schools, also called career or vocational schools, offer practical training and education to prepare students for skilled careers, such as carpentry or cosmetology.
Trade school programs usually offer certifications that take two years or less to complete. Trade schools may operate as their own independent institutions or they can be nested within two-year technical schools or community colleges.
Academic credits from an accredited trade school may transfer to a two-year or four-year school. Many trade schools are accredited: The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges provides accreditation to trade, career, and vocational schools. However, credits from non-accredited schools usually don't transfer.
Most trade schools accept all prospective students with either a high school diploma or a GED.
What Can You Learn at a Trade School?
Trade school students can typically choose from several trades that lead to many different careers. Specific trades vary by school, but often include carpentry, masonry, electrical and construction management, and automotive technology. Other common offerings include cosmetology, HVAC, and computer-aided drafting and manufacturing.
Vocational schools may also provide training in niche areas like emergency services, criminal justice, culinary arts, and medical or dental fields.
Trade School Jobs
Carpenters work on construction projects, building, repairing, and installing structures and fixtures made of wood and other materials. Carpentry students learn to read blueprints, measure and cut materials, install fixtures and structures, and build and install building frameworks.
Many carpentry trade programs include an apprenticeship, where students work directly with a professional carpenter. A typical carpentry trade school program takes two years, not including the apprenticeship.
Carpenters earn a median annual salary of $48,330.
Masonry programs teach trade students how to build structures using stone, concrete, and brick. They learn to read blueprints, cut materials correctly, mix mortar and grout, and build corners. Masonry programs also cover building code requirements and safety and first aid practices. Many masonry programs also include an apprenticeship.
Most masonry vocational school programs take 1-2 years to complete, with another 1-2 years of apprenticeship work after graduation.
Masons make a median annual salary of $46,500 each year.
Electrical and construction managers plan, manage, and supervise electrical and construction projects. In these programs, students learn about construction methods and materials, building codes and standards, building science, and project management. They also learn how to work with engineers, architects, and other construction experts.
Electrical and construction management trade school programs typically take about two years to complete. Trade school programs may include an apprenticeship or on-the-job training.
Construction managers make a median annual salary of $95,260.
Automotive technology trade school students are taught to repair and maintain cars and trucks. Students learn to use computerized diagnostic equipment, test automotive parts and systems, and perform basic maintenance and repairs.
Automotive technology trade schools typically take 6-12 months to complete. Graduates usually need little on-the-job training and can begin working immediately.
Automotive service technicians and mechanics make a median annual salary of $42,090.
Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers work with heating, ventilation, cooling, and refrigeration (HVAC) systems. HVAC trade school programs teach students to install and maintain HVAC systems, repair defective parts, discuss problems with customers, and manage work records.
Most HVAC trade school programs take 6-24 months to complete. Some HVAC students also complete an apprenticeship, which typically lasts 3-5 years.
Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers make a median salary of $48,730 per year.
Computer-aided drafting and manufacturing trade school programs teach students technical, math, and interpersonal skills. Students learn design fundamentals, practice sketching, and work with computer-aided design (CAD) software. Trade school programs also teach students about printing, using AutoCad, and common manufacturing processes.
Trade school programs for computer-aided drafting and manufacturing typically take under two years to complete.
Professional drafters make an annual median salary of $56,830.
Cosmetology trade schools teach students skills like haircutting, skin care, manicures and pedicures, and hair coloring. Cosmetology students learn about safety and sanitation, hair analysis, treatment techniques, and how to use tools and materials properly. Students also develop customer service, time management, and listening skills.
A typical cosmetology trade school program takes under two years to complete. Many states require cosmetologists to pass an exam and obtain a license after graduating.
Barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists make a median annual salary of $26,270.
Investing in Trade School
Vocational programs provide affordable training and practical skills in a short period of time. Trade school graduates often find career opportunities in their desired fields more quickly than four-year college graduates. Trade school costs also tend to be significantly less than the cost of a traditional college or university program.
To experience these benefits, vocational students need to go into their programs with a career plan and the drive to succeed.
Trade School Cost
Trade school costs vary by program, but they are generally more affordable than a traditional university degree because they offer cheaper tuition and require fewer classes to graduate.
Trade students who can find an apprenticeship can get paid while receiving training. The Simple Dollar reports that the average trade school program costs $33,000, compared to $127,000 for the typical bachelor's degree.
Many trade schools qualify for federal financial aid programs, allowing learners to receive federal loans and grants. Prospective trade school students should fill out the FAFSA to find out if they qualify. They can also apply for private loans, scholarships, grants, and employer tuition reimbursement programs.
Is Trade School Right For You?
Many different types of people benefit from trade school. Typical students include recent high school graduates, tradespeople seeking formal training to expand their career opportunities, and professionals who want to change careers and pursue a trade.
Students often choose trade school to gain practical skills in a short period of time and for an affordable price. Many learners who choose trade school like working with their hands to create a tangible product or to offer a useful service.
How to Apply to Trade School
Trade schools typically accept applications year-round and offer open enrollment to all students with either a high school diploma or a GED diploma. Open enrollment increases the chance that most students will be accepted. However, some schools limit the number of students who can enroll in high-demand programs.
Admitted students may need to take a skills assessment or placement test. Some programs also require students to pass drug or criminal background tests.
Association For Career and Technical Education
ACTE represents professionals who work in technical and career education. The association offers networking opportunities, professional development activities, and events for career and technical education professionals.
SkillsUSA brings together teachers, students, and industry organizations and professionals with an interest in ensuring that the U.S. retains a skilled workforce. The group helps middle, high school, and postsecondary students prepare for technical and trade careers.
National Technical Honor Society
NTHS advocates for career and technical education students. The society also awards scholarships, offers career development resources, and honors outstanding students.
Frequently Asked Questions
The answer to this question depends on each student's career goals, personal interests, and the amount of time and money they can afford to spend on education. For many students, trade school is a better choice than a four-year college degree because it often costs less and can lead to a career sooner.
No. Trade schools typically do not assess applicants based on their GPAs.
Many trade schools qualify for federal financial aid, so students should make sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Trade schools are often an affordable way to gain the skills and experience necessary to qualify for specific well-paying careers. If you are interested in one of these careers, a trade school would likely be worth it for you. Note that actual cost varies by institution.
The easiest trade to learn varies by person. You should consider your individual strengths and personal interests when selecting a trade to pursue.
High-demand trades include carpentry, masonry, construction management, and HVAC.
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