Trade schools educate and train students in practical skills while providing clear pathways to sustainable careers. As the cost of college mounts, evidence suggests that not all students are served best by an investment in an expensive four-year degree. For some, trade school offers a path that is not only accessible and affordable, but that can lead to immediate career options. But what is trade school? And what kind of career awaits you after completing a trade school certificate program? We take a closer look and consider the reasons that more students than ever are enrolling in trade schools.
Trade school graduates with technical and practical skills are enjoying a surge in career opportunities just as various economic factors are changing the value proposition around the traditional college degree. This is not to say that a college degree is not valuable. It's just that it may not be the best investment for everybody. If you have skills or career goals that could be advanced through a trade or vocational school, you will not only earn your professional certification at a lower cost, but you may also find career opportunities in your field more immediately than your college-educated peers.
For a look at some of the top trade school jobs, check out these Construction and Skilled Trade Careers.
Otherwise, read on for a look at the growing importance of trade school, especially as the cost of college continues to rise:
What is trade school?
Let's start with a quick definition of terms. A trade school is a specialized educational institution that allows you to pursue a course of technical education related to a specific skilled vocation. Common courses of study include mechanical, electrical, automotive, carpentry, plumbing, and other "shop" skills. But trade schools may also include fields as diverse as culinary arts, music production, broadcasting, graphic design, computer programming, fashion design, cosmetology, and filmmaking. In the field of healthcare alone, from nursing to administration of an ever-growing array of medical technologies, trade skills are in demand.
Though a great many trades may fit under the trade school umbrella, what they have in common is a direct line to a specific set of skills and career. In addition to providing a course of study that dispenses with extras like electives and liberal arts studies, trade schools tend to offer hands-on training and even pathways to apprenticeship.
This may account for the recent rise in trade school enrollment. According to The Atlantic, The National Center for Education Statistics cites a rise in trade school enrollment, from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 16 million in 2014. This jump may be attributable in part to a rising emphasis on the technical, mechanical, and engineering skills surrounding computer science and computer programming. Our rising dependence on technology continues to create excellent career opportunities and earning potential for professionals with trade school backgrounds.
Trade schools are typically designed to deliver an individual from enrollment to certification in two years or less, depending on the trade. For this reason, trade schools may be independent certificate-granting institutions, or they may be schools contained within accredited community colleges, online college programs, or other 2-year degree-granting institutions. If you're seeking an education that emphasizes personal growth, extra-curricular enrichment, and social gathering, you’re probably a candidate for a four-year liberal arts college.
On the other hand, if you're looking to master a skill and hit the ground running, trade schools usually don't waste your time with mandatory art history classes and giant pep rallies. Get enrolled, get trained, and get on with it!
If efficiency is your top priority, you may be able to do it even faster online. Check out our Online Certificate Programs Overview to learn more.
Investing in Trade School
Why has enrollment in trade schools risen so much in recent years? At least one reason is the outrageous cost of a college education.
According to the Consumer Price Index, the cost of college climbed 74.5% between 2000 and 2016, an era notably intersected both by a crippling economic recession and a rise in trade school enrollments.
Today, Americans collectively own more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. And with an estimated 40% of college graduates enduring sustained underemployment in the so-called "gig economy" — largely working in roles that don't require a college education like Uber, Starbucks and GrubHub — the return-on-investment for a four-year bachelor’s degree is earning new scrutiny.
Historically, careers for college graduates have produced higher long-term salary prospects. But the skyrocketing cost of college has not been matched by skyrocketing entry-level salaries. Over the last two decades, economic reality has thrown the once-reliable college ROI equation into some uncertainty.
According to Smart Asset, in 2018, the average salary for all Americans with a bachelor's degree was $59,124. But with the six-year college non-completion rate exceeding 40% (!!), it's worth also noting that the average annual salary for individuals with some college education but no degree was $38,376 in 2018.
As for those with trade school certificates, earnings may vary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) points to the following Median Salaries for 2018:
- Automotive Service Techs and Mechanics — $40,710
- Chefs and Head Cooks — $48,460
- Electricians — $55,190
- Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters — $53,910
- Carpenters — $46,590
The gap in earning potential seems pretty modest, especially as we draw the extremely signficant number of college non-grads into the equation. And how does the cost of each educational experience stack up? The Simple Dollar reports that the average bachelor's degree will cost $127,000, as compared to the $33,000 average cost for a trade school degree or certificate.
The result is a sharp contrast in the post-graduate debt experience for those departing U.S. colleges and universities, as opposed to those completing trade school. As of 2017, the average college student carried a debt load of $29,750, not accounting for interest (which is not an insignificant sum of money). The average debt load for students graduating from two-year technical school is closer to $10,000.
For tips on how to get the best return on your investment in college, check out The Affordable Colleges Source.
The College Slump
College enrollment is slumping. An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that America's colleges enjoyed one single, steady uptick in growth for roughly 375 years. Between 1636—when Harvard College first opened its doors—and 2010, the number of students attending college rose from just a small handful of economic elites to more than 20 million Americans.
For nearly four centuries, you could count on enrollment in America's colleges and universities to continue its climb. Those days are over, perhaps forever. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment in college declined every single fall between 2011 and 2016. Enrollment peaked at 20.6 million in 2010, but by autumn 2016, the official count was much closer to 19 million.
Some of the waxing and waning of enrollment numbers could be tied to the boom and subsequent contraction of the for-profit education sector, as well as basic fluctuations in the college-age population size. But community colleges, boutique campuses, and even a good number of traditional four-year institutions experienced statistically (and economically) significant enrollment drops.
For all the prestige of the college tradition, it is the profile of the trade school that is rising today. In 2017, the District of Columbia-based College Savings Foundation released its eighth annual "How Youth Plan to Fund College" survey of high school students nationwide. The Foundation reported that 39% of all respondents were considering alternatives to traditional four-year colleges based strictly on the cost factor. Of those, 9% were now considering vocational options in lieu of college. Increasingly, the cost of college is driving prospective college students toward alternatives. Trade school is among the most practical of these alternatives.
For more on the continued annual decline in college applicants, check out America’s College Enrollment Slump.
Demand Grows for Trade School Grads
For the right candidate, trade school is more affordable and more efficient than college, but perhaps more importantly, trade schools point more directly toward growing job markets. America is actually in the middle of a serious skills shortage. Jobs for skilled trades-people are plentiful. Less plentiful are the women and men with the qualifications to fill them. The world's future economy will tilt on the realities of automation, for better or worse. On the better side of things is the expectation of greater convenience and efficiency. On the worse side, more American workers will be replaced by robots.
Here's the upside though. If you know how to build, program, operate or repair those robots, the brave new world is your oyster. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while 7.8 million Americans were listed as unemployed in the summer of 2016, there were also 5.8 million unfilled jobs. Employers simply couldn't reconcile the gap between the skills needed to fill those jobs and the qualifications of most applicants.
And this gap is only projected to widen. The BLS forecasts that the construction industry, which crested $338 billion in value in 2016, will grow by 13% by 2024. This will create 180,100 new jobs. Pair this with the workforce exodus of retiring baby boomers, and we could be looking at a construction labor shortage in the range of half-a-million jobs.
An article in Plastics Today — speaking of the sharply growing demand in its own field — acknowledges this trend, pointing out that "While many graduates will have a difficult time finding work because they chose a career path where there is more supply than demand of employees, ‘manufacturing companies are crying for workers to fill the shortfall of two million skilled workers that are projected to be needed over the next 10 years for much higher paying jobs.' This same phenomenon applies to universities, which often graduate hundreds of students with degrees in areas of low demand, and very few in areas of high demand."
So, to recap, college is getting more expensive, and the ratio of jobs to college-educated candidates is getting worse. Meanwhile, skilled trades are in high demand. For every Bachelor of Arts out there driving an Uber, there's a building project without a good welder.
For a look at some of the top trade school jobs, check out these Construction and Skilled Trade Careers.
Is trade school right for you?
We should take a moment to acknowledge that college is still an excellent investment under the right conditions. Depending on your career path, it also may be your best and only option. You will need to earn at least a college degree if you wish to become an accountant, teacher, lawyer, engineer, or countless other things.
And over the lifetime, there is evidence that the earning potential for those with a bachelor’s degree is still higher than that for individuals without a college degree.
But this fact often obscures the reality that for many individuals, a college degree is neither the best nor most cost effective way to gain practical skills and enter into the job market.
In fact, a national poll of men and women ages 18 to 24, commissioned by Metal Supermarkets — "the world's largest small-quantity metal supplier" — found that more than half of respondents had no interest in going to trade school. Sixty-six percent said they didn’t know enough about trade schools. Half of respondents even said that they’d rather work as a coffee shop barista than a welder in spite of the significantly higher earning potential of the latter. The same survey found that a degree of stigma surrounds trade schools, that many respondents regarded this as an option for those who are not up to the academic challenges of a traditional college degree.
Increasingly though, the rising cost of college is undermining these misconceptions.
For those with skills and interests that fall outside of a traditional liberal arts or natural sciences degree, trade school may be a particularly direct and intelligent way to launch a career, and even run your own business. For those with the skills to work as electricians, mechanics, automative repairers, plumbers, carpenters, radiology technicians, cosmetologists, chefs, sound engineers, computer programmers, builders, general contractors, and countless other sustainable professions, an affordable trade school certificate could put you on the road to work in no time.
And that’s not just because it typically takes less time and money to attend a trade school, but because it can put you into direct contact with opportunities for apprenticeship, internship, on-the-job training, and immediate post-graduate employment. Because the emphasis on job training is greater at trade schools, so too is the focus on job placement.
As you consider your career goals, it's worth asking whether these goals could be met through trade school. If in-demand skill training, solid return-on-investment, and supportive job placement are your goals, there's a good chance trade school is the way to go!
Get started with a look at our overview of Online Certificate Programs.
If affordability remains your top concern, but your intended profession requires a bachelor's degree, consider an online education. Get started by checking out The Best Online Colleges.