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What is a Trade School? Should You Go To One?

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There are many different ways to be successful, and as a high school student, it can sometimes be difficult to recognize the less conventional routes to success. It might seem like everyone around you is getting ready to attend a traditional four-year college, but don’t be fooled. There are other options for students who find that a four-year school isn’t the best fit for them.


One option available is a trade school. For students who decide that their ambitions are best met by trade schools, this option is a quicker, more affordable route to achieving their long term goals. If you’re considering attending a trade school, or you just want to learn more about them to decide if a trade school is right for you, don’t miss this post.


What Is a Trade School?


A trade school can be known by a number of different terms, including vocational school, technical school, or career college. These terms are generally interchangeable and all refer to schools that teach skills directly related to specific jobs, usually ones that are hands-on trades.  


For example, if you want to be an electrician, you could attend a trade school to learn about the skills specific to this profession. You’d likely take classes that would teach you to use the tools needed for the job, along with classes that would give you the knowledge necessary for the job, such as electrical safety, understanding how a circuit works, or learning how electricity travels. A certificate program in electrical technology can usually be completed in a matter of months, while an associate’s degree program can take up to two years.


Although you could take a four-year engineering program at a traditional college and learn about electrical circuits through it, you would also learn many other aspects of engineering that are less relevant to the specific career of an electrician. Your education from a four-year college will be broader and more comprehensive across multiple disciplines, but your education from a trade school will provide the specific skills needed for specific jobs, usually at a more affordable price tag and in a more efficient timeframe.


Although you don’t generally receive a degree from a trade school, you do usually achieve certification in a specific field or a certificate of completed study within your field. From a trade school, you’ll be ready to jump directly into a specific trade with the knowledge and skills necessary to do the work required.


What Jobs Are Well-Suited to Trade Schools?


In general, jobs that are very hands-on or require a very specific skill set are best suited to trade schools. Some students feel as though trade schools don’t prepare you for a well-paid job, but in fact many trades are well-compensated.


Some of the jobs that you can pursue through a trade school include plumber, dental assistant, tractor trailer driver, auto body repair, mason, locksmith, welder, marine mechanic, automotive technician, cosmetologist, home healthcare aide, carpenter, childcare aide, and nursing assistant.


Among the highest paid trades are:  


  • Construction Management
  • Power Utility Technician
  • Landscape Design
  • Electrical Technology
  • Boilermaker
  • Aviation Maintenance
  • Plumber
  • Commercial Diver
  • Pile Driver
  • Heavy Equipment Mechanic
  • Powerplant Operator
  • Energy Management
  • Heating, Venting, and Cooling (HVAC) Technician  
  • Diesel Technology


One good thing about most trades is that they provide a good deal of job security. Many trades have high projected growth over the next ten years, so students who attend a trade school often have no problem finding a job within their field.

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What Are the Advantages of Trade Schools?


Trade schools offer a targeted education within a specific field, and they do so at a more affordable cost and within a smaller timeframe than traditional degree programs. For students who need to begin work as quickly as possible out of high school, for students with a trade-specific career in mind, and for students who don’t want to pursue a higher degree in college, trade schools are a solid option.


Overall, the cost of attending a trade school is significantly lower than the cost of attending a four-year college. While four-year colleges are commonly in the range of $30,000 or more per year at a private school, private trade schools tend to be around $13,000 per year. In addition, trade school programs can usually be taken on a part-time basis while you work or complete an apprenticeship.


Because trade school programs are also completed on a shorter time frame, total costs rarely run more than $30,000, and are often much closer to $15,000. Compare this to the over $100,000 typically spent on a four-year degree, and the price tag suddenly looks very reasonable.


What Are the Disadvantages of Trade Schools?


Of course, there is a reason that trade schools can be completed for less money and in less time than a four-year degree. The types of career you typically prepare for at a trade school generally does not have as much earning potential as the career you might achieve through a four-year degree.


While many trades pay more than $20/hr, it would be rare to earn more than $40/hr. In fact, there is a direct link between the level of degree a person achieves and the salary they earn. Typically, higher levels of education are associated with higher earning potential. Of course this isn’t always the rule, but it is certainly something to keep in mind.


In addition, a trade school is devoted specifically to its trades, not to student life or resources. Don’t expect to find extracurriculars, clubs, or sports offered at a trade school, and don’t expect to find an extensive network of student resources or an active network of alumni.


Ultimately, the decision to attend a trade school should not be taken lightly. It will have a significant impact on your career choice, earning potential, and the amount of time you spend in school. While trade schools are a great option for students who know that a four-year program isn’t for them or who have their hearts set on a specific trade, it isn’t the best choice for everyone.


For more information about choosing a college that’s right for you, check out these CollegeVine posts:


What Makes a Good College List?

Is a 3-2 Engineering Program Right For You?

Open Curriculum Schools: 11 Colleges That Allow Students to Direct Their Own Learning

What College Is Right For Me?

2018 Best Pre-Med Schools

Thinking About Nursing? Here are the Top 10 Nursing Programs in the U.S.

Thinking About a Service Academy? Here’s The Breakdown

The Pros and Cons of a Commuter School: What to Know

5 Great U.S. Colleges for Future Teachers

Rethinking College Entirely? Think Again: More Options to Make It Work for You

Should I Go to a Community College?


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.