So what do you want to be when you grow up? What are you planning to major in? Every high school student or recent graduate hears questions like these every day.
Most family members and friends may assume that you will be going to a traditional four-year college to pursue a degree. But what if you don’t feel that’s the right path for your life?
For decades, the standard advice has been that having a college degree would be your ticket to a lifetime of success in a chosen career. As issues of job opportunities and long-term student debt have emerged in your own life, you may be wondering – Is a college degree really what I want? Are there other educational paths I could follow?
The short answer? Yes! You’ll find that several different educational paths exist for you to follow in pursuit of rewarding and lucrative careers. A college education is not for everyone. While about two-thirds of high school graduates under age 24 attend college, only about a third to a half of them graduate in four years. Many end up turning to careers and lifestyles that do not require degrees.
Let’s explore one of those career paths: vocational school.
What is a Vocational School?
A vocational school (also known as a trade school, career school, or technical school) is a post-secondary educational institution that prepares its students to work in specific jobs that require manual, mechanical, or technical skills. Vocational schools do not offer bachelor’s degrees.
Carpentry, plumbing, welding, masonry, and other construction-related jobs are all programs you will find at a vocational school. Many career schools also offer automotive-related courses and health science programs. Many provide certificate programs in everything from event planning to pet care to graphic design.
Once you’ve completed your chosen program, you receive a diploma or a trade certificate recognizing your successful completion of the course. Some programs offer associate degrees, which are equivalent to having completed two years at a community or four-year college.
- Focus on practical knowledge and hands-on learning
- Offer programs that you can complete in two years or less
- May require internship or apprenticeship as preparation for certification or licensure
- Cost less than four-year degree programs
Higher Learning vs. Hands-On Learning: What’s the Difference?
Perhaps you’re considering a career that doesn’t require a significant degree to be competitive, and you’re asking yourself – What’s the difference between hands-on learning and higher learning? Let’s break it down.
Soft Skills and Academics
The most significant difference between a college education and training at a vocational school is the type of training. Most colleges provide a foundation in what’s called a “liberal arts education,” which means that you need to learn to read, write, speak, think critically, and become exposed to a range of literary and historical knowledge as well as the natural and social sciences.
Colleges market this well-rounded, liberal education experience as part of a broad focus. Nearly all college programs require two years of coursework in areas seemingly unrelated to your chosen field (your “major” to round out your education. College majors focus on the academic training needed for your chosen discipline, providing a certain amount of hands-on training through internships or externships particular to each academic major program.
Some academic programs are pre-professional, while others are more general. However, most bachelor’s degree programs aim to prepare their students for primarily “white collar,” middle-class types of jobs that include teaching, business management, non-profit administration, scientific and healthcare fields, music, drama, media, and computer technology.
While two-year programs and community colleges providing Associates Degrees offer many of the same programs that vocational schools do, they also emphasize the need for a well-rounded education. They include coursework outside the needs of the chosen trade or discipline. Community colleges and university extensions are often the first places where you’ll get exposed to vocational-type courses. Many of them work in association with high schools when those schools offer secondary-level vocational training.
Know-How vs. Know That
Vocational schools put their emphasis on knowing how to do something more than theory and academic knowledge. While vocational programs include “book work,” those texts and exercises focus on learning specific to the chosen career. For example, suppose you are studying to be a pharmacy technician at a vocational school. In that case, most of your coursework will focus on subjects directly applicable to that career, such as pharmacology and medical ethics, without the electives and liberal arts courses required in a degree program.
Colleges and universities offer standard two-year (Associate) or four years (Bachelor) degree programs, which means that if making a decent wage is your primary educational goal, you will have to wait before pursuing a job to get it. Vocational schools often take as few as two years to complete.
Sometimes, a program like a certificate program may take less time; others have self-guided programs through distance learning, so you can quickly begin working in your chosen field. Many vocational schools also have relationships with established businesses to make entering the workforce with your new certification easier.
Pros and Cons of a Vocational School Education
When considering whether a vocational school education might be the right path for you, you will want to consider the pros and cons of attending one. Beyond the advantages of focused career training and fast pacing, you may find several reasons to look at a vocational school as a serious choice.
Pros of Attending A Vocational School
- At a vocational or trade school, you’ll learn relevant skills specific to your chosen career rather than spending time on subjects that are not directly related to it.
- Vocational schools and career programs typically cost much less than a college or university program; full program tuition may be less than $5,000 all-inclusive, and per-course programs also are in a reasonable range.
- Vocational schools sometimes have smaller in-person class sizes, allowing a more significant opportunity for hands-on learning and individual time with the instructor.
- Employment opportunities are more accessible for vocational school graduates.
- The hands-on nature of the learning prepares graduates more effectively for entry-level employment.
- Vocational school programs often accept applications year-round, allowing students to start programs whenever they choose. Many career-school programs are also flexible, allowing students to study at their own pace.
Cons of Attending A Vocational School
- The focused nature of studying at a vocational school means that your diploma or certificate is very specific. Depending on what course you study, you may find the availability of jobs becoming limited as the job market changes.
- Though trade school and vocational programs are generally less expensive than colleges and universities, some programs’ costs may still be prohibitive for some students. Much depends upon whether you’re attending a public vocational school (often state-run) or a private, commercially-run program. The latter will be much more expensive.
- The accessibility of in-person vocational schools and career programs may be scarce in your area. Though online programs are more readily available, they may not include the specific career or trade you wish to pursue.
- Career diplomas and certificates are considered more of a starting point for education. You may face expectations to continue and build on your career knowledge through other coursework and certifications.
As with any educational program, you can find downsides to choosing a vocational or trade school path. You miss out on the “college experience” of living in dorms, as well as many of the opportunities for socialization and extracurricular activity that university life has to offer. Some people also argue that narrowing your educational scope to only career-oriented coursework and training is limiting.
Like any path of education and career preparation, vocational schools have their good points and not-so-good points. Suppose you’re looking for a less expensive way to get specific training and knowledge in a profession that interests you, and you want to go to work right away. In that case, a vocational school may be the choice for you.
Choosing the Right Vocational School for You
So, you’ve decided that studying at a vocational school is the way to go. Now what? When it comes to choosing the right vocational school for you, consider several things:
Not all trade schools and career schools are created equal. The specific profession you are interested in will help you decide which direction you want to go.
For many hands-on trades, such as carpentry, masonry, and plumbing, the importance of in-person training cannot be overstated. These disciplines, and other mechanical and technical programs, require practical experience along with textbook learning. While you may find accessible in-person schooling limited in your region, you’ll need it if you’re pursuing one of these careers.
Medical and health science careers also require hands-on “lab” time. Most in-person and remote vocational school programs will allow for it. Many career schools that offer health science diplomas and certificates partner with hospitals, pharmacies, and other health organizations to get the internship time you would need to be entry-level ready when graduating.
Computer-based careers and business-related careers offer more remote flexibility. Many vocational and trade schools offer programs like accounting, bookkeeping, and IT training that you can complete through online study.
Some other common careers that vocational and trade schools offer include:
- Automotive and motorcycle mechanic
- Pharmacy technician
- Dental hygienist
- Medical transcriptionist
- Graphic design
- Computer repair
- Allied health science careers including phlebotomist, ultrasound technician, and EKG technician
Vocational school pricing is usually lower than tuition in colleges and universities. Still, tuition costs can vary greatly depending on the specific school, the program, and additional fees. State-funded schools are least expensive for in-state students since they rely on taxpayers for support. Private non-profit programs charge more, and private for-profit programs are most costly.
Career school programs affiliated with established universities and colleges may require on-campus labs or externships that add to the overall cost. Tuition can be on-par with in-state college tuition rates per semester of study. Vocational schools can be less costly, offering students comprehensive career training for a set price.
Job Placement and Testing
When you’re looking for the ideal vocational school for you, you will also want to consider how helpful and supportive it will be when you finish the program. Many careers and disciplines have state licensure requirements, including the need to pass externships and state qualification exams. Vocational schools will often include these necessary requirements as part of the tuition fee for the course. They should also provide career counselors to help you.
If you’re shopping for a vocational school, consider these factors as well:
- Is the school accredited and authorized by a reputable education oversight agency?
- What are the school’s requirements for admission (high school diploma, GED, minimum age)?
- What do graduates and current students have to say about the school and its programs?
- Does it offer continuing education courses to further learning even after you have your certificate or diploma?
Blue-Collar Jobs and Vocational School Training
In recent years, you may have heard a lot of discussion about the importance of vocational and trade school training—and the “blue-collar” jobs they prepare you for. During the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, many people began to publicly acknowledge the indispensable role that blue-collar workers played in keeping our society running, as “essential workers,” when so much else shut down.
Many European countries emphasize apprenticeships and trade education at the high school level. Still, the U.S. has been slow to follow suit. Now, with chronic unemployment among young people and a new appreciation for “essential” workers, blue-collar jobs and vocational training are starting to get their due consideration.
Many high schools and influencers are encouraging the pursuit of trade careers, with the solid pay and stability of these jobs finding new appeal. Trade jobs also offer a degree of independence. Many who pursue these careers end up going into business for themselves in the end.
Grants and financial aid assistance have improved for vocational school education, as well. Trade schools were included in the federal government’s most recent educational stimulus plan, making it easier than ever before for you to pursue your career diploma or certificate.
Once looked upon as a kind of failure, vocational and trade school education is now seen as the valuable educational option that it should be. Skilled labor jobs, health science jobs, and design and technology jobs are all available and waiting for vocational grads to fill them. Vocational schools provide the skills and knowledge you need to be successful in them. More people are taking a good look at vocational training now as they realize that you don’t need a four-year degree if you want to make a good living in a reliable job.
Finding Your Own Path
Are you interested in learning more about vocational training, blue-collar jobs, and the like? You’ve come to the right place! We at Blue Collar Brain are all about providing you with information regarding careers, training, and more. We want you to succeed in a career that you enjoy and where you can make a good living. Be sure to subscribe to Blue Collar Brain for updates about trade job opportunities, career tools, information and inspiration, and more.