Trade Schools: What To Know
There's a simple and constant relationship between education and income: the more you learn, the more you earn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a high school graduate can expect an average weekly income of $692 with an unemployment rate of 5.2%, while a person with a bachelor's degree has average weekly earnings of $1156 and a 2.7% unemployment rate. These are averages, and in many cases, the wage gap can be even higher.
The financial opportunities associated with a college degree have led many to pursue higher education, most commonly by enrolling in a traditional college or university. Unfortunately, U.S. tertiary education is one of the most expensive in the world, ranging from around $5,000 to over $50,000 per year. If you factor in living and transport costs, that number increases significantly. Over 70% of college students are saddled with thousands of dollars in student debt before they even graduate. A bachelor's degree can lock a student out of the workforce for at least four years, setting them back even further. A traditional college education is an expensive choice and may be unrealistic for low-income students. That's why many young adults are looking for alternatives to the traditional four-year college model. Trade schools offer high school graduates a great option to learn the skills they need for their future careers.
A trade school (also known as a vocational or technical college) provides students with job-specific training so they can enter the workforce as a skilled tradesperson. Many Community Colleges offer trade-specific courses. These courses usually last anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the program you've chosen. At a trade school, you'll skip the two years of general education classes characteristic of a traditional four-year college, and focus only on classes particular to your field. If you decide to become a healthcare specialist, for example, you will only enroll in classes that will train you in the specifics of healthcare.
The downside to this level of specialized learning (without any corresponding general education) is that there will be less flexibility should you decide to change career paths, but if you're clear about what you want to do, choosing trade school over a traditional college might be the best decision for you anyway.
Many Community Colleges offer trade-specific courses. These courses usually last anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the program you've chosen.
Many people choose to pursue higher education to earn more money. While university graduates still earn more than trade school graduates on average, the wage gap is very minimal. A 2015 survey of graduates by the National Center for Educational Statistics pegs the median annual earnings of a trade school grad at around $35,720, which is just under $12,000 shy of the roughly $46,900 median annual income of a bachelor's degree holder.') What's more, this figure doesn't account for the trade graduates' additional years of income due to entering the workforce earlier, or the significantly lower student debt incurred by trade school graduates. Once you consider those mitigating factors, the difference is almost negligible.
Relative earning power isn't the only important consideration. Trade schools also have a significant advantage when it comes to tuition expenses. The average vocational school education costs just a fraction of a traditional university degree. Two years at trade school will set you back just $33,000 compared to a bachelor's degree, which averages at around $127,000 for a four-year course. The average debt of a trade school graduate is just $10,000, 70% less of a college graduate's, and their education will pay for itself after just five years in the workforce.
Vocational programs also have the advantage of training their students in professions that are not easily outsourced to other countries. The U.S. will always need qualified carpenters, heavy equipment repair technicians, welders, HVAC technicians, EMTs, and many other kinds of skilled workers. It's highly unlikely that your trade school education will go to waste due to job exports or automation.
Trade school graduates do not usually struggle in the job market. Most trade schools have strong links to the professional world and have good job placement programs to help you when you graduate. These programs put you in touch with people in your career field and offer assistance with resume writing, networking, and interviewing so that you can easily find work after earning your certification.
There are a few factors you should consider when choosing the right school. First, find out which schools offer the subject-areas that interest you the most. You might be able to find your ideal program at a specialized trade school, or you might discover a community college near you that offers certificate courses. Always make sure the schools you select are licensed and accredited.
Next, find out what the class schedules are like, and rule out schools with schedules that don't fit your own. Some schools even offer online learning modules for students who need options that are more flexible. Then, check with each school to see if they have job placement programs. Contact prospective employers and ask if there are certain schools that they prefer to hire from, and consider their recommendations.
Compare class sizes, academic resources, facilities, instructors, and tuition. Some trade schools may be popular because they offer scholarships or grants, or because they have the most up-to-date equipment and training. Your priorities will determine which school is best for you.
Skilled tradespeople can earn just as much as white-collar office workers. These are just some of the career programs you can consider taking at a trade school.
Computer Science - $68,000 median annual salary
Dental Hygiene - $70,000 median annual salary
Construction Management - $73,000 median annual salary
Executive Pastry Chef - $45,000 median annual salary
Master Plumber - $60,000 median annual salary
Radiation Therapist - $77,000 median annual salary
ICU Nurse - $71,000 median annual salary
These salaries are quite competitive with many that require a college education, and you can start work sooner with less debt burden!
Only you can choose what kind of post-secondary education is right for you. You might still decide that a traditional university is worth the time, cost, and potential debt, or you might go for vocational skill training instead. Whatever you choose, there are many options for you to provide for yourself and live your dreams. Keep in mind that vocational education should not be considered a lesser option or a last resort. Trade schools may not have the prestige of a university education, but they can offer you significant financial rewards and put you on track for a lifelong career.