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You might have heard Mike Rowe, host of popular television show Dirty Jobs, talk about how
important and valuable trade jobs are, how much money you can make, and how trade schools
are an affordable alternative to a four-year degree! But, what is a trade job and what is a trade
school? I wanted to learn more about trade schools and find out what they entail, and if they
were worthwhile alternatives to going to college--or if people are better off with a four-year
degree. I did the research; here’s what I found out.

What Is A Trade School?

A trade school is an affordable alternative to a four-year degree. It’s usually a one or two year program that focuses heavily on real-world applications and apprenticeships so that students are certified and qualified to work as welders, electricians, HVAC repair techs, and so forth when they graduate.

How Do Trade Schools Work?

Countries across the world rely heavily on trade schools, but in the United States, they act as career alternatives to traditional four-year degrees (most notably, a bachelor’s degree). In the US there are two main types of trade schools: vocational colleges and career colleges. Vocational college is a term typically used to indicate a government-run or supported organization.

Usually, vocational college takes two years to complete and can often result in an associate’s degree or the transfer of credits to a four-year university. Sometimes, vocational colleges can partner with magnet schools or charter school to serve as a student’s final two years of high school. In those cases, completion will also include a high school diploma or a GED.

How Is A Vocational College Different Than A Career College?

The other kind of trade school popular in the US is a career college. Career colleges are typically for-profit institutions, and while they’ve popped up with increasing frequency in the last decade (even while vocational colleges have decreased in number), career colleges have been criticized for over-marketing to students and wasting student’s money. Not all schools over-promise, of course, but it’s very important that individuals consider these schools and their claims very carefully. Typically, career colleges take less than a year to complete, and they rarely provide credits that can be transferred to an academic institution.

What Is A Trade School Degree?

As I’ve explained, your trade school degree depends on what kind of school you go to--it also depends on what kind of trade you want to go into. If you go to a vocational college, you might end up with credits you can later transfer to complete a bachelor’s degree; if you go to a career college, your future options will be significantly limited--but you’ll also probably be out in the real world making money much faster.

Trade schools prepare students for the following types of jobs:

  • Auto mechanic
  •  Welder
  • Construction supervisor
  •  Pile-drive operator
  • Plumber
  • Commercial driver
  •  Wind turbine technician
  • Beauty technician or hair stylist

These jobs vary widely and are just the tip of the iceberg. And, each industry has its standard certifications and requirements. Some trade jobs also don’t require trade school--in fact, you’re better off learning on the job.

Do Your Research

Because of this, it’s very important to do your research. Look into different industries that interest you and look for trade schools in your area to find out what they specialize in. If possible, talk to people in your field of interest. How long have they worked there? What do they love about it? What do they hate about it? What do they wish they had done differently?

You can research potential employers, as well; many have apprenticeship or training programs or have work programs that allow you to start working with them while you’re getting your certification. In short, trade school is much less expensive than college--one source estimates that trade school graduates complete schools with a whopping 70% less debt than their college graduating counterparts.

What Is The Difference Between A Trade School And A College?

There’s such a huge array of different trade schools and colleges that it can be difficult to succinctly narrow down the differences. Typically, however, a college is a degree-granting institution. Usually, it lasts four years (though sometimes two) and requires a full-time commitment. Students can work while they’re in college, but most find it difficult, if not impossible, to work full time while in college full time. There are, however, students who choose to take advantage of night classes and weekend programs to complete their college degree so that they can work-- this means, however, that it takes much longer to complete college.

Trade Schools Are Shorter And Less Expensive

Trade schools, however, as I’ve explained, are shorter. You typically won’t receive a degree from a trade school, but your course of training will likely be much more hands-on and narrowly focused on the type of career you’re planning to pursue. You won’t, for example, take history or art classes--but you will likely have the type of certification you need upon graduation to begin work immediately. Trade schools are also usually much, much less expensive than college. While prices can differ hugely depending on your region and the type of trade school you want to attend, tuition typically starts around $3,500 per year and can go all the way up to close to $15,000 per year (source). Since trade school lasts for two years, you can expect to pay less than $10,000 or more than $30,000.

Higher College Tuition Costs

College tuition rates, however, are much higher. You can expect to pay roughly $10,000 per year at a state college or more than $34,000 per year for a private college (source). For a four- year degree, then, you’d pay more than $40,000--and that doesn’t include room and board, a substantial part of the college experience for most people. These numbers don’t account for living costs, and since most people who attend trade schools opt to live at home, living expenses for trade schools are usually significantly less than living expenses in dorms.

Are Trade Schools Better Than College?

In his book, Digital Minimalism, productivity expert Cal Newport explains that in our era of increasingly fast technology, the people who succeed are the people who learn how to adapt quickly to new technologies. It’s no longer about getting the right training or certification that will set you up for life; it’s about being willing and able to learn quickly. Similarly, Mike Rowe, the celebrity I mentioned earlier, has become a huge proponent of trade schools and trades as vocations. He explains that while past generations looked down their noses at trades and saw four-year degrees as opportunities for advancement, millennials are rightfully becoming drawn to the pride of doing a job with your own two hands. Plus, four-degrees are becoming exorbitantly expensive--and people with a skill like plumbing or welding are becoming more and more in demand. Frankly, trade jobs simply make a lot of sense for a lot of people--and are worth exploring.

Should I Go To Trade School?

If you’ve read all the way to the end of an article titled, “what is a trade school?” your real question is likely, “should I go to a trade school?” And the answer is: it depends. Reports show that, on average, college graduates make more per year and over their earnings lifetime than high school graduates. However, those are averages. If you’re not going to be in a high-paying career like neuroscience or engineering, it’s hard to know if those earning potentials will pan out for you over the long- haul. Plus, the extremely high (and rising) cost of college tuition places many college graduates at a severe disadvantage when they graduate. Finally, some people just aren’t suited to four years of sitting in a classroom and would prefer to not spend their lifetimes in office jobs. In these cases, trade schools seem like a no-brainer.

My Final Thoughts

What is a trade school? The bottom line is that a trade school is a terrific opportunity and a great alternative to a four-year degree--for the right person. Particularly if you’re somebody who is a self-starter and a go-getter, I don’t think you need to be worried about the potential income limitations of trade schools. There’s always room for a smart, entrepreneurial type of person to make much more than a modest living if his or her services are in need. If you like working with your hands and don’t feel the need for a four-year degree, all my research indicates that you’d be a great candidate. And you’d probably have a lot less debt, too....