Vocational & Trade Degrees: What Can I Do with a Degree in the Trades?



vocational degree

A traditional four-year degree program is not for everyone. Considering an alternative such as a technical school trade or vocational training program may be a better choice. The study options are vast, but most fit into two categories; either Goods-Producing Industries (i.e. agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, construction,  oil and gas industries) or Service-Providing Industries (ie. transportation, utilities, real estate, education, leisure, hospitality, repair, maintenance). Trade and vocational training can make the difference between a lucrative career and struggling to make ends meet since most high-paying trades require licensure and extensive training beyond a high school diploma.

vocational programs


Could a trade degree be the right choice for you? The importance of vocational training has gotten a lot more attention lately. Maybe it’s gotten your attention, too. The need for trade degrees has certainly grown, as American higher education has focused on academic degrees instead of technical school. With the high demand for vocational workers, the lower cost of trade education, and the high salary possibilities after graduation, it’s no wonder more and more students are turning to trade school to advance their careers.

When it comes to trade degrees, though, students do have a lot of questions. “What’s a trade?” some students ask. “What trades are there for people with my skills? What trade is right for me? What trade should I do?” Once trade school became a possibility in your mind, the questions probably started tumbling after each other. In fact, you might be a little overwhelmed. Don’t worry, though. With a little bit of research, you should be well on your way to training for a great career.

If you want to know all about trade school, how to choose a trade, what trades are in demand right now, the importance of vocational training, and more, then the following guide has the answers that you need. Take a look at the following paragraphs. You might even read through them a few times. They’ll help you decide whether or not trade school is your best choice and how to explore your options for the future.

You can start with the most common question: “What’s a trade?” A trade is a technical job that requires specific training but does not require a bachelor’s degree. You may start with just a high school diploma. Trade jobs may require certification, licenses, and on-the-job training. Trades include things like plumbing, HVAC work, mechanics, and repair.

licensed practical nurse culinary arts dental hygienist

Next, why do so many people choose trade school? For many people, trade training offers the best choice of career and technical education. Some people prefer trade school to a bachelor’s degree for several reasons. First, a trade school program costs far less than a bachelor’s degree, which means little to no student loan debt. Second, those with trade experience have excellent job prospects. Third, those job prospects often come with high salaries. Some of the highest-paying jobs are in the trades.

Finally, vocational training doesn’t require any general education courses. Many trade school programs offer specific training instead of broad subjects. In a liberal arts and sciences bachelor’s program, students can spend several semesters covering courses that have little to do with their chosen careers. For many students, that’s fine. Some people prefer a well-rounded approach to education. Others, however, want to dive straight into on-the-job training after your high school diploma. It lets them graduate and get to work faster. You’ll read more about trade school possibilities in a few paragraphs. For now, just know that trade school makes an excellent choice for a lot of people, especially for career-minded people.

Now, what trades are there for people who need options? For those who want to know “What trade is right for me?” The answer isn’t always simple. It’s not just about asking “What trade should I do?” and waiting for an answer to fall into your lap. Instead, it’s about figuring out where your talents and passions meet the greatest need. If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at the different types of trades. Ask yourself what trades are in demand. Among the different types of trades, does anything stand out to you? Take some time to research your trade opportunities. Over time, you’ll narrow down your options and find a great career choice. Once you’ve chosen a trade, your next step is to find the right training at trade schools or community colleges.

Trade and Vocational SchoolAccreditation

Before you start vocational training, you’ll want to make sure that you choose a reputable program. Unfortunately, a lot of people are very willing to take advantage of career seekers. They’ll leave you with an associate degree or certificate that won’t help you much when it comes to finding a job. The good news is that you can avoid scams by looking for accreditation. When a school is accredited, it has met certain standards for quality education. Accredited programs have been vetted and verified. This way, you can rest assured that you’re getting good training for the highest paying trade school jobs. When you attend an accredited school, you’ll have a degree that will make a difference in your career. Attending a non-accredited school, on the other hand, can delay your career. Employers will look for accreditation, so you should, too.

Now, how do you know whether or not a school is accredited? There are two major ways for a trade school to seek accreditation. First, there’s national accreditation. Nationally accredited schools usually get their accreditation through the ACCSC: The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. This organization focuses specifically on trade schools, technical colleges, community colleges, and similar institutions. It makes sure that these places provide a solid, useful education.

Regionally accredited schools, on the other hand, are accredited by a regional organization, the standard for traditional academic liberal arts and sciences colleges, community colleges, and universities. Each region of the US has a different accrediting organization, but all are recognized by the US Department of Education. Between regional and national accreditation, is one better than the other? At the end of the day, the type of accreditation doesn’t matter as much as the accreditation itself. If you’re interested in a school or training program, check their website for their accreditation information. Accredited schools will almost always have an accreditation badge or emblem on their website. If you can’t find a school’s accreditation, look into the ACCSC or your region’s accrediting body. You can look up a school’s status this way.

Degree Program Types

With Trade and Vocational degrees, it’s a little difficult to define degree programs. What is a vocational degree? A Community college may offer both AA/AS/AAS (applied) or simply a certification in the trade of your choosing to add to your high school diploma. While a specific trade or vocational school will rarely use the “Associate degree” language in favor of terms such as “certified” and “licensed” skill programs.

(check out: What is the Benefit of Going to a Community College?)

Community colleges may require some general education courses in addition to specific trade coursework. Do your homework; if you are not interested in a liberal arts education, seek schools with (the often shorter) certification programs.

Once you know that you want to master a trade, how do you start the process? Well, you have options. As a matter of fact, there are lots of trade school programs and other ways to get your trade education. The next several paragraphs will explore those trade education choices. Before you start your associate degree, you’ll have to pick the option that will work best for you. No matter what type of education you choose, all of the following options are great choices for learning technical careers. Many high school graduates also receive on-the-job training. These careers, as stated above, include electric work, HVAC maintenance, machine work, and similar career paths. Almost always, if it involves working with your hands, you can find training for it in any of the following places.

vocational school bureau of labor statistics

Trade School Programs: What is a Trade School?

First of all, there are trade school programs. You can learn with on-the-job training, but trade schools make a big difference. Trade school programs are also called “Career and Technical Programs,” or CTE. So, what is a trade school? Trade schools and vocational schools are training centers that provide specific education for trade-based careers. This type of trade education is different from getting a full degree. The training focuses specifically on job-related technical skills. A full degree requires core classes, but trade school requirements only include what is necessary for the job. At the end of the training, you’ll receive a certificate instead of a degree. However, in most trade fields, a certificate is plenty, and for those who prefer trade school requirements to bachelor’s degree requirements, these programs make education more accessible.

As a matter of fact, for many students, vocational or trade school associate degree programs are a perfect choice. They cost less than a full degree. They’re also designed to help students get right into the workforce after graduation. For students who want to move quickly and start making money as soon as possible, trade school associate degree programs offer the best path besides on-the-job training. After establishing their careers, many trade students will go back for a bachelor’s degree in a complementary field, like business and entrepreneurship, which can help them run their own business.

Now, how do you find the right trade school for your needs? You can just start by searching “trade schools near me.” It’s surprisingly easy to find the vocational programs at the best trade schools in the US. Just look for reviews and accreditation. You might also dig deeper into which schools work best for your specific trade. However, that “trade schools near me” search is a great place to start.

Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees

Some trade workers do choose the full degree route. What is a trade school degree called? Many get their trade education from a technical college, which is another type of trade school. Technical colleges are two-year programs. In other words, they award associate’s degrees. Trade school degrees are cost-effective. As a matter of fact, many people who graduate with trade school degrees get higher starting salaries than those with bachelor’s degrees. The best technical colleges exist all across the US, so take your time when you do your research on trade schools and vocational schools.

Some people choose to earn a bachelor’s degree after earning an associate degree. A bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to earn. However, if you already have an associate’s degree, many of your previous classes will count toward your trade school majors. This route can shorten the bachelor’s degree process. Some people choose to earn an associate’s degree, work for several years, and then earn a bachelor’s degree after saving up some money.

Online vs. Residential Programs

What if you’ve found some of the best technical schools in the US, but none of them are near where you live? Not to worry. Many of the best technical colleges have online associate degree programs. Trade school requirements are the same online as they are in the classroom, so you won’t have to worry about losing quality. Trade degrees online give working adults the flexibility that they need. When looking for trade schools online, search for the same things that you would search for if you had planned to attend in person. Look for trade schools online that have accreditation, great reviews, and the training that you’ll need for your specific job.

Online associate degrees are plentiful. Most offer 2-year programs similar to community college offerings.

(check out: Are Online Degrees a Good Investment?)

Online trade school degree programs are very useful for those already in the workforce or for those with family obligations and tight schedules. For hands-on majors, though, you may want and need the accessibility of a brick-and-mortar school to attend. Service industries often require apprenticeships or internships before seeking employment in a given career.

What’s a Trade Job? The Most In-Demand Trade Programs

With all of that said, what are the best trade degrees? What are the best trade schools in the US? Should you seek out the best technical colleges that offer trade degrees, or should you aim for a certificate instead? For that matter, what are the best types of trades school degrees? Go ahead and start with that last question. Overall, if you’re looking for trade degrees in demand, you won’t have to look very hard. Trades, in general, have a lot of job openings available and a big need for people who can fill those jobs. That’s why vocational programs, trade degrees, and certificates lead to high starting salaries.

Now, if that’s the case, then why do some people choose a bachelor’s instead of certificates? Does having a bachelor’s make a difference? It can in the long run. Some people opt for a full degree because a degree can open up promotion opportunities and higher salaries.

The biggest thing happening in trade school jobs is retirement. That is, Baby Boomers are at retirement age, and in the era before everyone was expected to go to college, many boomers chose their careers in skilled labor. For you, that means a big gap in the number of workers vs the demand for workers. 

Baby Boomers make up large proportion, if not the majority, of:

  • Construction workers and managers
  • Electricians
  • HVAC technicians
  • Machinists
  • Mechanics
  • Plumbers
  • Welders

So if you want to get into the trades, look for opportunities in these fields. The retiring trade professionals who have spent their lives fixing pipes and wiring houses are leaving a shortage. Those vacant jobs mean you could easily walk into a career opportunity that could also give you the chance to start your own business and advance. 

The best vocational careers offer a lot of job security, too. Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that we can expect trade careers to keep growing and providing solid income for decades to come. 

Some of the skilled trades that the BLS expects to be in high demand include those listed above, along with others like: 

  • Home inspectors
  • Aircraft mechanics
  • Diesel technicians
  • Construction managers

Even with economic disruptions like Covid, and worries about the future of the environment, industries like air travel and petroleum are doing fine. Better than fine – they’re still growing, and retiring Boomers are leaving the doors open there as well. Add to the mix the growth in alternative energy – and the need for skilled technicians – and you can expect big growth in areas like solar energy and nuclear energy.  

Best of all, after generations of parents pushing their children into college and professions, American culture is starting to come back around. When we see professionals laid off at the drop of a hat, and trade professionals in higher demand than ever, it changes things. The old assumptions about “blue-collar” work are in flux. Few careers are as stable and trustworthy as the basic trades. We will always need electrians. We will always need plumbers. Mechanics and HVAC technicians may not feel glamorous, but try to have a working society without them. 

Considering the growing labor shortage in just about every skilled trade, get an associate degree or certification in one of these fields. The work will be hard, but in fields like construction, oil and gas, power, and all the other trades, you can make your own way straight out of trade school or community college. 

Financing Your Education

One of the benefits of stopping at a two-year degree program or trade school is the obvious cost savings. According to the The College Board, the average bachelor’s at an in-state public, nonprofit college, (including room and board) will cost a total of about $75,000! The cost for a private, non-profit college (including room and board) will set students back to almost $170,000! Now compare that with the average associate’s degree program, priced at a total of $22,000 (including tuition, reasonable rent, and board).  It’s pretty clear to see where the real win is in affordability.

Of course, one can save money by commuting from home or arranging similar cheap housing options. After the exploration of those basic needs, the first thing a student ought to do is fill out the FAFSA. Community colleges work the same way as 4-year traditional colleges: all government Financial Aid must be assessed through that golden form. Be sure to follow directions carefully; one mistake can prevent receiving the aid you need to pay for your education. Another option is to seek scholarships

(check out: Top 50 College Scholarships)

Also available is the Federal Work-Study program. Students can obtain part-time work through their university or community college. One of the many benefits to this program is that it lends students schedule flexibility not often found in the common workplace while trying to balance this school/work phase in life.

You can also look for a paying trade school. A paying trade school or vocational school will actually pay you to work while you learn.

Federal students loans should be a last resort but are often necessary for most students. Take only what you expect to need for each semester and keep track of your borrowing obligations. Loans need to be paid back upon graduation (in addition to any interest the loan accrues), and although a 6 month grace period is often given, full loan forgiveness programs are rare.

vocational education required

Types of Trade Jobs and Careers

Trade careers come in all shapes and sizes. Trade schools and vocational schools prepare students for many different types of trade jobs. The list of trade jobs could go on for pages. Keep in mind that even though these jobs only require an associate’s degree or some technical training, there’s really no such thing as an easy trade job. If you’re looking for the easiest trade job, you may be disappointed. After all, these jobs require specific skills and technical knowledge that not everybody has. That said, you can absolutely find fun trade jobs that will have you looking forward to the start of the workweek. When you want fun jobs that pay well without a degree, the following list of trade jobs should help you make your decisions. The list has all kinds of very different careers. After all, the vocational career definition is simply “a career that requires technical training but not a bachelor’s.” That definition encompasses a wide range of choices. If you look hard enough for trade school jobs, you’ll be sure to find something that fits your passions and personality.

Healthcare Vocations: First of all, there are healthcare vocations. Not everybody who goes into the medical field is a doctor or a nurse. In fact, there are plenty of medical and dental vocational jobs. Medical trade school jobs include the following options:

These careers are some of the most popular on the vocational careers list. Dental hygienists earn excellent starting salaries and high levels of job satisfaction. For those who want to help people with their health but can’t afford the path to medical school, vocational careers like dental hygienists offer a great way to fulfill those dreams. Furthermore, because they do offer great salaries, they can give aspiring doctors a great place to start while saving money for further education.

Cleaning, Installation, and Repair: Some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying trade jobs are in cleaning and repair. If you work in one of these jobs, you’ll likely work in a variety of homes and commercial buildings. These jobs let people stay cool, comfortable, and healthy, so they’re extremely important for people’s day-to-day lives. Some of your options include the following careers:

  • Electrician
  • Carpet Cleaning and Repair Specialist
  • Mold Remediation Specialist
  • Appliance Repair Technician
  • Plumber
  • Elevator Installation/Repair Specialist
  • HVAC Technician

Of course, these aren’t your only options. When it comes to cleaning, installation, and repair, you have plenty of choices. It’s a very extensive field, so you likely won’t struggle to find a place to fit in.

Construction: Construction jobs are among the skilled trade jobs in demand. As a matter of fact, there’s a huge need for construction workers in today’s economy. It’s a highly-skilled job that requires a lot of experience. This type of job works well for those who absolutely do not want to be in an office all day. It’s very hands-on and requires a lot of moving and lifting.

Computer and Web: For those who want to delve into highly technical knowledge, computer repair and web design are two great options. As technology evolves, the US has a need for people who know how to work with that technology. Web design is a great job for those who also want to be creative and technical at the same time. It involves creating websites for people and businesses. For those who have a talent for technology and mechanics, computer repair makes an excellent choice.

Best Trades for Women: These days, more and more women are going to vocational schools and getting into trade school careers. That’s why a lot of people have searched for things like a “list of trades for females,” or the best trades for women. Although women have made a lot of progress in trade school careers, many options from the list of trade jobs are dominated by men. Now is a great time for women to demand more space in the trades.

For women who want to guarantee that they’ll have female colleagues, the list of trades for females includes most of the medical trades. These trades generally have far more women than men. For those who want to take their place in male-dominated fields, the best trades for women include plumbing, electric work, HVAC work, and similar careers. Many of these repair-based careers are 99% male.

Salary Potential in Trade Careers

Of course, you’re probably wondering about your potential salary. A lot of people choose trade careers because of their earning potential. There are a number of trade school programs that pay well. Since these jobs are in such high demand, most of them come with great starting salaries. You won’t run out of options. There are lots of trade degrees that pay well. In fact, there are lots of 6-month certificate programs that pay well, too. Still, when you’re looking up trade jobs salary information, you’re probably looking for the jobs that land at the top of the list. That’s understandable. Here are some excellent hands-on jobs that pay well.

Construction Management: If you’ve looked up trade jobs salary information, then you’ve probably come across construction management. Construction managers make, on average, nearly $50 per hour. Some construction managers make as much as $77.65 per hour.

Rotary Drill Operation: Rotary drill operators work in the oil and gas industry. They use drilling equipment to extract oil from underground. Rotary drill operators make an average of $27.28 per hour, though the top earners can make up to $42.41 per hour.

Boilermaking: Boilermakers, as you might have guessed, make and install boilers. It’s hard work, which is why it pays well. The average hourly pay is $30.41 per hour, while top earners can make $43.24 per hour.

Aircraft Mechanics and Technicians: Aircraft mechanics work on airplane and helicopter engines. These mechanics play a major role in keeping passengers and crew safe. Aircraft mechanics make about $31.36 per hour, with the top earners making around $47.03 per hour. Then there are aviation technicians, who take on the more technologically advanced equipment. In addition to working on airplanes and helicopters, technicians can also work on certain types of spacecraft. These workers make an average of $31.41 per hour. Higher-end earners make up to $45.54 per hour.

Other Hands-On Jobs That Pay Well

The above jobs are just some of the top-paying jobs. However, trade jobs, in general, come with high salaries. When you look for trade jobs salary information, you’ll find that the more technical and specific the job, the higher the pay. Nontraditional jobs that pay well aren’t difficult at all to find. That’s because training for these jobs takes longer than the training for a lot of other trade jobs. That said, if you don’t want to go into a highly technical job, you don’t have to stick to looking for nontraditional jobs that pay well. You can always take a more traditional route like plumbing or electric work, and you can always find 6-month certificate programs that pay well. As a matter of fact, plumbing and similar work is fairly high on the list of well-paying jobs. It’s not on the same level as construction management, but it’s certainly enough to let you carve out a comfortable life, and provide a foundation for starting your own business or managing later.

top online vocational school continuing education

Trade Salaries for Women

You may have noticed that most well-paid jobs are also the ones that have traditionally been dominated by men. If you’re looking for good-paying jobs for women without a degree, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take up some space in these fields. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t have a chance to work in these high-paying jobs.

At the end of the day, trades and vocational training are not only worthwhile but absolutely necessary for society’s function. Those who do choose trade school or vocational school have a lot of options ahead of them. With the right training and the right passion, trade workers can create excellent lives and careers for themselves.

According to National Center for Educational Statistics, young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned nearly 30 percent more annually than associate’s degree holders. The NCES statistics further show those with technical/trade degrees bring home an average salary of $35,720.

And while you might not get rich, the real benefit in skilled trades is the job security and a very low risk of unemployment due to outsourcing. The fun website, Art of Manliness has a compelling piece on skilled trade careers: as they explain, “While jobs in the information/tech/customer service sectors can always be shipped away, the careers that require literal hands-on work cannot be.”

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