What Are Vocational and Trade Schools?
Vocational School Definition: "Vocational schools, trade schools, and technical schools are places that can help you train for jobs that require a particular educational experience or where you can learn specific technical skills." Campus-based or online certificate, associate degree or other CTE training programs can usually be completed in a relatively short amount of time — under the four (or more) years it can take for a bachelor’s degree.
Though the terms are often interchangeable, keep these main differences in mind while you plan your vocational training path:
- Students at vocational schools can earn certificates or complete training in under two years
- Vocational careers tend to be in-demand due to lack of skilled workers and strong career outlook figures
- Vocational jobs include: Pilot, Paralegal, Medical Assistant, Cosmetologist
- Trade jobs are jobs in the skilled trades, typically labor-based and requiring specific training
- Trade schools often focus on careers that involve physically demanding manual work
- Example trade careers: Electrician, Carpenter, Tile Setter, Welder
- Technical or career technical education schools are where you can go to learn a trade career, or the specific skill needed for one. May involve apprenticeship or other training
- Study for a technical career typically does not involve liberal arts or non-essential academic requirements
- Technical schools can be good for: Nursing, Biomedical Equipment Technology, HVAC, Automotive Repair and Plumbing
CTE stands for career technical education, and you might hear about CTE schools, which educate high school and college students for careers expected to be in demand in the coming years. You might also hear of CTE standards, which help shape expectations for programs that fall under each one of CCTC's 16 Career Clusters. CCTC is the Common Career Technical Core, an initiative led by states to develop of a system to monitor what CTE students should know and be able to do after completing their training. You can read about Career Clusters and more about the benefits of career technical education on Advance CTE and other CTE resources listed under "Helpful Links" below.
Whether fresh out of high school or looking for a career change, trade and technical careers and vocational jobs are sometimes better options than degree programs offered at traditional colleges if:
- You are interested in a career with less of an academic focus
- You enjoy hands-on work
- You want to spend a shorter amount of time in school and save money
- You prefer to focus on courses directly related to your target occupation
- Your goal is a more direct entry into the workforce
- You want both on-campus and online program options
- You want to start earning an income sooner rather than later
- You want the increased job opportunities that can come with education beyond a high school diploma
Many jobs in the skilled trades are expected to have strong job growth prospects in the coming years, as baby boomers retire without enough younger people training for and filling these positions. Additionally, Glassdoor.com notes that less than half of all jobs will require a four-year degree or more in the coming years — meaning trade jobs are the majority going forward. The Good Jobs Project reports that good jobs for workers without bachelor’s degrees are more and more concentrated in the skilled trades, rather than in traditional blue-collar industries. Opportunities are plentiful for those with a two-year degree or less.
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer. Location can make a big difference. Average trade school tuition costs vary by state due to several factors, including the state's cost of living, state funding per student, and available public resources. Areas with a higher cost of living or a large urban population tend to have more expensive programs, and private colleges may have higher tuition compared to community colleges. Tuition prices also vary depending on the program, so before doing any financial research it's important to determine what type of a vocational field you wish to pursue. Learn more about the costs of CTE programs in your state with this handy tool from CareerTech.org.
- Can offer the flexibility many students need — especially those who anticipate working while enrolled
- Vocational programs with partially or fully online learning options may include fields like computer programming, medical billing and coding, or graphic design
- Learn more about the benefits of online vocational education for trade careers and technician jobs
- Can offer students more of the hands-on training needed for certain vocational jobs
- Some may find better networking benefits or more elements of a traditional college experience, especially at a CTE school
- Vocational programs that might benefit from an on-campus experience include automotive trades or electrician or HVAC technician training
Vocational School Programs
Below is a wide-ranging list of trade or vocational degree programs you can enroll in at technical schools, community colleges, or other institutions—private or public, for-profit or nonprofit, campus-based, or online. Learn what to expect, such as: whether the program aims to prepare you for the types of licensure or certification needed for certain careers, if an apprenticeship is required and how long it usually lasts, and other details about the trade or vocational career itself, including salary and job growth projections.
Vocational Schools by State
Find accredited, career-focused trade or vocational schools in each state, plus find more localized options. From non-degree awards to associate degrees and certificates, there’s likely a vocational school offering the technical education you need near you.
Popular Trade School Careers
Here are some of the trade careers you can start with an online degree or campus program. Popularity is generally based on average annual salary and job growth outlook information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Vocational school can be a great way to train for a new career or brush up your skills to advance in your current job. Check out our list of the best vocational schools in the U.S. and find out how they help students prepare for top careers.
It's an important question for those deciding if a vocational education is right for them: How much does trade school cost? Find detailed answers using data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Did you know you could be making more money doing the same job in another state? Check out our list of jobs with the largest pay disparities across states in the U.S., with salaries adjusted for cost of living.
O*NET Online - Occupational Information Online - O*Net replaces the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT)
The Student Guide: Federal Financial Aid Programs - An overview of current federal financial aid programs, FASFA Link
U.S. Department of Labor - Employment and Training Administration (ETA) - Links to the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), Grants, Conferences and Hot news issues
Perkins Collaborative Resource Network is a government resource featuring state profiles of CTE programs, data on CTE, pathway definitions and more
ACTE, or Association of Career & Technical Education represent and empowers CTE professionals with tools to help make a difference in CTE students' lives
Virtual Diagnostics - Offers career assessments for individuals exploring their career options. All tests are professionally developed by a psychologist and provided to individuals for their self-development.
Occupational Outlook Handbook - The premier government publication on career guidance that provides essential information concerning changes in the world of work and the qualifications that will be necessary for tomorrow's workers
Find a One-Stop Career Center - The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) is a federally mandated program that is administered by the State. The State has One-Stop Centers to HELP you with Job Search, WIA Eligibility, Vocational Training and more.