5 Trade School Myths, and Why They're Wrong

Written ByJohanna Sorrentino

As the cost of college rises, more students are taking a harder look at the return on investment of their college degree. That is leading some students to take a closer look at postsecondary vocational education. More commonly referred to as "trade school," this is a career-focused route that prepares you for a specific trade or field, and often leads to the completion of an associate degree within two years.

The National Center for Educational Statistics released a report projecting that between 2007 and 2019, the number of students earning an associate degree will increase by 30 percent, while those earning a bachelor's degree will only increase by 23 percent. Clearly vocational education could be at the forefront of education, going forward.

Despite the educational opportunities that trade schools provide, there are still several myths that persist about vocational education. With the help of an expert in the field, Manufacturing Coordinator for the College of DuPage Jim Filipek, we aim to bust five of these myths, and give you the real scoop about vocational education:

Myth #1 - Only people who can't get into college go to trade schools.

According to U.S. News & World Report, there are over 100 colleges in America that accept above 90 percent of applicants, so there are plenty of options besides trade schools for students who want an academic college education.

The reality is that students who choose a trade school most likely do so because they can see the relevance of what they're being taught in the real world. Vocational education programs mostly focus on specific skills for specific occupations. Everything a student learns, from how to behave and function in the workplace to specific occupational skills, can be applied in the specific career that interests them.

“In addition,” says Filipek, “there are students in trade programs that have already earned a four year degree but are unable to find employment in that field in the workforce.”

Myth # 2 - You can't get a real degree from a trade school.

There seems to be a prevailing, but incorrect, assumption that you can only get certificates and diplomas from trade schools. However, many trade schools also offer a two-year associate degree and some even offer a four-year bachelor's degree, depending on the requirements of the career.

For example, the College of DuPage, located in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, offers an associate degree in:

  • Air conditioning
  • Anesthesia technology
  • Automotive service technology
  • Construction management
  • Diagnostic technology imaging

Filipek says it is important to point out that an associate degree is not terminal: “Many students go on to earn a four year degree at universities in these technical areas.”

Myth # 3 - You can't get a job that pays well.

“Absolutely not!” says Filipek, adding that the manufacturing program that he coordinates at the College of DuPage receives over 100 employment opportunities each year. “Almost all of these jobs offer heath insurance, paid vacation and a 401K. Many companies also offer tuition reimbursement which can certainly help a student complete their studies,” he says.

Some of the highest paying vocational careers pay considerably higher than the average for all occupations combined. Here is just a sampling of five vocational careers that pay more than the national mean annual wage of $47,230, according to data from the Bureau of Labor statistics:

  • Electronics repairers: $55,610
  • Nuclear medicine technologist: $73,230
  • Dental hygienist: $71,970
  • Radiation therapist: $83,710
  • Nuclear technicians: $75,960

Myth # 4 - Employers don't want to see trade school on your resume.

Filipek counters this by explaining that a vocational degree or studies on a resume demonstrates to employers “a willingness to improve their skills along with a desire to keep up with the newest methods and technology. With an aging workforce in these technical areas people with these skills on their resume are in high demand,” he says.

In an article summarizing the research on occupation-specific education, Cornell University professor John Bishop states that "job productivity derives directly from social abilities (such as good work habits and people skills) and cognitive skills that are specific to the job or the occupation." These are the two most important traits to employers in small- and medium-size businesses, which are providing most of the new jobs in the American economy. These same employers also indicated that relative wage rates are tied directly to occupational skills rather than any other educational factors.

Myth # 5 - You're limited to one career your whole life with a vocational education.

Though the content learned in a vocational program is usually specific to one occupation, Filipek says there are basic skills in safety, quality and employability that are common throughout many industries. “Many technical skills also overlap and individuals who have a desire can always work their way up to a management position or branch off into sales, engineering or marketing positions,” Filipek says. “Having any technical knowledge provides a powerful advantage to individuals looking to expand their careers.”

Also, because a trade school education can usually be completed in about half the time that it takes to finish a bachelor’s degree, there is considerably less risk in changing your vocational career aspirations.

The truth? Vocational education provides career-readiness.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said of career and technical education: “There is a lot of talk these days about the need to boost college and career-readiness. But the truth -- and I include myself here -- is that most of the current debate is about college-readiness. Too often, career-readiness is an afterthought." In order to boost career-readiness opportunities, Duncan says we should learn from other countries about “how to build rigorous educational and work-experience programs with strong links to high-wage, high-demand jobs.”

It’s time to put these “old news” myths to bed, so that we can re-imagine vocational education as a source of the cutting-edge career preparation required by a 21st century economy.