Vocational Training A Guide to Non-Degree Education

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The vast majority of jobs require post-secondary training and education. If you’re disinterested in a traditional four-year degree, vocational educational programs provide the training necessary to become a qualified professional in a variety of trades. This type of learning, also known as career and technical education (CTE), blends academic and technical instruction to prepare you for direct entry into the workforce.

The guide below provides an introduction to popular and growing fields of study, insight into vocational and trade schools, and a review of the benefits and drawbacks of completing a vocational program.

70% of the US workforce does not have a bachelor’s degree.
More than 75% of manufacturers reported a moderate-to-severe skills shortage in 2014.
Manufacturing Institute
Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University
By 2020, 30% of the expected 55 million job openings will require an associate degree or some college education.


What is trade school?

Vocational or technical education provides students with instruction and training for occupations not requiring a bachelor’s or graduate degree. The mission of CTE programs is to prepare students for future career success by providing a blend of technical and conceptual training alongside hands-on experience in specific fields of study.

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What can be classified as a vocational career?

Vocational careers can be defined as occupations requiring less than a bachelor’s degree. More specifically, vocational careers fall within a series of clusters defined by the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium. There are 79 different career pathways via the 16 vocational clusters listed below:

Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources Hospitality & Tourism
Architecture & Construction Human Services
A/V Technology & Film Information Technology
Business Management & Administration Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
Education & Training Management
Finance Marketing
Government & Public Administration Planning
Health Sciences Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
Why is vocational training important?

Not everyone needs or wants to complete a four-year degree. And in light of growing demand for middle-skill jobs, vocational training offers a practical alternative to traditional postsecondary degrees. While people often associate a lack of a degree with a lower salary, that’s not always the case. Trade school careers such as construction managers, radiation therapists, and dental hygienists can easily earn between $75,000 and $100,000 per year without a four-year degree. Additionally, given the high cost of college today, a vocational career also allows you to avoid the large amount of student loan debt that many graduates begin their careers with.

What is the difference between technical and vocational schools?

Technical and vocational schools are similar in structure but diverge in their curricula. At technical schools, the curriculum provides students with a broader academic foundation, focusing on the principles of the field of study. The curriculum at a vocational school is more career-focused, occupation-specific skill development.

Where is CTE training available?

CTE training is offered by vocational, technical, and trade schools in addition to public and private community colleges and four-year institutions.

Why should someone consider CTE?

The two major benefits provided by CTE training are easy access and preparation for direct entry into a career. Vocational education is appealing to a variety of students, ranging from recent high school graduates to established professionals ready for a career change. Instruction is delivered in a meaningful way, concentrating on academic and practical experience toward a specific career path, occupation, or industry.

Popular Vocational Fields

In career and technical education, program of studies align directly with individual careers. For example, students aspiring to become dental hygienists complete a training program specific to that occupation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects vocational careers to grow exponentially across the nation between 2019 and 2029. The table below outlines 20 of the top jobs expected to see the largest employment gains during this time span.

Occupation Projected new jobs Projected growth rate
Wind turbing service technican 4,300 61%
Solar photovoltaic installer 6,100 51%
Home health and personal care aide 1,159,500 34%%
Derrick operators 3,700 31%
Physical therapist aides 61,300 21%
Rotary drill operators 5,600 27%
Roustabouts 14,700 25%
Forest fire inspector 1,400 24%
Cook 256,600 23%
Animal caretaker 75,500 23%
Service unit operator 11,800 23%
Massage therapist 34,400 21%
Occupational therapy aide 9,500 20%
Helpers/extraction workers 3,400 20%
Medical assistant 139,000 19%
Phlebotomist 22,800 17%
Social and human service assistant 71,500 17%
Ophthalmic medical technician 8,500 14%
Industrial machinery mechanic 70,100 13%
Psychiatric technicians 93,800 13%

When it comes to vocational careers, renewable energy and health care jobs lead the charge. Ten of the country’s 20 fastest-growing occupations do not require a traditional college degree. Below is a description of some of the top jobs you should consider.

Wind Turbine Service Technician

Wind turbine service technicians install, maintain, and repair wind turbines. Also known as windtechs, these professionals are responsible for maintaining the physical integrity of wind turbines, including performing routine maintenance, doing repairs, replacing parts, and more. This career is expected to grow by 61% over the next decade and offers a median annual salary of $56,230.

Solar Photovoltaic Installer

A solar photovoltaic installer assembles, sets up, and maintains solar panels and systems. They play an important role in the renewable energy field. They provide many solar-related services, including planning out solar systems, designing the panels, installing the panels, and performing maintenance. This career is expected to grow by 51% over the next decade and has a median annual salary of $46,470.

Home Health and Personal Care Aides

A home health and personal care aide works in people’s homes and helps them with their daily lives. They often work under a nurse or healthcare professional and assist clients with daily tasks, perform housekeeping tasks, arrange for transportation for clients, and more. Jobs in this field are expected to grow by about 34% over the next decade and have a median annual salary of $27,080

Physical Therapist Aide

Physical therapist aides work directly with physical therapists to serve patients recovering from illnesses and injuries. These professionals do many tasks directly related to patient care, including observing patients, helping patients with exercises, treating patients, and more. Jobs in this field are expected to grow by 21% over the next decade and have a median annual salary of $28,450.

Occupational Therapy Aide

Occupational therapy aides serve both the patients and the occupational therapists. These aides help patients to develop, recover, improve, and maintain the skills necessary for day-to-day living. The BLS projects jobs for occupational therapy aides to grow by 20% over the next decade, with a median annual salary of $30,180.

Where Can I Get Vocational Training?

At the postsecondary level, vocational education is available through a variety of outlets at the state and local levels, with some employers also offering programs. The Office of Vocational and Adult Education oversees federal funding to individual states and training programs. The US Department of Education reports that the majority of vocational training is provided by community colleges, with the remainder distributed by four-year universities, technical and trade schools, employers, and job training centers. Read on to learn more about individual providers:

Community Colleges

These two-year institutions offer an array of academic credentials such as associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates in different vocational tracks.

Vocational and Trade Schools

Vocational schools are traditionally government recognized and supported, and provide a range of training program lasting between one and two years.

Career Colleges

Typically operated by for-profit institutions, career colleges offer a variety of training programs typically completed within 12 months.

Four-Year Universities

In addition to studies provided at the undergraduate and graduate levels, some four-year universities also offer associate or certificate training programs in vocational fields.

Job Corps

Administered by the United States Department of Labor, Job Corps centers provide free vocational training to individuals between the ages of 16 and 24.

Career Training Centers

Many communities have career training providers or centers for employment that offer vocational preparation in areas such as culinary arts, auto repair, construction, and health care.

Military Vocational Programs

The Department of Defense has partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor to create a wide range of vocational training programs for military members transitioning into civilian life. Each branch of the military has their own offering, such as the Army COOL program.

Pros and Cons of Vocational Training

While more and more jobs require some level of postsecondary education, mounting student debt has highlighted the rising cost of a traditional baccalaureate education. In answer to this conflict, career and technical education programs have risen in popularity. Because there are benefits to both bachelor’s and degree programs, prospective students should take the time to understand the advantages and drawbacks of completing a career credential, certificate, occupational degree, or diploma at a vocational school.

The table below provides a comparison of some of the most common pros and cons associated with vocational schools.

Improved marketability

On the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of the 20 fastest-growing occupations, more than half require some form of postsecondary training or education. Career-specific education offered by vocational schools enables graduates to join this growing skilled workforce.

Career opportunities and security

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that earnings increase and unemployment decreases for every step up the degree ladder. In 2018, individuals with an associate degree earned more than 17 percent more than those with a high school diploma and their unemployment rates were more than two percent lower.

Direct entry to workforce

Vocational training programs are typically completed in one to two years. A bachelor's degree can take four or more, extending the amount of time it takes to enter the workforce.

Degree respect

Vocational programs sometimes operate under a disadvantage as they may be considered less valuable or lacking the rigor of a four-year degree.

Career flexibility

Because vocational training is career specific, graduates from these programs may find it more difficult to pivot into different careers than those who completed a bachelor’s degree that covers more general skills.

Earning power

While vocational degrees improve overall earning potential, those with four-year degrees garner salaries over 31 percent higher.

Who is the Ideal Vocational Student?

No matter a student’s background or previous education, technical and career education programs enable anyone to complete a professionally oriented course of study. The three student profiles below are examples of the varied types of students enrolled in vocational training programs across the country.

The Career Changer

Mary is a 32 year-old nursing assistant who wants to advance her career in healthcare. She began working directly out of high school, but realizes completing a degree boosts her career prospects. Enrolling in an Associate of Science in Nursing program, Mary can realize her dream of becoming a nurse after two to three years of study.

Whether a nursing assistant looking to advance their career or an electrician pivoting careers into a new occupation, vocational programs allow students to pursue fresh paths through industry-specific training.

The Encore Student

Nicholas is a 53-year-old stockbroker growing tired of the daily stress associated with his job as he nears retirement. He isn’t ready to retire but knows he would like to help others. By completing a certificate in career and planning development, Nicholas can follow his passion and transition into a life and career consultant position.

The nonprofit organization Encore, which is dedicated to supporting professionals like Nicholas, reports that over 25 million Americans between the ages of 50 and 70 are ready to move into encore careers, especially those making a social impact.

The Wandering High School Graduate

Lisa graduated high school in 2013, but has not fully pursued a career or college education. She is interested in animals and thinks she may want to become a veterinarian in the future. By completing a two-year veterinary technician training program, Lisa can start down the career path of helping animals.

More than 75% of the nation’s workforce are in careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree. In fact, middle-skill jobs (those that require either a two-year degree or certificate, plus on-the job training) make up more than 42% of that total. A vocational education can help high school graduates develop the technical skills and knowledge required to pursue a variety of middle-skills careers.

How to Get Quality Training

Making an informed decision about the type of education to pursue is paramount, as the selected path of training directly influences future career success. The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Education created a helpful guide of considerations for students before they select a vocational school. The list below includes several factors to review and red flags to consider prior to enrolling in a vocational program.

What to consider when seeking vocational training
Admission and Completion Rates

To gain a holistic understanding of a potential school’s level of success, students should research both admission and completion rates. Low admission rates indicate the program is selective, while high graduation rates indicate students believe in the quality of the program.

Program Accreditation and Licenses

Attending an accredited institution is an important part of the postsecondary education process. Accreditation indicates instruction meets recognized standards and educational guidelines mandated by the accrediting agency. Many agencies require students to graduate from an accredited program to qualify for professional licensure once they graduate. Private vocational schools are typically approved by the state. Students should review all accreditation and licensing prior to applying.

Tuition and Fees

Nearly every student has concerns about the cost of their studies. Prospective students should inquire not only about tuition, but also fees, technology costs, and equipment. It can also helpful to find out about payment structure and when tuition and fees are due.

Admission Requirements

Because the admissions process is different for every program and school, students should research the various requirements before applying. Do students need to complete specific prerequisites? Is work experience required? Do students need to submit standardized test scores?

Red flags to avoid
Career Outcomes

Most vocational programs tout the success of their former students, publicize job placement rates, and list the salary potential for graduates of each program. Review this information carefully and confirm each point independently. Make sure the program can deliver on its promises.

Extent of Training Program

Students should review the curriculum and facilities of potential programs before making a decision. Schools may overstate the type of training available or have outdated equipment, technology, workshops, or facilities.

Instructor qualifications

Prospective students should inquire about the program’s instructors and faculty. Do they have academic and professional experience in the area of study? Do they hold licenses and certifications? If possible, ask to sit in on a class to get a feel for the quality of instruction.

Program complaints

Before submitting an application, students should check with both the Better Business Bureau and their state’s Attorney General to ensure there are no complaints filed against the institution or school.

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