Vocational Training: A Guide to Non-Degree Education

Vocational training programs offer students the opportunity to pursue a career in the skilled trades. Learn how to pursue vocational training.

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Many jobs don't require a four-year degree. Instead, people complete a postsecondary non-degree credential to start working. Today, the majority of Americans believe that alternative paths like certificate programs, trade schools, and technical training offer a good return on investment, according to a recent Best Colleges report.

In this article, we answer frequently asked questions about vocational education programs and why they matter in your career path.


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Q&A About Trade Schools

What is trade school?

"Trade school" goes by many names and can take place in different settings. For example, you can commonly find the following terms to refer to career-focused training and education programs:

  • Vocational education programs
  • Vocational training programs
  • Technical or vocational education
  • Career and technical education

Trade schools provide students with instruction and training for occupations that don't require a bachelor's or graduate degree. Vocational education and technical programs prepare students for future career success by providing a blend of technical and conceptual training alongside hands-on experience in specific fields of study.

What careers can you have with a trade school or vocational education?

You may be surprised how many options exist within these fields. Technical 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
  • Architecture & Construction
  • A/V Technology & Film
  • Business Management & Administration
  • Education & Training
  • Finance
  • Government & Public Administration
  • Health Sciences
  • Hospitality & Tourism
  • Human Services
  • Information Technology
  • Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • Planning
  • Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics

Why are trade schools important?

Not everyone needs or wants to complete a four-year degree. And in light of the growing demand for middle-skill jobs, vocational training offers a practical alternative to traditional postsecondary degrees.

While you may associate a lack of a degree with a lower salary, that's not always the case. Careers such as construction managers, electricians, and dental hygienists can earn between $65,000 and $100,000 per year without a four-year degree. Additionally, given the high cost of college today, a trades career also allows you to avoid large amounts of student loan debt that many graduates begin their careers with.

Where can I find career and technical education or vocational training?

You can find these programs at vocational, technical, and trade schools in addition to public and private community colleges, four-year institutions, and many high schools.

Why should someone consider going to trade school

You can expect at least two major benefits of a career-focused education: shorter time in the classroom and more focused preparation for a career. Vocational or technical education may appeal to many students, ranging from recent high school graduates to established professionals ready for a career change.

Frequently, these programs are less expensive than degrees, so you can avoid student loan debt. This path can be a good fit for people who don't want to complete a bachelor's degree or who may want to get a four-year degree later on, just not yet.

Can you go to trade school online?

Yes. You can find several online trade schools offering programs across medical, legal, IT, and even mechanical fields. Some trades careers require you to develop expertise in hands-on mechanical work or in-person interaction. In these cases, even online training programs will require some in-person learning or field work.

Fastest Growing Trade School and Technical Jobs

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects vocational careers to grow between 2020 and 2030. In fact, more than half of the country's 20 fastest-growing occupations do not require a college degree.

Below are the 10 fastest-growing jobs that require a postsecondary non-degree credential from a vocational or technical program:

Occuptation Average Salary Projected Growth Rate
Wind turbine service technician $59,340 68%
Theatre and performance makeup artists $99,990 37%
Manicurists and pedicurists $29,010 33%
Massage therapists $47,350 32%
Skincare specialists $41,230 29%
Computer numerically controlled tool programmers (CNC programmers) $61,010 27%
Audio and video technicians $53,390 26%
Phlebotomists $37,280 22%
Hairdressers, hair stylists, and cosmetologists $32,740 19%
Medical assistants $36,930 18%

In-Demand Trade School Jobs in Healthcare

Since the start of the pandemic, the world has been focused on public health. When you think about jobs in healthcare and medicine, you might automatically think about doctors. However, the field of health care relies on roles that require varying levels of education and professional training.

These occupations require a credential from a technical or vocational training program, and they're all growing faster than the rest of the job market:

Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses (LPN/LVN)

You can become an LPN or LVN as a stepping stone to a career as a registered nurse or advanced nurse practitioner. These roles are growing more than twice as fast as other occupations.

Surgical Technologists

With just a certificate or diploma, you can work in the operating room, assisting surgical teams and sterilizing equipment to prevent infection.

Nursing Assistants

Becoming a nursing assistant can help you break into a career in nursing in one to three months. Plus, the federal government subsidizes the cost of some training programs.

Where Can I Get Vocational Training or Technical Education?

Trade programs are available through a variety of outlets at the state and local levels. Some employers also offer programs. The U.S. 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 one- to two-year institutions offer an array of academic credentials such as associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates in different vocational tracks.

Vocational, Technical, and Trade Schools

Vocational schools are traditionally government recognized and supported, and provide a range of training programs lasting between a few months to two years.

Career Colleges

Typically operated by for-profit institutions, career colleges offer a variety of training programs you can complete within a year.

Four-Year Universities

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

Job Corps

Administered by the U.S. 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

Each military branch offers its own vocational training programs, like the Army Credentialing Opportunities On-Line program (Army COOL).

Pros and Cons of Vocational Training Programs and Technical Education

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.

At the same time, bachelor's and other degree programs offer many benefits to prospective students. So, take time to analyze 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 BLS' 20 fastest-growing jobs list, 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 BLS found that earnings increase and unemployment decreases for every step up the degree ladder. In 2020, individuals with an associate degree earned 20% more than those with a high school diploma, and their unemployment rates were about two percentage points lower.

  • Direct entry to workforce: You can typically complete vocational training in less than a year. A bachelor's degree can take four years or more in a full-time program, meaning you're out of the workforce for longer.


  • Degree perceotion: Even though 85% of business leaders surveyed in a recent Best Colleges poll said that different educational pathways offer a viable alternative to college, less than 60% of them believe their industry views such alternatives favorably.

  • Flexibility to change career fields: Because vocational training is career-specific, graduates from these programs may find it more difficult to pivot into different industries than those who completed a bachelor's degree, which covers more general skills.

  • Earning power: While vocational degrees improve overall earning potential compared to high school degrees, four-year degrees can help you earn even more — 67% more than a high school diploma.

Should I Go to Trade School?

No matter your background or previous education, vocational and technical education programs can fast-track you into a new career. In particular, this path might be for you if you fit one of the profiles below:

Let's say after graduating from high school, you began working as a personal care aide. But now you're realizing that getting a credential boosts your prospects of landing a higher-paying job in health care.

You might consider completing a nine-month certificate program to start working as a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Later on, you could complete a year-long LPN-to-RN (registered nurse) bridge program and increase your income even more.

Maybe you've been in your current career for twenty years or more. You're not ready to retire, but you're growing tired of the daily stress associated with your current job. You want to do something more aligned with your passion for fitness and well-being.

You could become a personal trainer by completing an accredited training program and passing an exam. Then, you could continue to earn income while doing something you love.

Are you the perpetual DIY-er? Or someone who's always excelled at solving problems with their hands and easily bored by office culture? Many essential occupations rely on these specialized traits — for example, plumbers, welders, and electricians.

Frequently, these jobs require a combination of apprenticeship and certification or licensing. And they offer opportunities to work for yourself as an independent contractor or small-business owner.

Maybe you never fully pursued a career or college education because you're still searching for what you want to do in life. Many certificate and diploma programs allow you to dip your foot into a career path without having to invest the time or money that a four-year degree takes.

Becoming an EMT or nursing assistant takes just a couple of months. Even longer certificate programs, like training to become an HVAC technician or a pharmacy technician, can take as little as nine months.

What Makes a Good Trade School or Vocational Program

Your choice of training and education can have a major impact on your future career success. You'll want to make an informed decision about the type of program to pursue.

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 in a vocational education program

Admission and Completion Rates

To gain a holistic understanding of a potential school's level of success, you should research both admission and completion rates. Low admission rates indicate the program is selective, while high graduation rates indicate that many students successfully complete 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. Also, make sure to find out about payment structure and when tuition and fees are due.

Admission Requirements

Because the admissions process differs for every program and school, you 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

Murky 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.

Poor Resources for Vocational Training

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.

Limited Instructor Qualifications

Ask 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, check with both the Better Business Bureau and your state's Attorney General to ensure there are no complaints filed against the institution or school.

Become Team
Become Team
Contributing Writer

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