Vocational & Trade School: Guide to Finding the Best School for You

Vocational Training A Guide to Non-Degree Education

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By 2020, the Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 65 percent of all occupations will require some form of postsecondary training and education. For students disinterested in a traditional four-year degree, vocational education provides the training necessary to become qualified professionals in a variety of trades. This type of learning, also known as career and technical education (CTE), blends academic and technical instruction to prepare graduates 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 career and technical education?

Career and 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 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; in light of growing demand for middle-skill jobs, vocational training offers a practical alternative to traditional postsecondary degrees. Vocational education engages students through contextual learning, and training is focused on building skills specific to an occupation or career field.

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, emphasizing occupational-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 academic and practical experience toward a specific career path, occupation or industry. 55 million jobs are expected to open by 2020 and 30 percent of those will require some college or a two year degree, meaning those who have undertaken career or technical training will be positioned for success.

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. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, vocational careers are projected to grow exponentially across the nation between 2012 and 2022. The table below outlines the top 20 jobs expected to see the largest employment gains during this time span.

Occupation Number Percent
Personal care aides 580,800 48.8%
Home health aides 424,200 48.5%
Diagnostic medical sonographers 27,000 46.0%
Occupational therapy assistants 12,900 42.6%
Dental hygienists 64,200 33.3%
Medical equipment repairers 12,800 30.3%
Medical assistants 162,900 29.0%
Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses 182,900 24.8%
Dental assistants 74,400 24.5%
Emergency medical technicians and paramedics 55,300 23.1%
Nursing assistants 312,200 21.1%
Radiologic technologists 41,500 20.8%
Pharmacy technicians 70,700 19.9%
Electricians 114,700 19.7%
Construction managers 78,200 16.1%
Cosmetologists 83,300 12.6%%
Fitness trainers 33,500 12.5%
Automotive service technicians and mechanics 60,400 8.6%
Chefs 6,000 5.2%%
Correctional officers 22,100 4.9%

When it comes to vocational careers, health care is leading the charge. Eight of the country’s 20 fastest growing occupations are in health care and require a vocational degree. Below is a description of some of the top jobs for prospective students to consider.

Licensed practical nurse

LPNs are vital members of health care teams, providing hands-on patient care under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician. Vocational training typically requires approximately one year of study and prepares graduates for a career in nursing with upward mobility. An in-demand occupation, there were nearly 700,000 LPNs employed nationally in 2014.

Diagnostic medical sonographer

A diagnostic medical sonographer, also known as an ultrasound technician, works under the supervision of a physician and produces internal images of the human body using variety of imaging equipment. Training lasts between 12 to 18 months and students are required to complete between 1,900 and 2,200 practicum hours. A range of specializations are available, including vascular sonography, abdominal sonography, echocardiogram sonography, and musculoskeletal sonography.

Pharmacy technician

Pharmacy technicians work alongside licensed pharmacists, dispensing prescribed medications to patients, processing and labeling medications, measuring and filling prescriptions, providing customer service, and handling administrative duties. An aging population and health care reform are directly responsible for the 70,000 jobs expected to open between 2012 and 2022.


Electricians are tasked with installing, maintaining, and repairing power, lighting, and control systems in residential and commercial properties. An apprenticeship program lasting between four to five years traditionally follows technical training. The improving economy and a growing housing market has bolstered the demand for trained and qualified electricians.

Construction managers

Construction managers, also known as general contractors, oversee construction projects and take them from the planning stage to completion. From collaborating with architects to hiring subcontractors, reviewing coding requirements to handling budget issues, construction managers serve as captains of construction sites. With housing markets steadily growing, an additional 78,000 construction management jobs will become available between 2012 and 2022.

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

30 percent of the estimated 55 million job openings projected between 2010 and 2022 will require some form of postsecondary training. Career specific education offered by vocational schools enable 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 2014, individuals with an associate degree earned nearly 20 percent more than those with a high school diploma and their unemployment rates were 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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