A Complete Guide to Trade and Career School

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Trade and Career School

If you’re in the process of deciding where to go to school, then you have a wide variety of options. This article will discuss in detail the path of trade & career schools and why you might consider one over a traditional university or community college.  

As traditional college becomes more expensive, trade school programs are an option many people are considering. Understanding the different types of trade schools is crucial since they are a more specialized education than most colleges.

The benefit of trade schools is a quicker path to the workforce with less expense. Many of these jobs are high paying and can leave people in a better financial position because you can graduate faster with less debt. The drawback is you need to be confident in the career path you are choosing. Because, unlike university, a trade school is not going to give you the flexibility to explore other degrees and easily change direction.

Table of Contents

Finding a Trade School

Finding a trade school is a little different than identifying the best 4-year colleges. That’s because most trade schools don’t offer on-campus living, and therefore, location is more important to most applicants. The good news is that many great trade schools can be found within driving distance of most people’s homes.

Who is the Ideal Candidate

With so many types of trade school out there, there are many optimal candidates. But those often fit into a few higher level groupings.

  • High School Graduate Who Doesn’t Like School – If you are a high school graduate who has never taken well to a classroom, consider a trade school program instead. While this is an educational atmosphere, trade schools are often much more hands-on rather than class oriented. Remember, it is critical to continue education after high school to get job-specific skills. More importantly, remember you have options when it comes to how you get that education.
  • Mid-Life Career Changer – One of the problems many people face today is getting a degree, starting a job in that field, and realizing it’s not for them. Often a person feels trapped because they need the paycheck and can’t afford to go back to school to start a new career. A trade school doesn’t solve all of these problems, but it can get you re-trained and into a new profession more quickly. If you are looking for something new after starting a career in a different field, then this type of school should be considered.
  • Undecided with Financial Restrictions – Many uncertain people, especially recent high school graduates, will by default decide on a traditional college. This can work well for some as college can give you the breadth of curriculum needed to find the right career path. But it also can be a bad decision for those who end up going to school for a couple of years only to drop out. This can leave a student with massive debt, yet no degree or job prospects to help pay that debt back. If you are having doubts about college, consider a trade school that can transfer credits to a college. It’s a much lower risk way of getting your feet wet after graduating.


At a very high level, you will find trade schools to be more focused. You’ll study in one specific area with a very clear set of jobs in mind when you graduate.

On the other hand, with a 4-year university, you will likely start out with a broad curriculum. Over time you will be asked to hone in on an area of study and graduate with a specific degree. That degree may be more flexible in the job market.

1. Less Time

One of the biggest commitments to get any kind of degree or certificate is the time it takes in school.

We all know some people who loved school, and others who can’t stand it. If you are one of the latter, then there is no question you should consider a trade school vs college.

Most trade schools are going to take close to 2-years to complete, especially those with the highest demand. Some might only take you 1-year to as a little as a few weeks. But keep in mind those shorter programs aren’t going to leave you with the same earnings potential.

Still, even some of the shorter trade school jobs can kickstart your move into high growth industries like medical and technology.

2. Costs Less Money

When it comes down to it, the cost of a trade school compared to college is about one-third. That’s significant when you consider the average student loan debt is over $32,000 for college. On the other hand, that debt drops to around $10,000 for a trade school.

The overall Return on Investment is very dependent on how much you earn after graduation. While the average income out of college is still higher, it’s also more variable.

Job opportunities and earnings potential are more have greater certainty coming out of trade school programs.

This is why we see many college graduates struggling. They did not understand the job market compared to the cost of the degree.

3. Focused Training

One of the best arguments for a traditional college is a broader curriculum. It gives someone whose uncertain about their path a chance to explore different things before deciding on a path.

But if you don’t have that uncertainty, then you should try to find a trade school that offers what you are looking for.

It’s hard to find someone who went to college who won’t scratch their head about a few of their freshman and sophomore year requirements. And whether you see the value or not, those classes aren’t free.

Trade schools aren’t going to spend your time and money on these courses. You will get down to business learning about that specific trade and what it takes to succeed.

For someone who’s already certain what they want to be, you can save both time and money by going the trade school route.

4. Good for Career Change

This isn’t to say you should choose a trade school just because of your age. If you’re making a career change you should consider all options to makes sure it leads to the most fulfilling career.

That said, many people might not be thrilled at the idea of 4 years in college in mid-life. That’s where trade schools can offer major advantages.

The risk of going back to school at this age just to find out you don’t like the choice can be scary.

The focused training programs should give you a better feel in a short period of time for the industry. That combined with the lower cost, equals lower risks for someone to make a change later in life.

5. Close to Home

Many colleges are not local to the students who want to attend. In fact, that’s probably the reason many make the decision to go to a certain school. To get out and experience the world away from home.

But if you find yourself swinging in the opposite direction, trade schools can keep you closer to home. Not only are trade schools are often tucked into local communities, but you will also find many of these programs at community colleges.

That leaves you a lot of options to get training without the added burden of moving to a college campus. And it also has the obvious benefit of eliminating the housing costs for young students who may still live at home.

6. Hands-on Learning

Most trade schools are going to be more hands-on than a traditional college. Much of that is just the nature of the work and what you need to learn.

Becoming a nurse for instance requires time in a clinical setting, whereas a business degree may not.

That’s not to say that one is better than the other. But when you consider a trade school vs college, you also have to think about how you learn best.

Just like with people who prefer a multiple-choice over a written exam, some people thrive in a hands-on world.

7. Low Unemployment Rate

The skilled trades industries in general have had supply and demand problems since the ’80s and ’90s. As more students felt the pressure to enter college, it left a noticeable shortage in the trades.

With industries like manufacturing, infrastructure, and transportation on the rise there is a growing need for these degrees. And because of the continued misperception of trade schools as a less valuable degree, it leaves great opportunities for graduates.

Not only is there job opportunity, but the salaries can compete with an oftentimes beat that of some common bachelor degree programs.

8. Transfer credits

It’s not true of all trade school programs, but some have agreements with colleges that allow some credits to transfer. So, if you want to get started in a trade school but later decide having an associate or bachelor degree is your end goal, your classwork still has value.

9. Many Career Options

As we mentioned above, there are entire industries that a primed to need more trade school graduates. That goes across medical, technology, manufacturing, construction, energy, and many others.

The word trade school has often been thought of as just skilled trades like carpentry and electricians. But when we talk about it today we’re looking at any school that trains you for a particular profession in 2 years or less.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics tracks more than 300 jobs considered to be in the technical and trades categories. Not only is there a large variety, but average salaries can be in the six figures depending on the career.


1. Earnings Potential

After graduating from these trade schools, you can earn a competitive wage. But you should be aware that the higher end pay for trade school graduates is typically lower than that of a bachelor degree. Depending on what job you do, that could result in lower overall earnings throughout your life. Do the cost/benefit analysis for each school type, and make sure to factor in your passion for the subject. Make your decision after carefully considering all aspects.

2. Narrow Curriculum

One of the reasons it takes less time for a trade school program is that the area of study is focused. In traditional college, the curriculum is much broader and more well-rounded. This gives a student more flexibility to see what they may like outside of a particular area of study. Therefore, you will often see college students change their major once or twice before graduating. If you are positive about your passion for a specific topic, trade school is a good option. If you want more flexibility, consider a community or traditional college.

What to Look for in a Trade School

Most trade schools are reputable, but as with all businesses, some are not, so you want to be on the look-out. Being a part of our list is the first step in ensuring a school is legitimate, but there are the other things you should consider before committing.

Also, try to understand the average debt and ability to pay that debt back based on projected future earnings. This can be a good indicator of whether the school is a good investment. Look at the details of a particular school on our site and you will find the average annual salary ten years post-graduation. That’s a good data point to see if a degree is worth the cost.

Programs – Your first job is to determine if the school has the right program. There are lots of options out there in the popular trades, so make sure to shop around. Not all schools programs are created equal, and you want to know what you’re getting. This is a job that’s easier to do if you have access to people already working in the industry. Talk to as many people as you can that do the job you want to do, and see what trade schools they attended.

Completion Rate – This is a great metric to help you understand the quality of attendees and the school itself. Trade schools with high completion rates typically have high performing students and have excellent instructors. Make sure you have first validated the school is well respected in the industry. If not, the program might just be cranking out certificates but not holding students to any standards of quality. Industries in which those trade schools operate are quick to sniff out those operations.

Job Placement – If the completion rate is high, along with job placement, you can start to feel confident. Again, don’t necessarily take the schools word for it. Do your best to find actual graduates or current attendees who can tell you their experience with finding jobs. After all, this is one of the most critical factors in your ability to get payback on the investment you make.

Salary Levels – How much you will earn is another large piece of the payback equation. As you talk with recent graduates, try to get a feel for what their earnings potential is, and if they have had any trouble paying student loans or other debts incurred for school.

Facilities – You need to take a tour of the trade school facilities to evaluate its quality. Most of these trade schools are privately run, and the level of investment in facilities can vary greatly. Pay special attention to the quality of equipment, and any other tools applicable to the trade. Take pictures if necessary and talk to people already in the trade to evaluate if the school has up to date equipment.

Also, pay attention to classrooms and any other facility related quality issues. Ideally, you will see modern facilities with a decent amount of investment put into them.

Staff/Instructors – The best way to get an idea of instructor quality is to sit in on some classes you will be attending. Couple that with an understanding of the instructor’s credentials, and you should have a good idea of quality. If you can, speak directly with other students and get an idea of how satisfied they are with the instructors.

Direct Student Feedback – Not only do you want feedback on instructors but the overall experience. Talk to as many current and former students as possible. Current students can give you a good idea of the overall vibe and quality of the program. Former students are critical for understanding the level of success you might achieve after graduation. If both groups have positive things to say, that’s a significant credit to the trade school.

Location – Be smart about the location and don’t over commit to a long commute. Having too far a distance to travel can result in missed classes and overall difficulty completing school. If the perfect school has been identified but is a long distance away, consider relocating for the short-term while you attend. It can be well worth it if that means you successfully get through school without the stress of long commutes every day.

If eliminating commutes is not possible, which is sometimes the reality, be realistic about the commitment. People commute long distances every day for work and school but go in with the knowledge of the commitment you will need.

Cost– While trade schools are typically a more economical choice, you do need to look at the overall cost of attendance. Make sure you understand the frequency of payments and any fees that might apply above standard tuition. This includes books, equipment, uniforms, and any other miscellaneous costs.

The costs of trade school vary dramatically between the types and location of the school. For instance, the price of a beauty school can run between $5,000 and $20,000, and that’s all within one trade.

That is why it’s critical for you to understand what your likely earnings potential is after getting a certificate. If you are going to a top school that gives you excellent earnings potential, it may be worth the extra cost. On the other hand, if there is little difference in earnings regardless of the school, then it might be more sensible to go with the lower cost school.

Types of Trade Schools


One of the fastest growing industries out there is the medical industry. That’s why it makes sense the medical profession has the most different types of trade school programs.

As we see the Baby Boomers continue to retire by the thousands, the market for medical care will increase dramatically. 10,000 Boomers turn 65 every day, and that number will continue for years to come.

Some of these jobs will require full-fledged college degrees, but many do not. Many of these trade school programs will also have you earning competitive wages right out of school.

  1.  Nursing
  2. Dental Assistant
  3. Dental Hygienist
  4. Emergency Medical Services
  5. Healthcare Administration
  6. Lab Tech
  7. Medical Assistant
  8. Pharmacy Tech
  9. Radiology Tech
  10. Medical Billing
  11. Medical Coding
  12. Social Work
  13. Physical Therapist Assistant
  14. Occupational Therapy Assistant
  15. Veterinary Technology


Manufacturing is difficult in today’s world when many of those industries are under pressure from lower-cost regions of the world. That’s why it’s necessary to have more training if you intend to pursue this career.

You will find anything from advanced manufacturing and robotics to more traditional skills like welding. All these types of trade school have a place in the future of manufacturing. They also present you with the opportunity to earn a substantial wage after 12-24 months of school.

  1. Automation and Robotics
  2. Advanced Manufacturing
  3. Drafting and Design Engineering
  4. Machinist
  5. Operator
  6. Welding
  7. Electro-Mechanical
  8. Industrial Electricity


Many of these types of trade schools are what people typically think of when we talk about trade programs. Not only do these have good-paying jobs waiting for graduates, but many areas of the country also have shortages.

After the housing market collapse in 2008 and the great recession during the same period, many workers in these trades left the field. Unfortunately, our younger generations have not been entering these jobs as quickly, leaving a gap.

You can take advantage of the low supply and high demand as the housing market rebounds by checking out these trade schools.

  1. Electrician
  2. HVAC
  3. Mechanics
  4. Carpentry
  5. Plumbing
  6. Welding
  7. Civil Engineering
  8. Heavy Equipment Operation


If you are one of those who likes the fast lane, then maybe a transportation trade school program is for you. There are many options out there from automobile to aviation. In a transportation trade school, you may learn how to fix pieces of the car or plane. These include exterior, interior, and technological parts of these transportation based machines.

  1. Automotive Collision
  2. Automotive Technology
  3. Aviation Maintenance
  4. Fixed Wing Pilot
  5. Aviation Electronics
  6. Diesel Technology
  7. Powersports Technology


The utility industry is another classic industry with many different types of trades. There are thousands of utility companies around the country, all needing specialized people to do many jobs.

Many of these jobs come with a high level of responsibility, and excellent pay as a result. If you are interested in power generation, whether electrical or nuclear, this might be a trade for you. Here are some of the most popular programs.

  1. Electric Power Generation
  2. Utility/Lineman Technician
  3. Nuclear Instrumentation
  4. Nuclear Reactor Operations
  5. Nuclear Radiation Protection

Business and Technology

These trade schools are great for getting specialized training in an area of business or technology.  Many traditional colleges will give a much broader education in these areas. But if you know all you want to do is build apps or design web pages, then a trade school program is a much faster path.

You don’t need four or five years of college to learn how to do many of these things. And beyond a year or two of school, much of what you need is learned on the job.

Many of these jobs, such as web development and graphic design, are very well suited for freelance work. Visit sites like Upwork or Fiverr, and you will see the very high demand for these skills. Get yourself situated as a freelancer, and you may be able to earn a good living working from home.

  1. Computer Science
  2. Web Development
  3. Coding
  4. Computer App Design
  5. Graphic Design
  6. Networking and Cyber Security

Other types of Trade Schools

Some types of trade schools don’t fit into a broader category, yet deserve to be recognized. The trade schools listed below are some of the more popular out there today.

  1. Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)
  2. Massage
  3. Culinary
  4. Cosmetology Trade Schools

How to Apply for Trade School

Applying for trade school is typically much easier than for a traditional college. Often you will only need to fill out an online application, and submit that with other supporting documentation.

Depending on the trade school, various levels of education may be required to apply. Specialized schools may require an associate’s degree or other types of previous schooling. Most trade schools will consider applicants if they have a high school degree.

After applying, you may be required to take an initial exam to test essential skills. Again, this depends entirely on the school and may be more difficult for more specialized schools.

The Bottom Line

There are a lot of things to think through before you attend a trade school. First and foremost, make sure you genuinely have a passion for that type of work. These schools will give you specific skillsets, and once you have a certificate, your opportunities will be focused in that area.

Once you decide what type of trade school is best, finding a trade school nearby is typically best since most do not offer on-campus living. Make sure you visit whichever trade school you are planning to attend and are comfortable with its facilities, staff, and other things we’ve discussed here.

Lastly, do your best to find people who’ve attended the trade school. There’s no better data point to rely on than actual people’s experience. Find those who are currently attending, as well as those who’ve already graduated. Get a sense of their happiness, and success after attending the trade school.

If you do your homework, and truly enjoy the trade, you have a high likelihood of finding an excellent trade school, and beginning your journey to a new career.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines, or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


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