What Is Vocational Training? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Jul. 13, 2021

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Student loan debt reached an astonishing $1.56 trillion in 2020.

Although university education remains a great way for most professionals to achieve lifelong income stability, many are realizing that it isn’t the only path available.

Depending on your situation, alternative options such as vocational training may be the perfect tool to help you reach your career goals.

In this article, we’ll explain what vocational training is and how it differs from a traditional university education. You’ll also learn the important factors to consider before choosing one path over the other.

What Is Vocational Training?

Also called a trade school, vocational training refers to courses and programs that provide students with the hands-on training required to work in specific careers.

The term vocational training tends to bring to mind jobs such as welding, plumbing, and automotive services.

However, trade schools cover a wide scope of other well-paying, satisfying jobs, such as:

Vocational schools’ main purpose is to help students acquire the practical skills and certifications necessary to begin working and generating income as quickly as possible.

This can give candidates an edge during job searches, as their hands-on experience makes them stand out among competitors who often only have theoretical knowledge.

How Can I Receive Vocational Training?

You can receive vocational training through a variety of sources, including:

  • High school classes. Some high schools offer Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses that combine typical academic study with hands-on work experience.

    These are often introductory courses that familiarize students with a certain industry rather than providing career-specific training.

    For example, a course might provide practical experience for general Information Technology (IT) concepts rather than a specific job in the field, such as a database administrator.

  • Tech Prep programs. Tech Prep programs bridge the gap between secondary and post-secondary education. They aim to integrate what you learn in the classroom directly with hands-on experience to develop valuable workplace skills and providing focus for a career path.

    This school-to-work transition strategy usually begins in a high school student’s junior year and precedes for two years after graduating high school. The result is a smooth transition from high school to post-secondary education. Students walk away from these programs with either an associate degree or certificate.

  • Post-secondary education. Post-secondary vocational schooling is when students start delving into a specific career.

    This can come in the form of:

    1. Community-college programs. Most community colleges will offer a variety of vocational programs.

      These are often taught in the cooperative training format, in which you’ll simultaneously attend classes while working in the job you’re studying for.

    2. Standalone courses. Both community colleges and trade schools sometimes offer single courses for a specific career-related area.

      You typically won’t earn any of the degrees or certifications from a full vocational program, but you’ll at least earn credits that you can transfer into one of those programs.

    3. Diploma/Certificate vocational education programs. Vocational education programs will reward you with a diploma after you complete a short series of courses.

      These can vary in length, from six months to two years.

      In addition to their lengths, diploma/certificate vocational education programs differ from traditional undergraduate programs in that they don’t typically require any general prerequisite courses, such as math and history.

      A few examples of such vocational programs include:

      • Certificate in Automotive Service Technology

      • Diploma in Information Technology

      • Certificate in Electrical Consumption

      Postsecondary vocational schools, or trade schools, often focus on a specific industry or even career. There are trade schools for everything from culinary arts to criminal justice, so research what options exist in your area.

    4. Associate-level programs. These are just the associate programs at traditional colleges that you’re likely already aware of.

      Degrees such as an Associate’s Degree in Nursing are often considered vocational-education since they offer hands-on training.

      You can also become a physical therapist assistant, which is the fastest-growing career in states such as Arkansas.

      Unlike diploma vocational education programs, associate degrees usually always take two years to complete. You’ll also have to meet general education requirements.

    5. Apprenticeships. You may be able to find apprenticeship programs depending on your trade of choice.

      While you’ll typically still take a few academic courses, the main focus of your apprenticeship will be working in your job of interest under the supervision of a seasoned professional.

      Not only will you complete your apprenticeship with the skills and certifications necessary to start a career immediately, but you’ll be paid for your work throughout the program.

      Apprenticeship programs typically last four or five years, depending on the industry.

The Differences Between Vocational Education and University Education

Choosing to pursue vocational education versus a university is a momentous decision in any individual’s life, so it’s critical to understand how they differ.

Of course, the numbers and pictures that we paint here won’t be the full story. There is a never-ending debate, research, and analysis over how one educational path differs from the other.

Our focus will be to give you the baseline averages and quick analysis to help guide you in your own further research.

Let’s now examine how the two options stack up in terms of:

  • Salary. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, trade school graduates earned a median annual salary of $35,720 in 2019.

    According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, that figure was $46,900 for bachelor’s degree earners during the same year.

    On paper, this is a yearly difference of $11,180 in favor of bachelor’s degrees.

    However, there are a few factors that complicate these calculations in both directions:

    1. Variance. The most obvious factor is these are only median figures. Some trade jobs earn much more than your usual college graduate job, and some earn much less.

      You should definitely look up the averages for whatever field you’re interested in to get a clearer picture.

      Medical fields rank among the highest paying jobs across much of the country, and you’ll absolutely need to pursue a traditional college degree to become a nurse practitioner or physician.

      On the other hand, many IT jobs can be obtained through vocational training. Computer and information systems managers are among the highest paying jobs in many parts of the country.

    2. Job growth. College graduates typically experience much higher and more rapid income growth over the course of their career than their vocational counterparts.

      A professional who holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Science, for example, can expect to increase their salary by up to 20% each time they switch jobs.

      However, there are many exceptions.

      Electrical assemblers are the fastest-growing job in Nevada.

      Many trade jobs, such as industrial mechanics and drillers, rank among the top growing careers in Mississippi.

      Careers related to clean energy are also expected to experience massive growth within the next decades. Many of these are vocational jobs, such as wind turbine technicians, solar panel installers, and energy retrofitters.

    3. Time spent. Vocational students may earn less money than college graduates, but they also start doing so much quicker.

      A bachelor’s degree will almost always take you at least four years. However, some vocational programs can earn you a well-paying job in as little as six months.

    4. Conflicting research. Some studies argue that the salary difference between college and vocational program graduates is mainly due to the type of students who choose either path.

      It’s an exaggerated and unfair reputation that some trade school students only pick vocational training because no universities granted them admission.

      Some studies show that graduates of both types may actually earn almost the same median salaries.

  • Price of education. The average bachelor’s degree costs almost $130,000 over the course of the program, compared with the $33,000 you’d spend at a typical trade school.

    That difference of nearly $100,000 is further boosted because many students fully finance their debt. The larger principal of a college loan and its consequently faster-growing interest can easily become unmanageable.

    Trade school is also one of the more expensive ways to receive vocational education. If you choose to do an apprenticeship program, you may even graduate in the net positive rather than with any debts.

    Additionally, many trades are unionized. These unions may offer to pay for your schooling, leaving you with textbooks as the only fee you would have to pay yourself.

    If you’re a veteran, the VA will also pay your entire tuition at any of the country’s GI bill approved trade schools.

  • Job security. This factor is highly dependent on your career of choice.

    Vocational fields are typically less vulnerable to outsourcing, as they demand a physical presence.

    A computer programmer’s job may be outsourced overseas, but welders and field technicians can only be hired locally.

    On the flip side, technological progress is threatening many trade fields. Certain manufacturing and mechanical jobs are being replaced by automation and may not exist in the coming decades.

    As mentioned, many vocational fields are unionized. This provides a variety of job security benefits, such as collective bargaining, disability resources, and legal assistance in the event of a workplace dispute.

How to Decide if Vocational Training Is Right for You

As we’ve shown, there’s no clear winner between choosing to pursue vocational training or the traditional university route.

Regarding the major aspects of salary, price of education, and job security, the answer is “it all depends.”

Well, let’s take a closer look at what factors it all depends on.

When deciding if vocational education is the right option for you, make sure to consider:

  • What career interests you. Once you have an idea of what jobs interest you, it becomes much easier to identify if a college education or trade school would better suit your needs.

    Use resources such as the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics database to find detailed figures regarding how the two paths would affect your salary and expected job growth in your target field.

    Zippia also has excellent tools that allow you to analyze countless aspects of any job that interests you. Simply type one in to see the education required, salary, and demographics.

  • How quickly you want to work. One universal advantage (or disadvantage) offered by vocational training is that you’ll often be able to work within a couple of years at most.

    Many individuals would prefer to finish their education quickly and start earning money immediately.

    Others are more academically focused and consider eventually taking graduate courses to conduct research and teach classes.

  • Your high school grades. The tradeoff of choosing vocational education is much higher for an Ivy League prospect than someone with a low GPA.

  • College life. To some, the social aspect of the university can be just as important as receiving an education.

    During college, many students meet life-long friends, make unforgettable memories, and learn unique lessons.

    There are sports, clubs, beautiful campuses, and many other aspects of traditional college life that individuals who pursue vocational training miss out on.

    Private colleges often have unique cultures that make positive, permanent impacts on their students.

    It’s hard to place a value on these things. Just be sure to give them serious consideration and examine what’s important to you.

Vocational Training FAQ

  1. What is a trade school? A trade school is a broad term referring to a place where vocational or technical education is offered. The goal of trade schools is to prepare students with a mix of theoretical knowledge and hands-on application of that knowledge.

  2. What is the difference between technical and vocational schools? Technical schools focus more on traditional elements of education, meaning you’ll be studying more theory than practice.

    Vocational schools tend to be more focused on preparing students for job-specific skills. Note that some schools blend the technical and vocational approaches, like the Tech Prep programs discussed above.

  3. What vocational fields are growing the fastest? By percentage, wind turbine technicians and solar panel installers are the fastest-growing careers that trade school can prepare people for. However, the total number of these jobs is still quite low.

    Other fast-growing jobs that have much higher job numbers overall include physical therapist aides, medical assistants, industrial machinery mechanics, and psychiatric technicians.

Final Thoughts

Vocational training can offer work-based learning that sets students up for success in skilled trades. Everything from carpentry to cosmetology can fall under the umbrella of vocational training.

Enrolling in a trade school can yield you an advanced certification or an associate degree much more quickly than the standard four-year college route. And if you become an apprentice, you’ll not only walk away with impressive qualifications but also come out ahead financially, rather than in debt.

Choosing an education system that works for you and helps you achieve your career goals is tricky. Speaking to a career counselor about where you’d like to find advancement in today’s labor market can help narrow down your options.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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