The Ultimate Guide to TRADE & VOCATIONAL SCHOOLS Exploring the Advantages and Opportunities in Career-focused Education


Today’s economy demands a skilled, trained, and educated workforce and completing post-secondary degree or certificate programs has become a prerequisite for an increasing number of occupations. In fact, research from the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projected that by 2018, nearly two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some type of postsecondary education. With that in mind, in his 2009 State of the Union Address, President Obama issued a challenge to every American–commit to completing at least one year of post-secondary education or training.

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Vocational and trade schools vary in the types of education and training offered. To find the school near you that best fits your specific educational and career needs, use the search tool below.


College of Charleston

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Vocational Trade Schools Learning Center

Exploring Vocational Programs

Vocational and career-oriented schools offer a specialized education for students who have specific career goal. Unlike community colleges and more general education avenues, students are able to focus solely on their career choice and receive training in the field.

What are Vocational and Trade Schools?

As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, career schools are also known as vocational, trade, or technical schools. These institutions may be non-profit or for-profit, public or private, and generally offer career-focused training programs that are two years or less. However, there is a slight difference between the curriculum of technical and vocational schools. Technical schools focus on a broader academic approach, teaching students about the principles of the field of study. Vocational schools often concentrate more on practical, hands-on skill building for specific occupational fields.

Beyond special vocational and technical colleges, students may also access career and technical education (CTE) at other institutions, such as the following:

  • Community colleges (two-year, public colleges)
  • Private two-year colleges
  • Public and private four-year universities
  • Regional training centers
  • Adult workforce education centers
  • Industry groups

CTE provides students with access to both occupational and non-occupational instruction in a variety of subjects and areas of interest. As sub-baccalaureate programs of study, CTE allows students to earn a certificate, credential, diploma, or complete coursework in preparation for a licensing examination. Although some CTE programs allow students to transition into an associate or bachelor’s degree, most CTE programs are terminal and, therefore, do not include transferable credits.

Instructional programs that highlight academic education (liberal arts, English, mathematics, physical sciences, performing arts, social sciences, humanities, behavioral sciences) are deemed not to be CTE in nature. Generally speaking, CTE teaches students specialized skills to pursue specific careers fields and is divided into 16 career clusters.

  • 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

Is Vocational School Right for You? High School Assessment

Today’s high school students have a variety of post-secondary options available. While traditional 2- and 4-year colleges may seem the most popular choice, many students are taking a more trade-focused route. Vocational and trade schools allow students to enter a hands-on career field in as little as 12 months (sometimes sooner). The following quiz can help new high school graduates determine if vocational school is right for them.

  • 1.Are you a recent high school graduate who is eager to get started in a career?
  • 2. Do you have a specific vocation or job in mind?
  • 3. Are you interested in liberal arts, English, mathematics, physical sciences, performing arts, social sciences, humanities or behavioral sciences?
  • 4.Do you need to finish your degree in two years or less?
  • 5.Does your career choice require hands-on, technical experience?

Vocational & Trade School In-Depth

Before enrolling in a vocational or trade school program, it’s important to learn the details, including the potential salary for your desired industry, who offers programs, and the pros and cons you might encounter along the way. See what many of today’s vocational programs have in store for future students.

Projected Job Openings

Prospective students have multiple educational pathways to consider when thinking about enrolling in a vocational training program. Some of the fastest growing industries in the country include numerous occupations requiring a vocational education for employment. In fact, the ten industries projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to experience the largest employment gains between 2012 and 2022 are all vocational in nature.



Projected Job Openings


Home health care services


Individual and family services


Outpatient, laboratory, and other ambulatory care services


Management, scientific, and technical consulting services


Computer systems design and related services


Cement and concrete product manufacturing


Office administrative services


Offices of health practitioners


Veneer, plywood, and engineered wood product manufacturing


Facilities support services

Percentage of Associate Degrees July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012

Vocational School vs. Four-Year College

Vocational School Four-Year College
Degree Types Diploma, Certificate, Associate, Vocational Courses Associate, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorate, Post-Baccalaureate Certificate
Curricula Focus Vocational & Technical Training, Clinical & Professional Experience Academic, General Education, Liberal Arts & Sciences
Length of Program 3 – 24 months 2 – 8+ years
Demographics Non-Traditional, Older, Returning Students Typically 18 – 24 year olds
Admissions Requirements High School Diploma or GED, Course Prerequisites, GPA Requirements High School Diploma or GED, Standardized Test Scores, Minimum GPA Requirements, Letters of Recommendation, Admissions Essay

Pros & Cons

During the past three decades, vocational education has become a respected approach for career preparation, providing students the opportunity to study and learn in context–that is, develop skills specific to an occupational field. As policymakers and educators alike focus on the commitment to building a qualified and skilled workforce, the importance of vocational education as a quality pathway to career success will only increase. However, prior to enrolling in any vocational program, prospective students should examine both the positives and potential drawbacks to completing an occupational degree, credential, certificate, or diploma.

Increased Market Competitiveness.

Vocational education is directly aligned with a graduate’s market competitiveness as it prepares them for a specific occupation or specialized vocation.

Improved Career Opportunities.

Salary data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) both reveal one important point: Education pays. In 2013, individuals with an associate degree earned 19.3 percent more per week than those with only a high school diploma. And, individuals with an associate degree have unemployment rates of approximately 5.4 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for those with a high school diploma.

Shorter Programs.

Bachelor’s degrees typically require at least four years of full-time study to complete, while vocational programs can generally be finished between three to 24 months of study, depending on the subject matter and specific program.


Although a important and growing part of the education sector–and workforce–vocational programs still deal with a general stigma, with some viewing them as lesser options than four-year academic programs offered at universities.

Limited Career Flexibility.

Because of their career-specific nature, many vocational programs can actually limit career flexibility in two ways: 1) they do not transfer to future four-year academic programs and 2) they may not be accepted as an educational requirement for employment in advanced related fields, like an academic degree.

Lower Average Salaries.

Although a vocational education can lead to better earning potential, individuals with associate degrees still earn less than those with a bachelor’s degree (31.2 percent less). In 2013, the average salary of an individual with an associate degree was $35,720.

Before Enrolling

  • Success rate.

    The success of an institution’s students is a direct reflection of its quality. Prospective students should get an understanding of the following three statistics: admission rate, graduation rate, and job placement rate. High admission rates may indicate the program is not competitive, while low graduation rates may mean instruction is low quality. And, low job placement rates may reveal the institution does not properly prepare graduates for career success.

  • Program cost.

    For many students, the top priority is the program cost. However, cost is not solely determined by tuition alone. Are there technology or lab fees? Do students need to pay for additional equipment or software? What are the average book costs? Getting a sense of the total cost of attendance can help prospective students make a practical decision regarding their educational investment.

  • Accreditation.

    Generally speaking, accreditation is a vital–but often overlooked–factor of the review phase. Accreditation means the college or institute has invested time and effort to meet quality, success, and educational guidelines set forth by accrediting agencies. Secondly, many certification and licensing agencies for specific professional areas of practice (e.g. diagnostic medical sonography, medical coding, etc.) require students to graduate from an accredited program of study. While the Department of Education does not accredit programs directly, it does maintain a list of approved accrediting bodies for post-secondary institutions and programs. Students can review the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs for more information.

  • Admission requirements.

    Not every institution or vocational program requires the same admissions materials or requirements. Before enrolling, students should ask about the program’s admissions process. Does the program require a high school diploma or GED? Do students need professional experience in the field to be admitted? Are standardized testing scores necessary?

  • Instructor Background.

    The success of any program hinges on the quality of the faculty and instructional staff. For the particular area of study (e.g. medical assisting), students should review the academic background and professional experience of the faculty. Do they have training and degrees in that field of practice? What certifications do they possess? How long have they worked in that specialty?

Quick Facts

Individuals with a vocational associate degree or certificate earns between $4,000 and $19,000 more than those with a liberal arts/humanities degree Source: Association for Career & Technical Education
More than 1.3 million vocational degrees, diplomas, and certificates were awarded in 2013Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Half of all STEM job openings are open to graduates with less than a bachelor’s degreeSource: The Brookings Institution

FAQs: Interview with Sean Lynch, Legislative and Public Affairs Manager

Sean Lynch is the Legislative and Public Affairs Manager for the Association for Career and Technical Education located in Alexandria, Virginia. He shared his thoughts on CTE, trends in vocational education, and why vocational education is a valid and beneficial form of post-secondary training.

What is the role of ACTE and why is it important for prospective students to know about/connect with ACTE?

ACTE is the largest national nonprofit association dedicated to CTE professionals, including educators, administrators, career and guidance counselors and others connected to the CTE community. Our role is to advance education that will prepare students of all ages for success in their careers, including through advocating for effective federal policy, building public awareness and sharing best practices and resources with professionals in the field.

Could you describe the current trends in vocational education?

One thing that we are seeing increasingly is engagement among the employer community with CTE programs, because they recognize that these are a critical part of their efforts to bridge the skills gap. According to the Manpower Group Talent Shortage Survey published in 2014, 25 percent of employers stated that the reason they could not fill existing job openings is a lack of applicants with necessary workplace competencies–things like teamwork, critical thinking, and creative problem solving. As employers are realizing that CTE programs can teach technical skills (which were also cited as a challenge among applicants) relevant to 21st century careers and these employability skills that are in high-demand, I think we’re seeing a trend toward stronger partnerships forming across these two communities.

Vocational education seems to have a somewhat negative connotation, e.g. that it is only for working-class kids and adults. Is that necessarily the case?

I’m glad this question got raised, because it is an important one. When many people hear about career and technical education (or Vocational Education), they often envision a dirty facility in the back of the school. CTE programs have made enormous strides to ensure relevancy and earn their place as a component of every student’s education, regardless of their background. CTE engages students and gets them excited about learning, helps them apply their academics in a hands-on way and lets them explore their potential career interests so they can have a meaningful discussion with their parents and counselors about what postsecondary plans make the most sense for their chosen career field–whether that’s a two- or four-year degree, other credential or entering the workforce.

What are the general benefits of a CTE education?

CTE provides a really unique way for students to apply their academic curriculum in a context of their career goal–so a student who might struggle to conceptualize the slope of a line may find it easier when that’s the pitch of a roof. It engages students with relevant, real-world learning opportunities, which 81 percent of dropouts report would have kept them in high school. And it helps students to have productive dialogues with their families and career and guidance counselors about where they are going in their career path and what steps they need to take to get there–about 6 out of 10 students in CTE programs report that they intend to continue on in that career field, and the others are still gaining technical and employability training and readying themselves for their future.

Do you have any advice for prospective students considering a CTE/vocational education?

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of working with career and guidance counselors to make a plan for your education that includes CTE, no matter what your postsecondary plans are–there has been a great emphasis on spreading the message that CTE is for all students, and we’re seeing a stronger understanding of how it can fit into every educational experience.

In light of the White House’s push for greater access to post-secondary education, how do you/ACTE feel CTE and vocational education fit into the mix of options?

I think the White House’s efforts are really getting at the need to overcome the skills gap, particularly in a lot of high-growth, critical industries that are instrumental in ensuring our continued economic growth and competitiveness. We’ve all heard the statistics about this–that middle skill careers are growing and a significant part of the economy. And it’s critical that we prepare students today for the 55 million jobs that will be created by 2020–including the 30 percent of those that are going to require some college education or a two-year degree.