Vocational Careers

Becoming Part of a Highly Trained, Educated, & Skilled Workforce

With significant and increasing demand for educated workers in fields such as health care support, vocational—or career and technical education (CTE)–is a vital form of academic, technical, and job preparation training that helps prepare qualified individuals ready to meet that demand. The following guide provides an overview of vocational careers, discusses the varied nature of vocational training and occupations, and provides insight into the earning potential of vocational jobs.

What Does “Vocational” Mean?

The term vocational uniquely describes both a type of education and a type of career. Vocational education, commonly known as career and technical education (CTE) is offered at community colleges, career centers, technical schools and some four-year universities. These programs prepare students to be career ready by focusing on three areas: academic skills, employability skills, and technical, career-specific skills. In turn, vocational careers share the following traits:

  • They are related to a specific trade or field
  • They are non-academic in-nature
  • They include hands-on, practical activities
  • They may require apprenticeships or on-the-job training
  • They typically require a credential, certificate, or diploma

CTE training give novices who can’t afford the price tag of a $200,000 education an equal opportunity at a career from a different entry point

Monique Anair, Assistant Professor, Santa Fe Community College

Vocational Career Paths

Unlike academic-focused career paths that require a two-year or a four-year degree, vocational employment traditionally relies on shorter, job-specific training. Career and technical education programs can generally be completed in two or fewer years—with many lasting less than a year. Although some CTE programs result in an associate degree, most award a certificate, diploma or career-specific credential.

There are sixteen core vocational career clusters, anchored by the health care industry. Each career cluster offers a variety of potential employment paths that can be tailored to meet the academic and professional needs of the prospective student. Learn more about several vocational avenues in health care, law, and the technical/skilled trades.

Health Care Support

Health care support is one of the largest branches of the medical industry, employing nearly 4 million individuals. A diverse occupational field, these support positions are vital to the coordination and delivery of services to patients across the health care spectrum, from psychiatry to nursing, home health to dental care.

Dental Assistant

Dental assisting is a critical factor in providing quality care to patients in dental offices. Dental assistants perform a diverse range of duties, including preparing patients for teeth cleanings, sterilizing dental instruments, taking and processing oral X-rays, and scheduling appointments. It is a rapidly growing field that allows for quick entry after completing an accredited training program and passing a state examination.

Pharmacy Technician

Working under the direction of a licensed pharmacist, pharmacy technicians fill prescription orders and dispense medications to customers at pharmacies in drugstores, retail chains, nursing homes, hospitals, and other medical facilities. In this role, they may label and package medications, provide customer support, and manage pharmaceutical inventory. Pharmacy techs typically complete a one-year vocational certificate program and must pass a certification examination.

Pharmacy Technician Schools & Programs
Legal

An expansive field of practice, the legal services industry offers multiple career avenues both within and outside of the courtroom. While lawyers and judges receive the majority of attention, it is the individuals in support positions that move the wheels of the legal system. Many of these positions are vocational and cover an array of professional areas, such as administrative (bookkeeper, record clerk), courtroom- or law-focused (e.g. legal assistant, bailiff), or operational (e.g. network analyst, operations manager)

Paralegal

Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, work under the supervision of a lawyer. They are responsible for a diversity of legal tasks, but may not handle any responsibilities that fall under the practice of law, such as representing clients in court, providing legal advice, setting legal fees, or accepting new clients. IN their role, paralegals assist lawyers in multiple ways, such as preparing for trial, conducting legal research, drafting legal correspondence, taking affidavits from clients.

Paralegal Schools & Programs
Court Reporter

Court Reporters are specially trained at creating word-for-word transcriptions in legal proceedings from trials to administrative hearings, depositions to conflict resolution sessions. Using specialized equipment, such as stenography machines, court reporters are able to capture and record every spoken word during a proceeding and then prepare verbatim transcripts. A unique field, only 30 percent of the nation’s 50,000 court reporters work inside the courtroom, according to the National Court Reporters Association.

Medical Diagnostic

The medical diagnostic field is central to the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, injuries and diseases. The conventional X-ray has been joined by new imaging innovations, including computed tomography, mammography, molecular imaging, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging.

Radiologic Technologist

Radiologic Technologists are medical personnel who perform diagnostic imaging examinations and manage radiation therapy treatments in patients. They have a multidimensional skill set, educated in human anatomy, imaging equipment, patient care, and examination techniques. They may specialize in an array of areas, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), sonography, radiography or computed tomography.

Radiology Technician Schools & Programs
Ultrasound Technician

Also known as diagnostic medical sonographer, ultrasound technicians use imaging equipment that sends sound waves into a patient’s body, which bounces back in an echo to produce an image. They may specialize in different parts of the body, working in abdominal sonography, musculoskeletal sonography, obstetric sonography and cardiovascular sonography.

Ultrasound Technician Schools & Programs
Medical Office

The explosive growth occurring in the medical industry, driven largely by an aging population requiring additional health services and health care reform, has directly led to an increasing demand for administrative, non-medical, and business support positions. Many of these occupations are vocational in nature, requiring a two-year degree or less for employment.

Medical Assistant

Medical assistants are critical to providing quality patient care in a variety of health care settings. Armed with an interdisciplinary set of skills in clinical care and administration, the duties of a medical assistant can shift from taking a patient’s vital signs one moment to scheduling an appointment the next. They typically work in health practitioner offices under the direct supervision of a physician.

Medical Assistant Schools & Programs
Medical Billing & Coding

Medical billing and coding professionals are experts in the behind-the-scenes system of managing and processing patient data, including patient records and medical insurance information. The primary responsibility of a medical biller or coder is to code a patient’s diagnosis after a medical visit and then request payment from that patient’s insurance company. They are extremely knowledgeable about insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid, and the ICD coding classification used in the industry.

Medical Billing & Coding
Technical

The skilled and technical trades cover an array of professional areas, ranging from automotive repair to manufacturing, information technology to construction. It is an area facing a pressing shortage of qualified workers. The National Association of Manufacturers reports at least 600,000 skilled occupations (e.g. carpenters, electricians) are going unfulfilled and that by 2020, there could be a need for 10 million skilled and technical workers.

Computer User Support Tech

Computer user specialists are experts in computer software and equipment. They provide a range of assistance within an organization, from helping resolve computer issues to installing computer hardware. They assist IT staff with troubleshooting networking and systems problems, set-up computing equipment and devices, and may serve as the front-line support person for customer issues.

Auto Tech & Mechanic

Auto service technicians and mechanics are trained to inspect, identify, and repair mechanical and electrical issues in cars and trucks. They have an understanding of a vehicle’s mechanical components, including transmissions and engines. With today’s sophisticated cars and trucks, they also are experts in computing and electronics systems that control everything from braking to steering systems. Most service technicians and mechanics work either in repair shops or at car dealerships.

CTE isn’t about the degree at the end of the day, but about the experience required to do the job. In many CTE programs there are high stakes. Programs need to turn out quality students to keep their relationships with employers. And if the employers aren’t happy the ecosystem falls apart in CTE programs. As a CTE teacher I am committing to the fact that my students know X, Y and Z when they graduate. The piece of paper is less important to the employer than my personal recommendation on any one student.

Monique Anair, Assistant Professor, Santa Fe Community College

Vocational Earnings & Employment Growth Snapshot

Perhaps surprisingly, vocational careers are some of the fastest growing occupational fields in the country. With increasing demand for skilled, educated workers, the outlook remains bright for individuals that choose the vocational route. Discover the upside of the projected employment growth and earning potential for a few popular vocational careers by using map tool below.

2014 Vocational Wage & Employment Data

Choosing the Best Vocational Career: 5 Considerations

The sheer multitude of vocational career paths makes choosing an occupation somewhat challenging. Before settling on a profession, it is important to consider the type of training required, the type of training provided, and the potential of the field—from job opportunities to salaries. Here are five things to think about before making a decision on a vocation.

  • Program Length

    Unlike four-year degree programs, vocational programs are designed to be completed quickly. That means selecting a vocational career path is distinctly tied to the type of training an individual prefers. Some occupations, such as automotive service technician, has programs that can be completed in as little as a year, while others—such as medical coder—may only require between six and seven months of training.

  • Academic Rigor

    A general stigma remains about vocational education, equating it with a low-level of academic quality and professional preparation. Prior to selecting a career path and training program, prospective students should consider the curriculum of each program, the experience of the instructors, and the quality of hands-on, practical instruction they will receive. In short, will the academic and technical training in the program actually prepare the student to be competitive in the workplace after graduation?

  • Professional Opportunities

    Before choosing any career path, having an understanding of the employment growth and outlook of that field is critical. Is the industry growing as a whole? Are there job opportunities in the local area? Are employers seeking individuals with additional training or certification? If the answer to any of those questions seems to be no, then that field is not the right fit.

  • Earning Potential

    The crux of selecting a vocational path is anchored on its earning potential. Does the training translate into a profitable career? On average, vocational careers do pay less than careers requiring a bachelor’s, but the potential upside and long-term earning in those career paths is strong.

  • Career Flexibility

    Vocational training is extremely occupation-specific, which means that the training could actually limit career flexibility. Vocational programs are traditionally accepted into two- or four-year programs of study and the specific skill sets learned in those programs generally do not translate into other fields (e.g. auto mechanic training does not easily transfer into health care occupations). When choosing a vocational path, prospective students should be interested in their field and want to pursue it—or be prepared to pivot and gain training for another profession.

Related Careers

A major benefit of CTE is the sheer number of academic and career avenues available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects significant demand for skilled individuals with a vocational background across every major industry. Below is a brief look at some of those potential career areas.

Vocational Career Median Salary Job Growth Job Outlook Education Required
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians

$31,070

29.5%

Much faster than average

Associate’s degree

Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics

$31,700

23.1%

Much faster than average

Postsecondary non-degree award

Massage Therapists

$37,180

22.6%

Much faster than average

Postsecondary non-degree award

Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters

$50,660

21.3%

Faster than average

High school diploma or equivalent

Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers

$44,630

20.9%

Faster than average

Postsecondary non-degree award

Pharmacy Technicians

$29,810

19.9%

Faster than average

High school diploma or equivalent

Childcare Workers

$19,730

14.0%

As fast as average

High school diploma or equivalent

Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists

$23,120

12.7%

As fast as average

Postsecondary non-degree award

Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers

$39,520

11.3%

As fast as average

Postsecondary non-degree award

Expert Q&A – Monique Anair

What are the benefits of career and technical education training?

Career and Technical Education training is focused on skills-based learning. When combined with on-the-job training, internships, apprenticeships and real-world scenarios students get the chance to practice what they know in a safe environment before the enter the workforce. That is invaluable to any student who wants to perform at a high-level and be sure they have what they need before entering any competitive marketplace.

What are the current trends in career and technical education?

Most students desire a quick turnaround in their CTE programs. The current educational trend is workshop-based, non-traditional format instruction. For example, we offer classes in weekend intensives, shortened 4- or 8-week training with a larger focus of the time spend on a job site. CTE responds quickly to industry and student needs and is much more flexible than traditional education.

Why should a prospective student consider enrolling in a career and technical education program?

CTE is an excellent choice for any student who is non-traditional. And today the only traditional students are unmarried 18 year-olds, who are not parents, graduating from high school in May and entering college in August. Everyone else is considered non-traditional.

What advice do you have to offer for students thinking about a CTE training/degree program?

When looking for a CTE program make sure that the program has employer relationships that allow you access into the industry you desire to work. All CTE programs worth their weight have workforce connections that give you a leg up into the market.

How do employers view CTE training?

Entry-level jobs tend to be technical positions that will require commitment, know-how and the willingness to work with supervisors to receive the necessary mentorship for success. In many cases, certain industries are actively seeking entry-level employees with technical skills and less higher education because higher degree holders do not desire to start at the bottom of their industry and expect that the degree will open doors for them higher up the corporate ladder

CTE students are looking to get in on the ground level and their teachers are helping connect them to those positions. CTE students know that they are learners that learn while they apply the skills and they are willing to work with supervisors to gain the acceptance necessary to move forward. In many cases high-tech jobs require a new employee to “pay their dues” with long hours, less than desirable tasks, etc. What CTE training does is show a student why that “pay” period is in place and how to navigate that time effectively. In many cases bachelor and master degree programs prepare students for the supervisor positions that might not be attainable right after graduation.

What’s the biggest mistake CTE students make when it comes to choosing a program?

If you are choosing a CTE program, you need to know if you have the aptitude for the industry you are entering. If you are entering a medical tech career you are going to be passing anatomy and physiology classes that require some heavy lifting in the academic arena and require some strong study skills. If you are entering the film industry you are going to be working with people all of the time and have to be able to take heavy criticism and shake it off. If you are entering the IT industry you are going to have a lot of time on the computer solving complex issues and describing those issues back to people who don’t have a clue about what you are talking about.

Vocational Resources

Individuals interested in a potential vocational career do not have to go it alone. There are numerous professional associations, government agencies, and nonprofit agencies that provide a wide variety of support and resources to future and current CTE students. Below is a short list of vocational resources available, such as job posting and college databases, resume and career planning services, and vocational counseling.

ApprenticeshipsUSA

Sponsored by the Employment and Training Administration in the Department of Labor, Registered Apprenticeships is a nationwide program that connects today’s workers to technically focused, on-the-job learning experiences. Typically focused in areas such as construction and manufacturing, apprenticeships can be found in other industries including energy and health care as well.

Association for Career and Technical Education

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) is the country’s largest CTE association that supports the vocational education of both youth and adults.

Business Professionals of America

Business Professionals of America is a student-focused organization that helps post-secondary students develop technical and leadership skills, provides networking events, and creates good work projects for local communities.

CareerOneStop

Sponsored by the US Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, CareerOneStop includes a variety of career planning tools, such as comprehensive career profiles, employment and training assistance for workers recently laid off, job search help for ex-offenders, and a credentialing center to help workers start or advance in their careers.

College Navigator

A tool from the National Center for Education Statistics, College Navigator can be used to learn more about any educational program, college, or post-secondary institution in the country. Students can review academic programs, tuition, enrollment, graduation rates, and more via the site’s searchable database.

Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs sponsors vocational rehabilitation and employment services for veterans who have service-connected disabilities. These programs offer vocational counseling to help veterans prepare for and get connected to new career opportunities.

HOSA-Future Health Professionals

HOSA is a national organization for students who are enrolled in either biomedical science or health programs. The goal of HOSA is to provide students with academic, personal, and professional development opportunities to succeed in college and in a career.

iSEEK

Sponsored by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, ISEEK is a comprehensive employment resource that offers students everything from skill assessments to career planning assistance, career descriptions to resume preparation support.

Job Corps

Founded and administered by the US Department of Labor, JobCorps offers free vocational training and education to individuals between the ages of 16 and 24.

National Coordinating Council for Career and Technical Student Organizations

The NCC-CTSO is a national coalition of student organizations that serve career and technical education students and educators.

National Skills Coalition

Founded in 1998, the National Skills Coalition has more than 3,200 members across 25 states and is dedicated to advancing a national skills agenda that supports the training in areas ranging from adult basic education to vocational education.

Occupation Information Network

Developed for the Department of Labor, O*Net Online is a database that includes information for more than 900 occupations, including skills and work activities, that students can use to learn about different career functions and potential vocational paths.

SkillsUSA

A national organization, SkillsUSA provides an array of services to high school and college students, as well as professionals who are enrolled in CTE programs or work in technical, skilled or service occupations.

Technology Student Association

The Technology Student Association (TSA) is an organization focused on and dedicated to the educational needs of students who have completed or are enrolled in technology education courses. Today, there are more than 233,000 members across 49 states.

US.Jobs

Powered by the National Labor Exchange, US.Jobs is a searchable database of employment opportunities across the country and also offers career resources (e.g. resume help, salary calculator) and a special job search for military veterans.