Vocational Trade Schools and Programs

Workforce gaps widen as baby boomers retire and young adults opt for university instead of vocational school. This guide explores the trade jobs in demand now.

Updated October 17, 2022

Vocational education offers practical training for skills-based careers. These in-demand trades often appeal to aspiring professionals who want to leave the office, meet people, and work with their hands.

Even better, vocational careers offer stable salaries, growing job markets, and engaging work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 38,300 members of the U.S. civilian workforce hold a professional certification or license, and 98% of these workers are employed.

As the baby-boomer generation retires and more high school graduates pursue four-year colleges, vocational careers will continue rising in demand. Not limited to manufacturing and construction, today's vocational jobs include careers in healthcare, transportation, law, and technology.

Reasons Skilled Jobs Are Opening Up

As the baby-boomer generation (born 1946-1964) retires from the workforce, their absence creates gaps in vocational industries. By the end of 2020, 28.6 million members of this generation had already retired. The pandemic continues to accelerate this retirement trend.

At the same time, attendance at four-year colleges has increased from 35% of students aged 18-24 in 2000 to 41% in 2020. These degree-seekers typically pursue office jobs linked to their majors. In 2021, the two trends have converged to worsen the trade worker shortage and create new opportunities for vocational jobs.

Why Get a Skilled Trade Job in Demand?

Vocational schools can equip students with the expertise to fill skilled jobs in demand in 2021. People who enjoy practical training and want to pursue exciting careers catering to market needs may thrive in vocational jobs. Benefits of a vocational education include the following.

  • Tuition for career and technical education (CTE) tends to cost less than for a four-year college.
  • Vocational schools often take less than half the time of a bachelor's degree.
  • CTE provides students with market-ready schools for in-demand trades.
  • Vocational students can become experts in evolving technologies and new industries.

What Jobs Are in Demand?

Many of today's most in-demand trade jobs pay more than twice the median annual salary in the United States. Professionals in these fields can engage in fulfilling, valuable work. The following list explores 10 of the fastest-growing, highest-paying trade and vocational career opportunities in 2021.

Radiation Therapists


Required Education: Associate degree
Job Outlook (2019-29): +7%
Median Annual Salary: $86,850

Radiation therapists treat cancer patients using radiation therapy. These professionals explain treatments to patients, calibrate and operate the radiation machine, monitor patient safety, and prepare documentation.

The field began in 1895 and has refined and grown as cancer treatments became more effective. Advances in relevant research, coupled with an aging population, drive today's growth of radiation therapy.

Educational requirements vary, but in most states, a radiation therapist must hold a license or certification to practice their craft. Securing licensure typically requires individuals to pass a national exam.

Most radiation therapists begin their careers by earning a certificate, associate, or bachelor's degree. Academic programs introduce students to the exam requirements, including clinical concepts, quality assurance, patient care, and treatment planning and delivery.

With additional education and experience, radiation therapists can become medical dosimetrists who calculate patients' radiation dosages.


Web Developers and Digital Interface Designers


Required Education: Associate degree
Job Outlook (2019-29): +8%
Median Annual Salary: $77,200

Web developers create websites. They may work as back-end developers, focusing on a website's technical construction, or handle front-end development to design the site's look and feel. A digital interface designer develops and tests a website's layout, navigation, and functionality. These professionals primarily work in computer systems design firms, at publishing companies, or as self-employed website technicians.

Educational requirements for this career can vary from a high school diploma to a bachelor's degree. Some web designers or developers may substitute work experience for formal education. Career-seekers need to know HTML, along with other languages, such as SQL or JavaScript. They must also hold up-to-date knowledge of publishing tools.

The public's rush to mobile technology, along with the continued growth of e-commerce, fuels the demand for developers and designers. With ongoing experience and education, a website designer may grow into a project management role.


Diagnostic Medical Sonographers


Required Education: Associate degree
Job Outlook (2019-29): +17%
Median Annual Salary: $75,920

Diagnostic medical sonographers conduct tests and create images to help physicians diagnose their patients. In this role, professionals use high-frequency sound waves to look inside the human body and capture images. Most sonographers work in hospitals or physicians' offices.

Like other burgeoning healthcare roles, the rapid growth of medical sonography arises from an aging population. As people grow older, they become more likely to develop health conditions that sonography can help identify.

Becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer requires a certificate or a degree. At vocational schools, these programs provide training in applied sciences, medical terminology, and human anatomy. Specialized programs, such as breast or abdominal sonography, offer corresponding coursework.

Some states and employers require diagnostic medical sonographers to hold licensure or certification. These professionals can become certified by passing an exam and possessing specific educational credentials. Certification in more than one specialty can increase a sonographer's employability in the field.


Occupational Therapy Assistants


Required Education: Associate degree
Job Outlook (2019-29): +32%
Median Annual Salary: $60,950

Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) help patients recover and maintain skills for daily living. Working under the direction of an occupational therapist, these professionals help individuals perform therapeutic exercises, teach patients to use special equipment, and record patient progress.

Occupational therapy serves aging adults, children with developmental delays, people with disabilities, and patients with conditions like arthritis. Most OTAs work in therapy clinics, hospitals, or nursing homes.

An OTA must hold an associate degree from a school accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. These degrees require coursework in gerontology, pediatrics, psychology, and biology, along with a 16-week field experience.

After graduating, OTAs need to pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam to receive state licensure. Some OTAs pursue bridge programs to study part-time while working toward becoming occupational therapists.


Court Reporters


Required Education: Postsecondary certificate
Job Outlook (2019-29): +9%
Median Annual Salary: $61,660

Court reporters create transcriptions of trials or other legal proceedings in state and local government settings. Some individuals serve as freelance reporters who contract with law firms or cover leaves of absence.

A typical court recorder attends depositions and other proceedings to capture dialogue using devices such as steno machines or masks. A steno machine creates entire words with key combinations, and a steno mask allows the court reporter to speak into a microphone without being overheard.

Besides transcribing dialogue, court reporters need to identify speakers, their gestures, and their actions. These professionals may have to repeat testimony or other information in court on request. They review their notes and provide transcripts of proceedings to the public.

Many states require each court reporter to hold a license or certification in their field. Technical and community colleges offer the education required to gain licensure.


Wind Turbine Service Technicians


Required Education: Postsecondary certificate
Job Outlook (2019-29): +61%
Median Annual Salary: $56,230

Known as windtechs, wind turbine service technicians install and repair wind turbines, which convert wind energy into electricity. Windtechs inspect towers and turbines, perform routine maintenance, replace malfunctioning components, and record data.

These technicians usually work outdoors and in pairs at elevations of around 260 feet while carrying tools and wearing harnesses. Electrical generation companies employ many of these professionals, but some work in repair and maintenance or in utility system construction.

Becoming a windtech usually requires a postsecondary certificate from a technical or community college. After completing their classroom education, aspiring windtechs spend about 12 months doing on-the-job training.

During this time, they may work with a manufacturer, a servicing contractor, or both. Training can help future windtechs earn certifications in areas such as electrical safety or tower climbing. As wind energy generation becomes more competitive, this field may require more windtechs to service towers and turbines.


Elevator and Escalator Installers and Repairers


Required Education: Four-year apprenticeship
Job Outlook (2019-29): +7%
Median Annual Salary: $88,540

Elevator and escalator installers and repairers install and fix moving walkways, escalators, and elevators. They can specialize in installation, maintenance, and repair. Most elevator and escalator installers and repairers work for building equipment contractors, but some serve in government agencies.

These professionals need to know how to read blueprints, assemble systems, connect wiring, test equipment, troubleshoot malfunctions, and test faulty components.

This profession requires a high school diploma. Graduates who do not hold an adequate background in math, physics, or mechanical drawing, however, may take those courses at technical or community colleges. In general, elevator and escalator installers and repairers learn their trade through apprenticeships.

Nearly every state requires licensure, but state regulations vary. A licensed and experienced elevator and escalator installer and repairer may qualify for certification as a certified elevator technician, certified accessibility and private residence lift technician, or qualified elevator inspector.


Computer User Support Specialists


Required Education: Associate degree
Job Outlook (2019-29): +8%
Median Annual Salary: $55,510

These support specialists provide technical assistance to users. These technology professionals test and evaluate networks, provide routine maintenance, and troubleshoot networks and systems.

Most computer user support specialists work for computer systems design companies, but others hold jobs in educational or corporate settings. Most employers seek candidates with associate degrees, and some prefer licensure in job-relevant areas.

In general, computer user support specialists need top-notch skills in problem-solving, writing, speaking, and customer support. Some support specialists eventually move into sales or management roles in their companies.


Commercial Pilots


Required Education: Commercial pilot's license
Job Outlook (2019-29): +9%
Median Annual Salary: $93,300

Long-time commercial pilots continue to retire while the demand for their services increases. Hospitals especially need pilots to transfer patients to healthcare facilities, and agricultural firms need pilots who can handle industrial chemical spraying. Corporations also like to bypass airports and charter commercial pilots to fly executives to meetings.

These professionals only need a commercial pilot's license. This license builds on three previous licenses: the student pilot license, the private pilot's license, and instrument rating. Each license requires a written exam and a practical flying exam.

Commercial pilots who earn advanced education and proper licensure may earn higher salaries as airline pilots.




Required Education: Associate degree
Job Outlook (2019-29): +10%
Median Annual Salary: $52,920

Paralegals receive strong employment growth projections from 2019-2029. These legal professionals engage in many different tasks to support their firms' lawyers. Paralegals may work in law firms, government agencies, or legal departments in corporations.

Law firms and legal departments continue to hire paralegals to increase efficiency. Employers typically require each candidate to possess an associate degree, with some preferring applicants with paralegal certification.

To succeed as a paralegal, professionals need sharp research, organizational, and interpersonal skills. Paralegals with computer and database skills may hold an edge over the competition.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are some of the best trades to learn?

Candidates can pursue in-demand trade jobs in healthcare, technology, and alternative energy. Some long-standing careers, such as court reporters and elevator installers, pay lucrative salaries and receive strong growth projections.

What skilled trades are in demand?

Skilled trade jobs in demand in 2021 include healthcare and healthcare support roles, technology-oriented careers, and transportation and logistics positions. Jobs in alternative energy, such as wind turbine technicians, also received high growth projections.

What are the highest-paying trade jobs?

Commercial pilots earn some of the highest salaries in trade jobs. Web developers, diagnostic medical sonographers, and elevator and escalator installers and repairers can earn more than double the national median wage.

What vocational jobs will be in demand in the future?

The healthcare and technology fields will see high growth in the future. An aging population and increasing reliance on technology continue to drive this growth. A degree and experience in one of these fields can lead to a selection of profitable career options.

Feature Image: Jasmin Merdan / Moment / Getty Images

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