What Is a Trade? A Complete Guide to Trade Schools and Vocations

Woman mechanic in a car garage

What Are Trade Schools?

Trade schools prepare you to enter a specific career or industry.

A trade school program is typically shorter than an undergraduate degree program and doesn’t require general education courses. Instead, it focuses on the skills you need to succeed in that trade.

You usually earn a certificate or diploma when graduating from a trade school.

The term “trade school” is often used interchangeably with “vocational school” and “tech school.” Schools may define the terms differently, but generally, trade school refers to hands-on professional training programs, while vocational school refers to any career-based program.

Tech school, meanwhile, mainly refers to technical programs that may involve more classroom learning than real-world training.

What Are the Benefits of Trade School?

  • Trade school programs can usually be completed in two years or less.
  • Students can apply for trade programs easily with few admission requirements.
  • Trade school is a more affordable education pathway than traditional college.
  • Many trade careers are in demand and projected to grow quickly over the next decade.
  • Trade school graduates leave school with the certifications and skills needed to join the workforce.
  • Many trade schools connect students with job opportunities and partner with local businesses.

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Why Accreditation Matters for Trade Schools

Accreditation is a quality assurance process that measures the quality of schools’ curricula, faculty, and student outcomes. The two primary types of accreditation are institutional and programmatic accreditation.

In general, for-profit schools have lower graduation rates and shakier reputations than nonprofit trade schools. If you choose to attend a for-profit trade school, make sure it holds legitimate accreditation before you apply.

You’ll need to attend an accredited program in order to receive licenses and qualify for federal financial aid. Many employers also require candidates to have attended an accredited institution.

You can check whether a school is accredited by visiting its website or searching for a specific institutional or programmatic accreditor on the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s database.

The following career-related accrediting agencies are nationally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education:

What Trade Certifications Can You Get?

A trade certification shows that you’ve received the necessary education and training to perform a specific job. Most tradespeople pursue certifications during or shortly after their educational program in that trade.

Certifications typically involve an exam and can qualify you for many trade careers. They emphasize to employers your skills and mastery of your chosen trade.

Examples of Trade Certifications

  • Certified Electrical Inspector (CEI)
  • Certified Foodservice Professional (CFP)
  • Certified in Plumbing Design (CPD)
  • Certified Maintenance Technician (CMT)
  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
  • Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA)
  • Certified Paralegal (CP)
  • Certified Personal Chef (CPC)
  • Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPhT)
  • Certified Professional Constructor (CPC)
  • CompTIA A+ Certification

Trade Jobs and Salary Outlook

Many trade careers are seeing huge increases in job growth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the fastest-growing trade job, wind turbine service technicians, is projected to grow a whopping 44% through 2031 — that’s far faster than the average 5% job growth for all occupations.

Other fast-growing trade jobs include solar photovoltaic installer, physical therapist assistant, web developer, veterinary technician, and restaurant cook.

10 Fastest-Growing Trade Careers
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031) Minimum Education Required
Wind Turbine Service Technicians $56,260 44% Certificate or diploma
Solar Photovoltaic Installers $47,670 27% High school diploma
Physical Therapist Assistants $61,180 26% Associate degree
Web Developers $78,300 23% High school diploma
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians $36,850 20% Associate degree
Restaurant Cooks $29,120 16% High school diploma
Chefs and Head Cooks $50,160 15% High school diploma
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers $77,740 15% Associate degree
Paralegals and Legal Assistants $56,230 14% Associate degree
Respiratory Therapists $61,830 14% Associate degree

Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions About Trades and Trade Schools

What is the easiest trade to go to school for?

The easiest trade can vary by student, but generally, HVAC technician and truck driving are considered easier trades to learn. Your passions, skills, and strengths can inform which trade will be the easiest for you.

What are the fastest trades to learn?

You can learn most trades in just 1-2 years. With an accelerated program, you can complete a certificate even more quickly. Some fast-paced trade programs include truck driving, medical coding, phlebotomy, HVAC technician, and welding.

What are the highest-paying trade jobs?

Some of the highest-paying trade jobs include construction manager ($98,890 per year), elevator and escalator installer and repairer ($97,860), radiation therapist ($82,790), nuclear medicine technologist ($78,760), and dental hygienist ($77,810).

Can you attend trade school online?

You can complete certain trade programs online if they don’t require extensive hands-on training. For example, you will need in-person training to become an automotive technician, while you can complete a medical billing and coding program entirely online.

How much do trade schools cost?

Two-year institutions vary from around $4,000-$18,000 in tuition and fees per year. Private nonprofit schools will generally charge higher rates than public schools. Trade schools generally are more affordable than community colleges.

Your total cost will depend on your school, the length of your program, whether you qualify for in-state tuition, and how much financial aid you receive.