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