Vocational Trade Schools in the 21st Century

ASO Staff Writers
Updated September 19, 2023
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For people seeking employment in a skilled trade or an occupation requiring mid- or high-level skills, vocational and trade schools are a great option. The skilled trades include construction management, allied health professions, transportation and logistics, web development, and IT support.

These careers can be stable and lucrative. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many of the fastest-growing career fields are skilled trades. Technology development, public policy initiatives, and growing respect for applied careers influence the emergence of new vocational and trade career opportunities.

Preparing for a skilled trade typically means enrolling in a vocational or trade school, which usually requires 1-3 years of study while only costing about 25% of a traditional college education.

Read the Specifics:How Schools Have Changed | Reasons Behind Shifting Trends | Why Trends Matter | Emerging Careers | FAQs

What Are Vocational and Trade Schools?

While four-year colleges require a broad curriculum covering multiple subjects, vocational and trade schools emphasize a career-focused education. Most trade schools offer hands-on education, while vocational institutions incorporate classroom learning into their curricula.

Students in vocational or training schools often study full time for 1-2 years to prepare for careers in technology, healthcare, transportation, and manufacturing. Dental hygienists, medical laboratory technicians, web designers, elevator installers, production engineers, and air traffic controllers earn degrees from vocational schools.

How Vocational and Trade Schools Have Changed

The first modern trade school opened in 1881 in New York. Agricultural education fueled the growth of vocational training for the next three decades. After World War I, trade and vocational school enrollment exploded as returning soldiers needed skills for the civilian job market. Many veteran students became plumbers, electricians, or factory workers.

By the late 20th century, vocational and trade schools attracted mostly underprivileged students. Middle and upper-class learners attended college, stigmatizing vocational education. However, this trend began to change in the 1990s, when American leaders realized the country needed highly skilled technicians to compete in the emerging global market.

Today, vocational schools’ popularity is resurging. Some students already hold bachelor’s degrees in a liberal arts field and have returned to school to learn a skilled trade. Vocational students can access federal, state, and private aid to help pay for these programs.

Trade school trends include:

  • Exploding Enrollment Growth: In 1999, just 9.6 million Americans enrolled in a trade school. By 2014, that number had swelled to 16 million. Although higher education, including vocational schools, saw enrollment declines due to COVID-19, experts predict explosive growth in hands-on education programs post pandemic. Schools that focus on in-demand fields will likely see enrollment spikes.
  • Employers Emphasize Upskilling: Companies need employees to upskill. About 60% of employees believe their career skills will be outdated in 3-5 years, according to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management. Similarly, 79% of CEOs say they are also concerned about their employees’ lack of essential skills. Trade and vocational schools offer accessible short-term training, certificates, and degrees that can benefit many American workers by providing in-demand skills.
  • Vocational School Revenue Growth: The U.S. maintains 8,516 trade and technical schools. These institutions employ almost 110,000 people, generating $16 billion of revenue. Two factors that will likely drive future revenue growth include increased enrollment and growing political leverage. Vocational schools depend on student enrollment to drive funding. With more students and a drive to train frontline workers in high-demand fields, vocational schools will increase in popularity.
  • Employers Spend More on Training: Business leaders are investing in employee training. In 2019, the average employee spent 42.1 hours in training, costing $1,286 per worker. In North America, the total spending on employee training in 2019 totaled $169.4 billion. Vocational and trade schools offering employee training can capitalize on these opportunities.
  • Vocational Schools Increase Online and Blended Learning: While some fields such as nursing and automotive repair require hands-on experience, many trades in the tech industry are suited for online education. To increase enrollment and better serve students, vocational schools may offer more nontraditional education options.

The Driving Forces Behind Shifting Trends in Education

American workers and students are taking a close look at vocational and trade schools. Below, we explore factors driving trade school trends.

  • Low Costs of Vocational School: Trade school costs vary by state and institution. U.S. News & World Report calculated the average cost of a complete degree from a vocational training institution was $33,000 in 2016, significantly lower than the $127,000 average cost of a four-year degree. In the last 20 years, vocational schools have increased tuition prices at only half the rate of four-year institutions.
  • National Unemployment Rate: Except for a brief, though steep, increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. unemployment rates have trended downward since 2009. According to the BLS, the unemployment rate is 5.9% as of June 2021. Typically community colleges and for-profit schools experience increased enrollment during times of high unemployment. Thus, post-pandemic, the recovering economy may lead to an increase in trade school enrollment.
  • Changes in Workforce Composition: Women and older Americans are taking on a larger percentage of jobs, according to Harvard Business Review. Professionals benefit from flexible schedules, work-from-home options, and opportunities to upskill. Women returning to the workforce after raising children or people who left college decades ago need new skills to stay competitive. Technical and vocational schools can provide training for those skills.
  • Increase in Per Capita Disposable Income: Americans are putting more money in their pockets. Disposable income increased 1.9% in 2019, according to IBISWorld. In addition, consumers are paying off consumer debt at record rates. As a result, prospective students have the cash to pay for vocational or technical education without taking on expensive student loans.
  • Current Political Priorities: U.S. leaders named public domestic investment as a top priority, including infrastructure redevelopment, electrical grid security, internet access, and housing expansion. Each of these initiatives requires a skilled workforce, who can receive training through vocational and trade schools.

Why Do Educational Trends Matter?

Higher education is changing as economic factors drive new educational priorities. When educational systems no longer meet societal demand, those systems either change or institutions close.

Students today have different needs from previous generations. Many students are older, more career-focused, and more likely to be female than learners a decade ago. These current trends shape what students want from postsecondary schooling.

From the employer side, burgeoning industries such as healthcare, construction, and green technology need employees with the cross-disciplinary skills to solve problems and work collaboratively. These industries offer well-paid, high-tech jobs such as medical laboratory scientists, construction managers, or web developers. Students can pursue these careers through vocational training.

Industries That Stand to Benefit From the Newest Trends in Education

As new social, economic, and cultural changes unfold, some industries are flourishing while others are in decline. Once considered stable careers, brick masons, chemical operators, and architectural drafters are seeing declines in new jobs, according to the BLS. Yet, several in-demand industries include:

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    The BLS projectsthat the healthcare field will grow by 15% between 2019 and 2029, adding 2.4 million new jobs.
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    The BLS projects the number of paralegal jobs will increase by 35,300 from 2019 to 2029. Vocational schools can prepare students for entry-level careers in this sector.
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    According to the BLS, the computer and information technology field is projected to add over 500,000 new jobs from 2019 to 2029. Web designers and computer support specialists can begin their careers with vocational training.

Emerging Career Opportunities That Reflect Current Educational Trends

A vocational or trade school education can qualify graduates for in-demand jobs in construction, healthcare, transportation, and technology.

An associate degree in a fast-growing, highly-skilled career field can mean earning a salary higher than the median wage in the U.S. For instance, the median annual salary for diagnostic medical sonographers is $70,380 as of 2020, which is much higher than the $41,950 median salary for all occupations.

Skilled careers offer excellent starting salaries along with room for professional growth.

In addition, skilled trades often include “recession-proof” careers, which remain relatively stable regardless of economic conditions. The most rapidly growing and highest-paying of these careers include diagnostic medical sonography, radiation therapy, web development, aerospace engineering, and computer network support.

Skilled careers offer excellent starting salaries along with room for professional growth. For instance, an occupational therapist assistant or an aerospace engineering technician may become an occupational therapist or aerospace engineer by pursuing additional degrees and licensure. Some of the top vocational fields are listed below:


Electricians wire homes, businesses, and factories for power. They make sure the lights, communication devices, HVAC units, and appliances function properly. Electricians read blueprints, use an array of specialized tools, and identify and solve electrical problems. In addition to formal education and on-the-job training, this career requires significant physical dexterity.

Required Education: Apprenticeship required, technical school preferred
Job Outlook (2019-29):+8%
Median Annual Salary:$56,900

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists examine patients’ teeth and provide preventative care. Their duties include cleaning teeth, taking X-rays, and educating patients about dental hygiene. Most training programs take three years to complete. Many states require licensure in addition to an associate degree.

Required Education: Associate degree required
Job Outlook (2019-29):+6%
Median Annual Salary:$77,090

Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers direct pilots as they take off or land planes. This job helps ensure aircraft safety. Air traffic controllers must hold a degree from a Federal Aviation Administration-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program.

Required Education: Associate degree required
Job Outlook (2019-29):+1%
Median Annual Salary:$130,420

Web Developers and Digital Designers

Web developers and digital designers both create websites. However, these careers have different focuses. Web developers take responsibility for the site’s technical aspects, such as load speed. They need a thorough knowledge of computer languages. Digital designers look at website function and navigation from a user’s perspective, so they need a background in graphic arts.

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

Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

Like cardiovascular technologists and technicians, diagnostic medical sonographers use specialized imaging equipment to conduct tests and create images. Their findings and images help physicians diagnose and treat a variety of conditions. Sonographers may specialize in fields such as cardiology, pediatrics, or gynecology.

Required Education: Associate degree required
Job Outlook (2019-29):+12%
Median Annual Salary:$70,380

Companies That Trend Toward Hiring Vocational and Trade School Grads

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, there are 30 million jobs in the U.S that pay $55,000 per year or more and do not require a bachelor’s degree.

Companies offering these jobs include Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which hire aerospace engineering technicians, and Kaiser Permanente and Tenet Health, large hospital systems that hire healthcare professionals. Food production brands such as Pepsi also employ food research technicians.

Employers in some fields have difficulty filling jobs with skilled workers. For example, trucking firms, technology companies, and healthcare providers struggle to fill positions with trained team members, according to the BLS.

As the shortage of workers in skilled trades pushes wages higher, more prospective students and employees looking to switch careers may consider vocational education.

Vocational or trade schools require relatively low investments of time and money, allowing prospective students to earn a credential and start a new career quickly.

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