What Is A Trade School? Your Guide to This Path

Trade school pay

What Is A Trade School? Your Guide to This Path

Published on December 20, 2023

Trade school pay

Explore trade schools – a hands-on education path for specialized skills and swift career entry. Learn the differences, benefits, costs and how they match your goals.

What Is a Trade School?

A trade school, also known as a vocational school, is a focused educational institution where students acquire specific skills for particular jobs or fields. Unlike traditional colleges, trade schools emphasize hands-on learning and practical experience. These institutions cater to a diverse range of students, debunking the misconception that they are only for those who didn’t excel academically in high school.

Trade schools have evolved significantly over time. Initially established to cater to industrial and manual labor needs, they have adapted to the changing job market, offering programs in high-tech fields, healthcare, and other specialized sectors. This evolution reflects the growing recognition of the value of vocational education in a dynamic job market.

The Differences Between Trade Schools and Traditional Colleges

Differences in educational approach, duration, cost, and overall learning experience separate trade schools and traditional colleges:

Educational Approach and Curriculum

  • Trade Schools: The curriculum in trade schools is highly specialized and job-oriented, focusing exclusively on providing the skills and knowledge required for a specific trade or vocation. This practical and hands-on approach prepares students for immediate entry into the workforce in their chosen field.
  • Traditional Colleges: In contrast, traditional colleges offer a more academic and theoretical education. Their curricula often include a broad range of subjects, including liberal arts and general education requirements, regardless of the student’s major. This approach aims to provide a well-rounded education, developing critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and specific subject knowledge.

Duration of Programs

  • Trade Schools: Programs at trade schools are typically shorter, ranging from 8 months to 2 years. This condensed format provides intensive training in a specific field, enabling students to acquire the necessary skills to start their careers quickly.
  • Traditional Colleges: College programs usually require at least four years of study to complete a bachelor’s degree. This longer duration includes time spent on general education courses and major-specific classes.

Cost Comparison

  • Trade Schools: Generally, the cost of attending a trade school is lower than that of a traditional college. The shorter program duration and focused curriculum contribute to this cost-effectiveness. Additionally, the reduced time in school means students can start earning an income sooner.
  • Traditional Colleges: The cost of a traditional four-year college tends to be higher, partly due to the extended period of study. This often results in students accruing more student loan debt than trade school attendees.

Job Market Readiness

  • Trade Schools: Graduates from trade schools enter the job market with specific, marketable skills tailored to particular industries, often with hands-on experience gained through apprenticeships or internships included in their programs.
  • Traditional Colleges: While college graduates may have a broader educational background, they might require additional on-the-job training or certifications, depending on their career path.

Flexibility and Specialization

  • Trade Schools: These institutions offer a high degree of specialization in a specific trade, which can be ideal for students who have a clear idea of the career path they wish to pursue.
  • Traditional Colleges: Colleges typically provide more flexibility in terms of changing majors or exploring different academic interests, which can benefit students who are undecided about their career goals.

Industry Connections and Networking

  • Trade Schools: Often have strong ties to specific industries, facilitating direct pathways to employment through established networks.
  • Traditional Colleges: Offer broader networking opportunities across various fields, focusing on building professional connections that may not be as industry-specific.

Understanding these differences is crucial for students to make informed decisions about their education paths and align their choices with their career aspirations and learning preferences.

12 Benefits of Attending a Trade School

Here are 12 key benefits of trade school:

  1. Career-Specific Training and Practical Skills: Trade schools offer focused training for specific careers. Programs impart practical skills and knowledge that are directly applicable to specific jobs. This often includes real-world experience through apprenticeships or internships.
  2. Faster Path to Employment: The curriculum in trade schools is streamlined, enabling students to complete their education and enter the job market quicker than their counterparts in traditional colleges. This is especially beneficial in industries with high demand for skilled labor.
  3. Lower Cost of Education: Trade schools generally have lower tuition fees than traditional four-year colleges. This makes them a more affordable option, reducing the likelihood of accruing significant student debt.
  4. Smaller Class Sizes: Trade schools often have smaller classes, allowing for more individualized instructor attention and a more intimate learning environment.
  5. High Demand for Skilled Trades: Many trades are in high demand, with shortages in various sectors such as construction, healthcare, and technology. Graduates from trade schools are well-positioned to fill these gaps.
  6. Hands-On Learning Experience: Trade schools emphasize hands-on learning, providing students with practical experience and skills immediately applicable in their chosen field.
  7. Networking Opportunities: Trade schools often have strong connections with local industries and employers, offering valuable networking opportunities for students.
  8. Flexibility in Programs: Many trade schools offer flexible scheduling, including part-time, evening, and weekend classes, making it easier for students to balance education with other responsibilities.
  9. Career Services and Support: Trade schools typically provide robust career services, including job placement assistance, resume building, and interview preparation.
  10. Opportunities for Entrepreneurship: Skills learned in trade schools can also provide a foundation for entrepreneurship, allowing graduates to start their own businesses in their trade.
  11. Less Time Spent on General Education: Unlike traditional colleges, trade schools focus more on career-specific courses and less on general education, which means students spend more time learning skills directly relevant to their careers.
  12. Certification and Licensure Preparation: Many trade school programs prepare students for necessary certifications and licensures in their chosen field, often required for employment.

20 Best-Paying Jobs for Trade School Graduates

Here are 20 of the highest-paying occupations for trade school graduates, along with their average annual salaries for 2023:

  1. Diagnostic Medical Sonographers: Average Salary – $82,591. These healthcare professionals specialize in using ultrasound equipment to create images for medical diagnoses, often involving internal organs and tissues​.
  2. Civil Engineering Technologists and Technicians: Average Salary – $75,657. These professionals assist in planning, designing, and constructing civil projects like bridges and buildings.
  3. Tank Inspectors: Average Salary – $70,820. They inspect storage tanks for hazardous materials, ensuring compliance with standards.
  4. Aviation Maintenance Technicians: Average Salary – $70,000. These technicians specialize in the maintenance, repair, and inspection of aircraft.
  5. Construction Equipment Operators: Average Salary – $69,700. They operate heavy machinery on construction sites.
  6. Occupational Therapy Assistants: Average Salary – $65,083. They help patients improve or restore skills for daily living.
  7. Construction and Building Inspectors: Average Salary – $64,142. They review and approve building plans and monitor construction sites.
  8. Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technologists and Technicians: Average Salary – $63,640. They assist in implementing and maintaining electrical systems.
  9. Physical Therapy Assistants: Average Salary – $63,527. They perform therapeutic interventions under a physical therapist’s supervision.
  10. Architectural and Civil Drafters: Average Salary – $62,911. They create detailed technical drawings using CAD software.
  11. Computer Network Support Specialists: Average Salary – $62,760. They troubleshoot issues in computer networks.
  12. Respiratory Therapists: Average Salary – $61,830. They care for patients with respiratory issues.
  13. Telecommunications Equipment Installers and Repairers: Average Salary – $61,170. They work on installation and maintenance of communication systems.
  14. Electricians: Average Salary – $60,040. Their work includes installing, repairing, and maintaining electrical systems.
  15. Commercial Divers: Average Salary – $59,979. They perform diverse underwater tasks like rigging explosives and taking photos of marine life.
  16. Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters: Average Salary – $59,880. They work with high-pressure piping systems and ensure compliance with building codes.
  17. Industrial Machinery Mechanics, Machinery Maintenance Workers, Millwrights: Average Salary – $59,380. They specialize in maintaining factory equipment and machinery.
  18. Structural Iron and Steelworkers: Average Salary – $58,550. They install frameworks for construction projects.
  19. Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers: Average Salary – $56,951. They transport goods, often involving interstate travel.
  20. Paralegals and Legal Assistants: Average Salary – $56,492. They assist lawyers in legal research and document drafting.

Examples of Top Trade Schools and What They Offer

  • Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA): Renowned for its specialized programs in aviation, PIA offers diplomas and Associate in Specialized Technology degrees in Aviation Maintenance Technology. Graduates are prepared for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification, crucial for careers in aviation maintenance.
  • North Central Kansas Technical College: This institution offers a range of diploma and certificate programs in fields like construction, electrical technology, and health care. These programs provide the hands-on skills necessary for immediate employment in these trades.
  • State Technical College of Missouri: Known for its focus on practical and applied learning, this college offers Associate of Applied Science degrees in diverse fields such as advanced manufacturing, agriculture, and health sciences, equipping students with industry-relevant skills.
  • Williamson College of the Trades: Specializing in trades like masonry, carpentry, and machine tool technology, Williamson provides Associate in Specialized Technology degrees. The college combines technical training with character development, preparing students for skilled trades careers.
  • Ranken Technical College: At Ranken, students can pursue Associate of Technology and Associate of Science degrees in automotive technology, electrical systems, and information technology. The college also offers certificate programs for specific skill sets in trades.
  • Minnesota State Community and Technical College: Offers a variety of Associate of Applied Science degrees, diplomas, and certificates in fields like advanced manufacturing, business, and health services. The college focuses on practical training to prepare students for immediate employment.
  • Lancaster County Career & Technology Center: This center provides diploma and certificate programs in diverse trades such as culinary arts, welding, and healthcare. It caters to the immediate workforce needs of both high school students and adults.

Cost and Financial Aid for Trade School

Understanding the cost of trade school and the available financial aid options is crucial for prospective students. Here’s an overview:

Average Cost of Trade School: 

  • The cost of trade school can vary significantly based on the program and location. On average, trade school tuition ranges from $10,000 to $30,000 for the entire program. This is generally lower than the average cost of a four-year college education.

Factors Influencing Cost:

  • Program Length: Shorter programs tend to cost less than longer ones.
  • Type of Trade: Programs in high-tech fields or those requiring specialized equipment may be more expensive.
  • Location: Schools in urban areas may have higher tuition fees due to higher living costs.

Financial Aid Options:

  • Federal Aid: Many trade schools are eligible for federal financial aid programs. Students can apply for aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to access grants, loans, and work-study opportunities.
  • Scholarships and Grants: These are often available from trade schools, industry associations, and private organizations. Unlike loans, they do not require repayment.
  • State Aid: Some states offer additional financial aid programs for vocational training. Research your state’s education website for more information.

Student Loans:

  • Federal student loans are often the most favorable option due to lower interest rates and more flexible repayment terms than private loans.
  • Consider the loan amount carefully and understand the repayment terms and future financial impact.

Employer and Union Sponsored Programs:

  • Some employers and unions offer educational benefits or sponsorships for trade school programs, especially in fields where skilled workers are in high demand.

Payment Plans:

  • Many trade schools offer payment plans that allow students to pay tuition over time, making it more manageable.

Tax Credits and Deductions:

  • The American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit are two options that can help offset education costs.
  • Keep records of your educational expenses for tax purposes.

Budgeting and Cost Management:

  • Create a budget for other expenses like tools, books, and living costs.
  • Compare the costs of different programs and factor in potential earnings post-graduation.

Researching and Applying for Aid:

  • Begin exploring financial aid options early.
  • Seek advice from the financial aid office of the trade school you’re interested in.

How to Apply to Trade Schools

Applying to trade schools involves steps slightly different from the traditional college application process. Here is a guide on how to apply:

  • Research and Select Trade Schools: Identify trade schools that offer the program or trade you are interested in. Consider location, cost, program length, and job placement rates. Visit school websites and talk to admissions counselors for more detailed information.
  • Understand Prerequisites and Requirements: Most trade schools require a high school diploma or GED. Some might have additional prerequisites like specific high school courses, work experience, or pre-admission exams. Ensure that you meet the eligibility criteria for the program you are interested in.
  • Prepare Your Application: Gather necessary documents such as transcripts, test scores (if required), letters of recommendation, and a resume. Write a personal statement or cover letter if required. This should highlight your interest in the field and any relevant experience.
  • Complete the Application Form: Fill out the application form thoroughly. You typically can do this online through the school’s website. Pay attention to details and provide accurate information.
  • Submit Additional Materials: Some programs may require a portfolio, especially for trades involving creative skills. If there’s an interview process, prepare by researching common interview questions and practicing your responses.
  • Apply for Financial Aid: If you need financial assistance, complete the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid. Look into scholarships, grants, and other funding opportunities offered by the trade school or external organizations.
  • Attend an Open House or Information Session: Many trade schools offer open houses or information sessions for prospective students. Attend these to get a feel for the campus and ask any remaining questions.
  • Follow Up on Your Application: Keep track of its status after submitting your application. Contact the admissions office if you haven’t received a response within the expected timeframe.
  • Prepare for Enrollment: Once accepted, you may need to attend an orientation session or complete certain tasks before classes start. This is also a good time to finalize your financial aid and make any necessary living arrangements.
  • Continuous Communication: Maintain communication with the school’s admissions office throughout the process for updates and to demonstrate your interest in the program.

Applying to trade schools is a straightforward process requiring careful research and preparation. Make sure to start early and follow each step diligently to increase your chances of acceptance into the program of your choice.

How Trade Schools Differ From Community Colleges

Understanding the differences between trade schools and community colleges is crucial for students making educational choices. Here’s a breakdown of the key distinctions:

Focus and Specialization:

  • Trade Schools: Highly specialized in specific trades or technical skills. Programs are designed for students to learn skills or trades, such as plumbing, electrical work, culinary arts, or automotive repair.
  • Community Colleges: Offer a broader range of academic programs, including vocational training and general education. They provide associate degrees, certificates, and sometimes transfer programs to four-year universities.

Program Duration:

  • Trade Schools: Typically have shorter programs, often ranging from a few months to two years, designed to provide intensive, hands-on training in a specific field.
  • Community Colleges: Offer two-year associate degree programs and shorter certificate programs. Some students also attend for general education before transferring to a four-year college.


  • Trade Schools: Focus predominantly on practical, job-specific skills. Little to no general education courses are required, as the curriculum is tailored to prepare students for a specific occupation.
  • Community Colleges: Provide a mix of vocational training and general education. Their curriculum includes math, English, science, and other general education courses and career-focused training.
  • Cost:
    Trade schools and community colleges typically cost less than four-year universities, but the cost can vary based on the program and location. Community colleges often have lower tuition rates for in-district students.

Credentials Offered:

  • Trade Schools: Primarily offer certificates, diplomas, or associate degrees in specialized trades.
  • Community Colleges: Offer associate degrees in arts, science, applied science, or specific trades. They also provide certificate programs in various fields.

Flexibility and Student Life:

  • Trade Schools: Often cater to working adults, offering flexible schedules but with a more singular focus on the trade.
  • Community Colleges: Typically have more campus-based resources, clubs, and activities, with options for both part-time and full-time study.

Job Placement and Career Services:

  • Trade Schools: Usually have strong connections with specific industries, providing tailored job placement services in those trades.
  • Community Colleges: Offer career services, but they might not be as specialized as those in trade schools.

Transferability of Credits:

  • Trade Schools: Credits earned are less likely to be transferable to a four-year university.
  • Community Colleges: Often have established transfer agreements with four-year institutions, making it easier for students to continue their education.

Each type of institution serves different educational needs and career goals. Trade schools are ideal for students with a clear career path in a specific trade. At the same time, community colleges offer more flexibility for students considering a broader range of options or planning to pursue further education at a four-year university.

How to Decide if Trade School Is Right for You

Deciding whether trade school is the right choice involves several considerations. Here’s a guide to help you make an informed decision:

  • Assess Your Career Goals: Reflect on the type of career you want. Trade schools are ideal for those seeking specialized, hands-on training in specific trades or technical fields like automotive repair, cosmetology, or IT. Consider the demand for specific trades in the job market and how they align with your interests.
  • Understand Your Learning Style: If you prefer practical, hands-on learning over theoretical classroom-based learning, trade school might be a good fit. Evaluate how you best absorb information – through doing, experiencing, or reading and lectures.
  • Consider the Duration and Cost of Education: Trade school programs are typically shorter and less expensive than four-year college degrees. If you want to enter the workforce quickly and with less student debt, trade school could be a more suitable option.
  • Research Potential Earnings and Job Stability: Investigate the average salaries and job outlook for graduates in your chosen trade. Websites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics can provide valuable insights. Consider if the trade offers long-term stability and growth opportunities.
  • Look into the Curriculum and Facilities: Visit trade schools you’re interested in and ask about their curriculum. Ensure it aligns with your career goals and offers up-to-date training and technologies. Check if the school provides opportunities for real-world experience, such as internships or apprenticeships.
  • Evaluate the Accreditation and Reputation of the School: Accreditation ensures that the school meets certain educational standards. Research the school’s reputation in the industry, success rates of graduates, and reviews from former students.
  • Consider Flexibility and Location: If you need to balance education with work or other responsibilities, check if the school offers flexible scheduling options. Also, consider the school’s location and whether it is convenient for you.
  • Weigh the Pros and Cons: Make a list of pros and cons based on your personal situation, financial considerations, and long-term objectives. Discuss your thoughts with family, mentors, or career counselors.
  • Explore Financial Aid Options: Investigate if the trade school offers scholarships, grants, or other financial aid options. Understand the full cost of the program, including any additional fees for equipment or materials.
  • Reflect on Your Commitment to a Trade: Be honest with yourself about your commitment to learning a trade. It requires dedication and a genuine interest in the field.

Deciding to attend a trade school is a significant step in your educational and career journey. It’s important to take your time, do thorough research, and ensure it aligns with your personal and professional goals.

How Are Trade Schools Accredited?

Accreditation is crucial for trade schools as it ensures that the education provided meets certain quality standards. Here’s how trade schools are accredited:

  • Accrediting Organizations: Trade schools are typically accredited by national or regional accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Common accrediting bodies include the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), the Council on Occupational Education (COE), and specific programmatic accreditors for trades like automotive, culinary arts, and healthcare.
  • Accreditation Process: The process involves a thorough review of the school’s programs, faculty qualifications, facilities, student services, and outcomes. Schools must submit a self-evaluation report and undergo a site visit by the accrediting agency. Accreditation is granted if the school meets the required standards. It’s typically valid for a certain period, after which the school must seek reaccreditation.
  • Importance of Accreditation: Accreditation assures students and employers that the program meets national standards for education in a specific trade. It impacts a school’s eligibility for federal financial aid, which is crucial for many students. Accredited status can influence the transferability of credits to other institutions and is often a prerequisite for sitting in licensure exams in certain trades.
  • Checking a School’s Accreditation: Prospective students should verify the accreditation status of a trade school or program through the school’s website or directly from the accrediting body. The U.S. Department of Education’s website also provides resources to check the accreditation of educational institutions.
  • Specialized Program Accreditation: Some trade programs may have additional specialized accreditation. For instance, a nursing program might be accredited by a nursing education accrediting body.
  • State Approval and Licensure: Apart from accreditation, trade schools must also be licensed or approved by the state where they operate. This ensures they comply with state-specific educational standards and regulations. Accreditation is a key factor in ensuring the quality and recognition of the education provided by trade schools. It’s a mark of trust and standardization that prospective students should consider when choosing a trade school.


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