Chapter 7: A closer look at vocational training

Table of contents

7.1 Introduction

A person welding metal. They are wearing a welding helmet and no part of their face is visible.

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In this chapter, we dive into the trades, which involve a wide range of skilled manual occupations that require specialized knowledge and expertise in a specific craft or industry. These occupations typically involve working with tools, machinery, or equipment to construct, repair, maintain, or install various physical structures, systems, or products. Vocational schools, trade schools, technical institutions, and apprenticeship programs offer remarkable opportunities for individuals seeking practical, hands-on learning experiences tailored toward working in these industries. 

A four-year university is not the only pathway to success. Higher education takes diverse forms, and vocational schools and apprenticeships are a fantastic alternative for many students. These institutions and programs provide occupation-specific training that equips students with precise skills and knowledge sought after by employers, enabling them to enter their chosen fields swiftly and confidently.

Recognizing that college may not be the ideal fit for everyone, vocational schools and apprenticeships cater to a varied student body, including those who are already working full-time jobs and/or individuals with familial commitments. They understand the importance of flexibility, offering program options, learning formats, and student services that align with the unique needs of their students. By doing so, they create a vibrant educational environment that empowers individuals to pursue their dreams without compromising their current responsibilities.

In this chapter, you will learn:

  • What vocational, trade, and technical schools are, and how they each contribute to career readiness.
  • The advantages of vocational education, including its hands-on approach, industry relevance, and efficient completion timelines.
  • The various program offerings, learning formats, and student services that make vocational schools an excellent choice for individuals seeking immediate entry into their desired careers.

Let’s jump in!

7.2 Entering the trades

7.2.1 Diving deeper into trade jobs

There are many types of technical, skilled trade, and vocational jobs. You might find yourself interested in one or more of the building trades (such as carpentry, electrical, or plumbing), mechanical trades (including HVAC installation, locksmithing, or elevator mechanic), industrial trades (like paving equipment operation or metal fabrication), or medical trades (dental assisting, phlebotomy, respiratory therapy). is a great place to look for trade, technical, vocational, and other institutions of learning for a wide array of programs in healthcare, business, computers and technology, design and arts, culinary, environmental, animal care, aviation, and automotive fields, to name just a few!

If you are particularly interested in plumbing, electrical, or heating and cooling (HVAC), the website is a great resource to help you get started learning about the process of gaining employment in those trades, with an emphasis on apprenticeships. Curious about the building trades? Take a look at, the Home Builders Institute website.

If reading through lists of jobs is simply overwhelming and you want to narrow options down based on your interests, experiences, and values, you can take one or more of these free online assessments. You’ll answer some questions and then get a list of what careers might be suitable for you. 

  • This YouTube video explains the ASVAB Career Exploration Program. Or, you can visit the ASVAB website directly. 
  • The website has a short, easy quiz. Based on your “me” or “not me” responses to questions and images, the assessment will provide you with a list of potential career options and links to find out more about each.
  •  My Next Move, a resource from the US Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration, is a free database of information about potential careers. You can search careers by keywords, browse careers by industry, or take the O*NET Interest Profiler – a set of 60 questions asking how much you like work activities that some people do at their jobs.

Another approach to choosing what kind of technical or trade training you could pursue is focusing on the skilled trade or technical jobs that are high in demand right now and into the future and pay well. uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, and the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System to track which jobs are in high demand.

Yet another way of choosing a path for yourself is exploring the programs and schools to see what they offer. You can Google “trade school near me” or “local community college” to identify institutions and then look into their course catalogs and career tracks. For more directed targeting of what schools are rated well for specific trades, try these links:

7.2.2 Vocational school

So, you’re interested in joining the trades. There are two different paths to doing so: vocational schools and apprenticeships. We’ll begin with vocational schools.

Vocational schools (also called career, technical, and trade schools) tend to offer occupation-specific programs geared toward helping students prepare to go directly from school into their chosen careers.  Vocational school training is typically based on a hands-on approach to learning; students are taught the practical skills and knowledge that employers are looking for right out of the gate. That means graduates are expected to possess real-world experience working with relevant tools and technologies, an understanding of industry-standard processes and practices, and anything else that would contribute directly to their career field. Vocational schools often tailor their program offerings, learning formats, and student services to meet the needs of a more diverse student body since individuals who enroll in vocational training are often already working, have families, and don’t want to (or aren’t able to) attend a traditional college.

A technical school usually refers to an institution that offers associate’s degrees and certain certifications that are necessary to enter technical job fields. Unlike four-year colleges and universities, these programs can often be completed in just 1-2 years. Generally speaking, trade schools tend to focus on hands-on careers that require a base level certification or a specific number of on-the-job supervised hours to enter. They can be thought of as more labor-focused industries. A vocational school, commonly an umbrella term for either trade or tech schools, provides programs to prepare students for immediate entry into their field or into a stepping-stone position to enter that field within just a year or two. Read more at the Center for Employment Training’s website.

7.2.1 Apprenticeships

Trades schools are not the only way to enter the trades. Apprenticeships are a time-tested employee training system that combines job-related technical instruction with structured on-the-job learning experiences. Apprenticeships offer a unique and valuable pathway for individuals to acquire hands-on training, practical skills, and industry-specific knowledge in a specific trade or occupation. Unlike traditional classroom-based education, apprenticeships provide a dynamic learning experience that combines on-the-job training with classroom instruction. 

Apprentices work alongside experienced professionals, known as mentors or journeymen, who guide and mentor them throughout their training. This direct exposure to real-world work environments allows apprentices to gain invaluable practical experience, develop relevant skills, and understand the nuances of their chosen trade. Additionally, apprenticeships often include a wage or stipend, which allows individuals to earn while they learn and gradually transition into becoming skilled professionals in their chosen field. By bridging the gap between education and employment, apprenticeships offer a compelling alternative for individuals seeking a practical, career-focused approach to skill development and professional growth.

Here’s where you can find apprenticeships online:

7.2.1 Apprenticeships versus trade school

The choice between the apprenticeship and trade school route is ultimately a personal one. It can come down to your  learning style, financial circumstances, opportunities in your area, and other situational factors. The SouthWest Pipe Trades Association offers a helpful list of pros and cons for each option. Access their full guidance on apprenticeships versus trade schools here.


More hands-on training right away

Exposure to real-world labor scenarios

Paid learning experience

Apprentices earn higher wages

Education gained with no debt

Economical learning program

Creates a pathway towards your career

No need for a four-year degree

Good apprenticeship opportunities are hard to come by

Shorter holidays

Limited career options

Work schedule limitations

Redundancy of learning certain principles

Greater line of autonomy and responsibilities

Trade schools

Instructional guidance

Personal development and sharper critical thinking

Flexible scheduling
Specialized training sessions

Better job experience

Takes 2 years or less to complete

Lessons from an experienced professional

Little to no tuition debt

Larger financial commitment than an apprenticeship

Lacks hands-on learning activities

No job guarantees
Limited availability of schools

Scope of work is only applicable to technical demands

No other choice in career path

Shorter holidays

Limited career options

Work schedule limitations

Redundancy of learning certain principles

Greater line of autonomy and responsibilities

7.3 Conclusion

As the previous section made clear, a key step in becoming a skilled tradesperson is attending vocational school. You should now have

  • Information about working in the trades
  • Understanding of how to train for the trades
  • Insight into which path might be best for you

The resources we have provided in the chapter should give you a strong starting point for exploring programs, but we want to conclude the chapter by offering some more general advice about selecting an educational program that is a good fit for you.

Do your research. While the resources we’ve listed in this chapter provide a good starting point for learning about trade school, they are non-exhaustive. As you narrow down the trades you’re interested in, continue your research process. Google and libraries are your friend! 

Reach out to people in the industry. Don’t be shy! While you can glean valuable information from online resources, there’s nothing like hearing about the ins and outs of a particular occupation first-hand. If you want advice on how to reach out to professionals in your desired industry, check out

Visit campus and sit in on classes, if possible. Speaking of the power of first-hand experience, if the option is available, visiting campus and sitting in on classes will give you a concrete idea of what life as a vocational student will look like. 

Think concretely about finances.  Vocational school is an investment. Once you’ve narrowed down programs you’re interested in, see if you can come up with an estimate of the cost. We provide some detailed guidance on finances in Chapter 8 to get you started. 

Trust your gut. We strongly believe in the power of being informed, and when it comes to a big personal decision like choosing a trade or a vocational program, we also encourage you to listen to your gut throughout the process. Once you’ve landed on smart and logistically feasible options, the deciding factor will be the program that resonates with you the most—one that feels both challenging and exciting!

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