by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Why college? Unless you are one of the lucky few who receive a full scholarship to college, is a college education -- and tens of thousands of dollars in debt for you or your family -- always the right path after high school?As a former college professor, my first response is yes, of course a college education is worth the investment.
More and more jobs and careers are professional, white collar jobs in which an undergraduate degree is the minimum educational requirement. Taking a broader perspective, however, provides a different answer.
Depending on your situation -- your aptitude, career interests, high-school record, and life goals -- learning a trade by attending a career college or vocational school might make much more sense for you. Besides, if you later decide a college degree is appropriate, you can find many alternatives for obtaining it.
What Does it Mean to Work in a Trade?
It simply means that you have acquired a set of specific skills and knowledge related to a particular job/career field.
A growing number of jobs and careers in healthcare, technology, mechanics, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), agriculture, animal husbandry, construction, and other trades are available to job-seekers with a certificate, vocational diploma, or associate's degree from career and vocational schools.
Even more appealing for people considering a career in skilled trades -- many of these jobs are in high demand, with expected growth to continue for some time. Furthermore, because more young people choose college over trades, the shortage of skilled workers is growing. Besides the demand for these jobs, skilled tradespeople can easily earn $40,000 or more annually.
What's the reason more high-school graduates choose college over trade school? Studies and anecdotal evidence show a combination of factor: perceived value and status of a college education, myths and misconceptions about the types of trades jobs, and stereotypes of trades workers.
What's the Difference Between Vocational Schools and Four-Year Colleges
Vocational schools traditionally aim to provide a directed course of study that focuses on the training and skills students require for a specific job. Four-year universities and colleges, on the other hand, traditionally focuse on providing a broad education covering a wide range of topics, centered more on teaching theory and developing critical-thinking skills.
How to Get a Vocational Career and Education
There are thousands of career and vocational schools throughout the country -- as well as numerous online offerings.
So start your search by researching trade careers that interest you.
Begin the process by talking to your high-school guidance and/or career counselor. Ask about books and other resources for trade careers and trade schools. See if your school offers a job- shadowing program in which you can spend a day (or part of a day) with someone in a career field that matches your interests.
Editor's note: For more information, see our Job Shadowing Tips Checklist.
If your high school does not have the resources or tools you seek, take the initiative and conduct your own research on trade careers. Then seek out your family, friends, and neighbors to discover the names of people within your network that either work or know people in the trades that interest you. Your final step is to ask if you can shadow these professional and/or conduct an informational interview with them.
In an informational interview, you can ask questions such as how the person got started in his/her career, what job opportunities are available in the field, what education/training is required to get started in the career, and the like. Learn more here in our Informational Interviewing Tutorial.
Once you narrow your choice of trade careers, your last step is finding an accredited career or vocational school nearby (or online) that offers the diploma, certification, or degree you need. Again, plenty of books and online resources are available that can help you in your search.
Each vocational school has its own admissions criteria, but expect to complete an application and submit a copy of your high-school transcript or GED. You may also be required to take a placement exam and/or submit SAT or ACT test scores if you are considering a four-year program.
Before applying to a school, you should especially research the placement record of its graduates for the program you are considering. Most post-secondary schools offer some degree of career counseling; others are more pro-active, sponsoring career fairs and other opportunities in which students can connect directly with prospective employers about both apprenticeships and jobs.
Finally, while vocational schools are a much cheaper alternative than four-year colleges, you'll still have tuition, fees, and books. Many schools offer financial-aid assistance, and you should not by shy about asking each school what you can expect in terms of grants, scholarships, and loans.
Vocational School and Career Resources
- Vocational Information Center -- an education directory that provides links to online resources for career exploration, technical education, workforce development, technical schools and related vocational learning resources.
- Choosing a Career or Vocational School, from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
- Career Schools – Learn About Your College and Career School Options, from the U.S. Department of Education.
- Vocational and Proprietary Schools – Get Consumer Help, from the Better Business Bureau.
Final Thoughts on Educational Opportunities After High School
For some other ideas for alternatives to college after high school, read Next Step After High School? Some Alternatives to College.
Partial List of Vocational Careers
- Appliance Repairer
- Baker/Pastry Artist
- Barber/Hair Stylist
- Brick Mason
- Burglar/Fire Alarm Installer
- Carpet Installer
- Court Reporter
- Dental Hygienist
- Floor Layer
- Forest Fire Fighters
- Horticulture Specialist
- Hospitality/Tourism Specialist
- Industrial Designer
- Interior Decorator
- Inventory Analyst
- Medical Assistant
- Nail Technician
- Power Plant Operator
- Printing Press Operator
- Real Estate Appraiser
- Solar Energy Installer
- Sound Engineering Technician
- Stone Mason
- Tool/Die Maker
- Veterinary Technician
- Water Treatment Operator
- Web Design Specialist
- X-Ray Technician
Take advantage of all the tools and resources in our Teenage Jobs, Careers, and College -- Including College and Career Choices, as well as in our Critical Issues and Resources for High School Students.
Maximize your career and job-search knowledge and skills! Take advantage of the Career Resources Toolkit for Jobseekers from LiveCareer, which enables site visitors to locate articles, tutorials, FAQs, and worksheets in 35 career, college, job-search topic areas.
Additional Resources for Jobseekers: