Vocational vs. Technical Schools

When people think of the college experience, they conjure up thoughts of kids on a college campus, going to class during the day, and enjoying dorm parties, football games and other activities on the evenings and weekends. We also think of students studying to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, and teachers. These programs all have the same things in common: they require at least four years of education and, for the most part, the classroom setting involves the instructor lecturing, the students taking notes, and turning in homework assignments, papers, and exams to get a passing grade. At the end of four years (or however long it takes for a student to complete all the required classes) students graduate and receive bachelor degrees. Some enter the workforce and begin their careers, others continue their education by going to graduate school, law school, or medical school.

Many students are interested in taking this path, and they go on to have wonderful, fulfilling careers. But what about students who aren’t interested in this path? For those students, there are other options and careers for which they could be better suited. The fact is, not everyone is cut out for the traditional college journey, but that doesn’t mean they too don’t deserve to learn a trade that they can also enjoy.

Although a traditional college experience works for many students, it’s not for everyone. All students aren’t cut out for, or even interested in, “regular” college. Some students want to learn a trade or skill and get on with their lives. Others might not be able to afford four years of school but can afford one or two years of higher education. For these students, a vocational or technical school is a good option. These schools usually offer majors and programs that are more blue-collar than accountants and lawyers, but they can still pay well. The curriculum is focused primarily on the major itself and is generally much more hands-on. These schools are ideal for students who don’t excel in a traditional classroom setting but do well working with their hands. Most programs range in duration from 9 months to two years to complete and they culminate in a student attaining a degree or certificate as well as being prepared to take any required licensing or certification exams.

What’s the Difference between a Technical and Vocational School?


Although technical and vocational schools both fall under the trade school umbrella, there are some differences between the two types of schools. Technical schools often focus on technical trades and careers. They are often math and science based and require course work that delves into the science behind the profession as well as hands-on training. Vocational schools focus on learning a particular vocation. There is still some classwork involved, but the majority of the training is hands-on from the start. For example, someone who wanted to learn to design webpages would go to a technical school and study web design. They would spend some time on basic skills like HTML and possibly basic programming languages. Someone who wanted to become a truck driver would go to a truck-driving school, something usually offered by vocational schools. Keep in mind that a school can offer both technical and vocational education but if you’re looking for a hands-on program, think vocational school, if you’re seeking a career that is more technical or science-based, seek out technical schools.

Financial Aid


If the vocational or technical school is accredited by an organization recognized by the US Department of Education, then financial aid is available for students who can prove a financial need. The types of financial aid most commonly available to students are Pell Grants and student loans. High school students who are considering going to a vocational or technical school should look into scholarship programs offered to high school students. For adults who are returning to school, the technical or vocational school could have scholarships and grants for adult students. Private loans, grants, and scholarships are also an option, especially for technical school. Some corporations offer scholarships and grants to students in exchange for the students coming to work for the company after graduation.

Earning a Higher-Level Degree

If you want to get your foot in the door in a particular profession, getting a certificate or diploma from a vocational and technical school is a good idea. Not only can you start working in your chosen profession faster, but it’s also a good way to determine if you want to advance in that particular career. If you decide you do want to advance, getting into a two- or four-year program at a college or university might be the easiest way to do so. You’ll have practical work experience in the field and, provided you did well in your courses, the proven ability to take and pass classes. You’ll have to provide transcripts from the school you attended as part of the application process, but the chances of getting into a degree program are pretty high. Some technical and vocational schools have agreements with local colleges and universities that make admission into a degree program even easier.

Common Vocation/Technical School Professions


Vocational education allows students to learn a particular trade. Once they have completed their education, they are ready to enter to workforce or sit for any licensing or certification exams that are required. Some vocational education programs are offered in high school, while others are separate programs at vocational schools or community colleges.

Some of the most common professions people enter after completing vocational programs include:

  • Cosmetology
  • Plumbing
  • Welding
  • Nurses Aid
  • Dental Assistant
  • Child Care Worker
  • Veterinarian Assistant
  • Legal Assistant

Technical programs are similar to vocational programs because students study a particular trade or program. However, the area of study might open more options or avenues to students upon graduation. They might study a particular area, but that area of study might open doors to several different careers once the student has completed the certificate or diploma.

Some of the more popular professions students enter upon completing a technical program include:

  • Paralegal
  • Dental Hygiene
  • Nursing
  • .
  • Computer Programming
  • Network Administration
  • Electrician
  • Bookkeeping
  • Graphic Design
  • Web Design

How Are Vocational/Technical Degrees Viewed?


When it comes to the majority of vocational and technical careers, a certificate or diploma meets the educational requirements that most employers would have, at least for entry-level positions. However, for those who want to move into management, a higher degree might be necessary. For example, someone who got a diploma in nurse assisting can get a job as a nursing assistant. But if they want to be a nurse, employers will require they attain a nursing degree. That said, not having an advanced degree typically is not a barrier to employment in technical and vocational careers. Employers want to know that you learned how to do your job and that you have the education to do it. The only issue is that you may find you are qualified for that one career and no other. This can present issues later in your career if you decide you want to shift gears; it’ll almost always mean getting more education unless it’s a career shift that is completely covered by the experience you’ve accrued.

Outlook for Vocational and Technical Schools


The push for “college for all” that took place over the last 20 years has left a worker shortage for what are considered middle-skill careers. These include many of the careers that vocational and technical schools offer. Now that there is a shift back toward vo-tech programs, the outlook for schools that offer these programs is good. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for Vocational and Technical teachers is expected to remain steady. This means there is an anticipated steady stream of students seeking out vocational and technical education. Vocational and technical schools have been around for decades and all signs indicate that they are here to stay, whether to educate those who want to learn a trade or for those with advanced degrees that need to fill in some gaps in their education.

You Can Still Earn a Good Living


Upon graduation from a vocational program, students can immediately enter the workforce. Although salaries will vary depending on the program, most workers with this education make above minimum wage, and others much more.

Some of the highest paying jobs attainable with a vocational education include:

  • Cosmetology
    The average hourly rate for a cosmetologist is $10 per hour, but most who work in this profession make the bulk of their money in tips. This can easily increase this per hour rate closer to $30 per hour, depending on the job location and clientele.
  • Plumbers
    The median salary for plumbers is $21 per hour, but the top 10% in the profession make close to $35 per hour.
  • Truck Driver
    A traditional over-the-road truck driver makes a median salary of $22 per hour, with the top 10% of the profession making $40 per hour. Drivers with a specialized skill (such as HazMat certification) or who drive specialized freight (heavy load or wide load) can command even higher salaries.

Similar to vocational education students, technical trade students also hit the ground running upon completion of their courses.

A few of the well-paying technical careers are:

  • Paralegal
    The average salary for a paralegal is just under $48,000 a year. Those in the top 10% can earn a salary in excess of $70,000 per year.
  • Dental Hygienist
    The average salary for a dental hygienist is $59,000. The top-earning hygienists makes $78,000.
  • Electrician
    The median salary for an electrician is $55,000. The top earners in the field make $95,000 per year.

Vocational Trade School & Career Paths