Trade School: A Good Alternative to College?
Trade school, also called vocational-technical school, aka “vo-tech,” has been actively discussed as an alternative to college in the media, and not just the education press. A trade school might be more appealing to high school students who:
- Already have strong interests and/or skills in a trade that is in high demand. Most of us know someone who has enthusiasm for repairing cars or computers or working with construction tools, among other things, and has maintained that enthusiasm well into high school.
- Might already have an entrepreneurial bent where the interests/skills could be the basis to start a business sooner, rather than later.
- Would prefer to avoid subjects outside of the trade in their education, or the more theoretical aspects—such as Calculus or Physics—of fields such as computer science or engineering.
- May have connections to a prospective employer or labor union that might open up a more immediate door to employment than a path to a four-year college degree.
If you are considering a trade school program, and are not currently enrolled in one through your local school system, there are some considerations that will be different from college. They are:
- Is the place where you currently live also the place where your student would like to work? Or is the thought to move to a place where the jobs are? It’s going to be much harder for high school students to find work immediately after graduation if they live in an area that has lost many jobs in its once-dominant companies and industries. There will be fewer opportunities not only with large employers, but also smaller businesses that have served them as well as fewer opportunities to provide services to families and businesses alike.
- What are the admissions standards for the trade school, and what are the prerequisite courses that must be completed in high school before starting the program? Community colleges, as one example, are open admissions schools, but they have prerequisites and requirements for job-related programs. They can add time towards completing the certificate or degree. Other trade schools might have tests and a thorough review of a high school transcript. Then there are others that admit anyone, and help you apply for the student loan as soon as you get a ‘yes’. Avoid them.
- What does the program cost? If a trade school program is offered by a public college, for example, students may be considered for scholarships, work-study jobs and loans. Private schools also offer scholarships, but they are likely to cover a smaller share of tuition and fees than those offered by a public two or four-year college. Never borrow more than a college student would borrow over the course of the program. For example, for a two-year career prep program, the maximum debt allowed through the low-interest Federal Direct Student Loan program would be $12,000.
- Does the school have a career development center with specialists who have contacts with the employers who regularly hire their graduates? The job markets for trade school programs tend to be more local than they will be for a regionally or nationally recognized four-year college. The better job related programs also have employer sponsorship.
- Do the programs that require apprenticeships have associations with the local, regional or state labor unions? Unions still control access to temporary and permanent jobs in many fields.
- Are there local alumni, recent graduates, that you may contact to ask about their satisfaction with the program? A good program will have satisfied alumni who are more than willing to share their experience.
- Does the school offer continuing education? Employers will not always take on this responsibility to run continuing education programs on site after their firms introduce new equipment and machinery into manufacturing processes or after they launch a new product that they support through a warrantee. For example, if I were considering a trade school program in auto mechanics, I would want one that taught me how to repair combustion engine, diesel, electric and hybrid vehicles.
I have two biases towards trade school programs that I feel obligated to share, based on personal experiences:
- Learn a trade where families as well as businesses can become your customers, whether you work for an employer, union, or yourself. The trades with the largest possible customer base are likely to offer more secure employment.
- Learn to repair something that a business and a family would find too expensive to throw away. While television sets, for example, were once expensive acquisitions for family, today they are less expensive than “smart phones,” and more likely to be discarded after they fail. But a business or family will invest their money to repair an air conditioner, computer or motor vehicle because they are too expensive to replace.
A trade school education is not to be snubbed if it can lead directly to a career that the graduate will find interesting and rewarding as well as financially lucrative. But just as choosing a college requires an informed decision, so does choosing a trade school program.
Need help in considering career and educational options for a high school or college student, or a recent college graduate? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 609-406-0062.