What is a Trade School in 2023?

June 30, 2023

Tailgates, ramen, Greek life, dorm room drama: the traditional 4-year college does, without a doubt, take up a lot of space in the American psyche. College movies constitute a uniquely American genre, just like Westerns and gangster films. We wear our alma mater’s colors with pride and scrutinize over our March Madness brackets. And how many mega-corps boast origin myths that involve college kids concocting some new idea over a dorm room desk? What’s more, the numbers seem to confirm this phenomenon: A few years back, more than 60 percent of America’s high school grads enrolled in a 4-year college. But the 4-year college is far from the only avenue available to graduating high school seniors. Trade schools are a promising alternative to 4-year colleges, and the number of students enrolling at trade schools is increasing. But what is a trade school?

What is a trade school?

You’ve seen the ads—in subway cars, on billboards, even on YouTube—offering training to become a locksmith, an HVAC technician, a dental hygienist. Start earning 65k a year in IT! Become a pharmacy technician in 10 months! But is it really that easy? Is it worth it? Maybe you’ve even asked yourself: What is a trade school?

Trade schools provide students with hands-on training to prepare for careers in specific skilled professions, or trades. A trade is a job that requires a skill set that can only be acquired through specific training. For example, plumbing and carpentry are considered trade jobs because they require a specific regimen of training not typically offered at traditional 4-year colleges. Programs are centered entirely on teaching students the skills required for their trade. In other words, if you were to enroll at a trade school, all your classes would focus exclusively on job-relevant training.

These institutions offer degrees in carpentry, cosmetology, the culinary arts, graphic design, information technology, nursing, plumbing, and welding, just to name a few. Most programs at trade schools take just two years to complete, and sometimes even less.

A key difference between trade schools and 4-year colleges is that graduates of trade schools don’t earn a bachelor’s degree. Instead, graduates receive a diploma or certificate that acknowledges successful completion of the program. Upon completion of certain programs, like paralegal training, graduates receive an associate degree. The upshot is that you can begin working in your field as soon as you finish trade school. Just finished that 10-month training program to become a pharmacy technician? Well, now you can go out into the world and start working as a pharmacy technician.

Trade school vs. college

So we’ve answered the question: what is a trade school? But now comes the more pressing question: what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of attending a trade school?

Trade schools take less time to complete than traditional colleges. Most programs can be finished in two years or less. Therefore, you’d be entering the workforce—and accruing crucial on-the-job experience—at least two years before your counterparts who opted for 4-year schools.

They are also significantly cheaper than 4-year colleges. According to Education Data Initiative, the average cost of one year of college in the United States is $36,436. Trade schools, on the other hand, cost an average of $33,000 in total. To state it plainly: just one year of a 4-year college program is, on average, more expensive than the entire tuition at a trade school.

Earning potential, job security

The numbers with respect to earning potential are a little less straightforward. On average, graduates of 4-year colleges earn more than graduates of trade schools: the average starting salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree is around $50,000 a year. But English majors, for example, make less than that—around $44,000 per year. We can compare that figure with the average earnings of a few trade jobs: the median pay for electricians in 2021 was $60,040; for IT specialists, $57,910; for dental hygienists, $77,810.

I’m no statistician, so to try and pull a clear kernel of truth from the raw numbers would be a bit problematic. But I still think it’s important to point out a few trends. The first is the rate of underemployment amongst recent college grads. Underemployment is “working a job that typically does not require a bachelor’s degree”. In 2023, 39% of recent college grads were underemployed in the United States. On the other hand, federal data shows that students who earned an “occupational credential” were employed at higher rates than those who earned an “academic credential.” Moreover, experts project that the US will soon face a deficit of around 6.5 million skilled workers. According to a US Chamber of Commerce study, 88% of construction contractors reported “moderate to high” levels of difficulty finding skilled workers.

Let’s return to our “What is a trade school?” question. These schools provide training for specific trades—i.e., skilled—jobs. And in the United States, there’s a marked demand for skilled labor. Interest in trade schools is increasing accordingly. Trade school enrollments increased from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 16 million in 2014. Plus, the traditional college is beginning to lose some of its luster. Students increasingly report that the cost of college and the precarity of the job market make this a more practical choice.

What is trade school?—and what it’s not

Job prospects and financial security aren’t the only reasons high schoolers choose 4-year colleges. Traditional colleges are just that—traditional. They’re a part of American culture, a rite of passage. Attending a 4-year college can represent the fulfillment of the American dream (unfortunately, the fact that they’ve become exorbitantly expensive and therefore inaccessible to so many Americans also makes the story of the traditional college an American tragedy). Traditional colleges offer a well-rounded education. And they are experience-generating machines: think campus parties, dorm life, sporting events, clubs, and lifelong friendships. So much of the growth and development that happens at traditional colleges happens outside of the classroom. At trade schools, this aspect of college life is largely absent.

What is a trade school? Think of it as a system of professionalization. There isn’t much “campus culture”. Students commute to campus, attend classes, and go home. Classes at a trade school have a singular goal—preparing you for your profession. At a trade school, there’s not much room to explore your diverse interests or curiosities. While I happen to think that the traditional college experience is romanticized in American culture, I did benefit—immensely—from the wide scope of courses that my college offered. In fact, I dedicated my first two years of college to completing the “core” curriculum: a suite of required courses ranging from poetry to political theory. Trade school doesn’t allow for that kind of academic exploration.

It follows that traditional colleges bestow grads with more flexible job prospects. Sure, plenty of companies want to hire candidates with bachelor’s degrees. But the specific major on the diploma? Not as important. It’s important to keep that in mind. Trade schools are more restrictive. They prepare you to perform a specific job in a specific field.

Learning style

When it comes to learning style and teaching methodology, trade schools have a clear advantage over traditional colleges. Trade school students learn primarily through experience. They learn about a skill, watch an expert perform it, and try to emulate the expert. Eventually, the expert’s guidance and instruction fade away. Students perform the skill on their own. This process of observation, coaching, and practice constitutes an apprenticeship model of learning. Apprenticeship is a powerful way to achieve deep learning. In fact, throughout most of history, knowledge has been transmitted via apprenticeship.

The educational philosophy at most traditional colleges, on the other hand, is—let’s face it—dated. What characterizes the typical learning experience at traditional colleges? The bespectacled professor, behind a podium, lecturing to a congregation of students. This represents a theory of education called instructionism. Here, knowledge is thought of as facts, and the object of education is to transmit those facts to students.

The only problem? That’s just not how humans learn. Students are much more than fact-receptacles. John Dewey, the prolific philosopher of education, said famously: “genuine education comes through experience”. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s great insight was that knowledge is not just information to be received and memorized. Rather, individuals actively construct knowledge through experience.

That’s not to say that genuine learning doesn’t happen at traditional colleges. It does. But trade schools are more in line with experiential, constructivist models of learning.

Final thoughts

Don’t worry, I’m not a shill to the big trade school lobby. Nobody paid me to extol the virtues of trade schools and bash 4-year colleges. I just happen to think that the stigma attached to attending a trade school instead of a traditional college is, to put it nicely—silly. As the price of college continues to go up, trade schools are a legitimate option—for everyone.

If you are interested in learning more, check out of blog entitled The 16 Best Trade School Jobs.