Among the many post-secondary educational paths individuals can take, vocational training is an increasingly popular option, especially for students who are looking to gain technical skills and enter the workforce as quickly as possible. Enrollment in vocational training programs at trade schools and career colleges is rising as students are drawn towards careers in fast-growing fields like cosmetology, HVAC, and medical data management.

This article explores vocational training, the types of vocational training available, different career paths for those with vocational training, and the differences between traditional college programs and vocational training.

What is Vocational Training?

Also known as career or technical education, vocational training is a type of post-secondary education designed to help students develop skills for a particular job or trade. It is most common for technical fields with a significant hands-on component, such as auto mechanics, plumbing, or culinary arts.

Unlike traditional comprehensive degree programs, the curriculums for vocational training programs focus only on the skills and knowledge students need to perform a specific job or task, emphasizing the development of practical, industry-specific abilities over transferable soft skills.

Because of their narrow focus, vocational training programs can be completed relatively quickly, usually in one to two years of full-time study. These types of programs are offered in a variety of different settings, including trade schools and career colleges, industry-specific schools, and community and technical colleges. Depending on the program, students who complete a vocational training program can receive a certificate, diploma, or associate degree.

Types of Vocational Training

High school career and technical education (CTE) programs

These programs offer high school students the opportunity to jump-start their vocational training with courses taken as part of their high school curriculum. CTE programs may be offered at the student’s high school or through a partnership with a local trade school or career college. While students may need additional vocational training after completing their high school program to fully qualify for jobs, enrolling in a CTE program allows students to explore different career paths before committing to a post-secondary vocational program. In a dual enrollment program, they can also apply the credits they earn for high school graduation toward their post-secondary vocational training program.

Tech prep education

Tech prep education is another opportunity for students to begin their vocational training while finishing high school. These programs are offered through an arrangement between a high school and a post-secondary vocational training school or community college. Students usually begin the program while they are in high school and complete it after one to two years of post-secondary study. As the name implies, tech prep education programs are mainly available for technology-focused careers. Students who complete these programs receive a certificate or associate degree.

Post-secondary vocational programs

The most common form of vocational training is post-secondary vocational programs offered by trade schools, career colleges, and community and technical colleges. These programs often lead to a certificate, diploma, or associate degree in the student’s chosen field.

Post-secondary vocational programs are designed for students who have completed high school or a GED, and are seeking focused preparation for a specific job or industry. While these programs may be offered during daytime hours, many also have evening or weekend classes to make them more accessible for working adults.

Courses in these programs help students gain the foundational and advanced knowledge they need to fulfill responsibilities for a particular job and often include a significant amount of hands-on learning as well as reading assignments, lectures, and discussions.

Some trade schools offer a comprehensive roster of different vocational training programs, while others focus on a specific industry, such as cosmetology or culinary schools.

Apprenticeship programs

Apprenticeships function like internships for trades, with individuals working under a professional’s supervision in a workplace setting while being paid for their work. Apprenticeships exist in a variety of industries, including many highly skilled, hands-on professions.

The terms of apprenticeship programs, including qualifications, length, salary, and what companies offer them, vary widely. Depending on the program, apprentices may also be required to participate in classroom instruction as well as on-the-job training. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains an apprenticeship database to help connect individuals with potential apprenticeship opportunities.

Workplace training

On-the-job training is also considered a form of vocational training, with individuals learning skills by doing them in a workplace context. Depending on the employer, individuals may participate in a formal workplace training program or shadow a more experienced employee to gain the necessary knowledge and abilities. Regardless of an individual’s educational background, most careers involve some kind of workplace training, which can help employees develop job-specific skills as well as transferable skills like communication, problem-solving, and leadership.

Individual courses

Students don’t need to enroll in a full vocational training program to develop relevant job skills. Individuals or standalone courses offer students the opportunity to gain new expertise or update their current knowledge to stay relevant in their field. Individual courses are widely available through two- and four-year colleges, trade schools, professional organizations, and online learning platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn.

Military training

One of the benefits of serving in the U.S. Armed Forces is access to vocational training programs the military provides to help enlisted service members prepare for civilian careers or advancement in the military.

Military training programs include the United Services Military Apprenticeship Program (USMAP), which helps service members find apprenticeships that align with their current military duties and combines on-the-job training with technical instruction, and the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF), which provides training in fields of study directly related to Air Force specialties. CCAF programs are offered to enlisted Air Force members free of charge, and they award an associate degree upon completion.

While not specifically a vocational training program, the Credentialing Opportunities On-Line program (COOL) connects Army service members with resources, including certification and licensing requirements, to help them transition to civilian jobs.

Jobs Students Can Get with Vocational Training

  • Automotive service technicians and mechanics — Inspect, maintain and repair cars and light trucks, including testing parts and systems to ensure proper functioning, performing basic and advanced maintenance, and using computerized diagnostic equipment to identify problems.
    • Median annual salary: $47,770
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 2%
    • New jobs projected: 67,700 per year
  • Paramedics — Assess injuries and illnesses, provide emergency medical care, and transport patients to medical facilities.
    • Median annual salary: $38,930
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 5%
    • New jobs projected: 18,100 per year
  • Barbers, hairstylists and cosmetologists — Provide haircutting, hairstyling, and other services related to personal appearance.
    • Median annual salary: $36,150
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 8%
    • New jobs projected: 89,400 per year
  • Licensed practical nurses — Provide basic medical care to ill, injured, or convalescing patients or to persons with disabilities, including monitoring patients’ health, documenting patient care and maintaining health records, and working with registered nurses, physicians, and other members of care teams.
    • Median annual salary: $59,730
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 5%
    • New jobs projected: 54,400 per year
  • HVAC technicians — Work on heating, ventilation, cooling, and refrigeration systems that control the temperature and air quality in buildings.
    • Median annual salary: $57,300
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 6%
    • New jobs projected: 37,700 per year

Learn More About Vocational Training and Trade Schools

Differences Between Vocational Training and Traditional Degrees

Skill development

Vocational training programs help students develop a deep set of specialized skills related to their particular future profession. Traditional degree programs place more emphasis on developing a breadth of skills that may apply to their major area of study but can also be applicable in a variety of professional settings.

Both approaches are valuable, depending on the student’s future career plans. Individuals who have a specific, highly-skilled career in mind will likely benefit from the focused education of a traditional training program, while those who want to explore various professional options or have skills applicable to multiple jobs may find a traditional degree program more appealing.

Completion time

Because vocational training programs are designed to help individuals enter the workforce as quickly as possible, they tend to take less time to complete than traditional degree programs. The length of time it takes to complete a vocational training program depends on the area of study, the program provider, and the student’s pace of study. Some programs can be completed in as little as a few months, while others take up to two years. For traditional degrees, the standard minimum completion time is two years for associate degrees, four years for bachelor’s degrees, and one to three years for a master’s degree.

Completion documentation

While some vocational training programs award an associate degree, most conclude with a certificate or diploma. Those enrolled in a degree program can earn an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree, depending on the type of program.

For most trade jobs, a certificate or diploma is a sufficient qualification, although students should research standard education requirements for the career path that interests them before choosing an education program. Individuals with a vocational training certificate or diploma may not qualify for jobs outside their field of study or be able to pursue a traditional degree without first meeting certain prerequisites.

Frequently Asked Questions

What type of institutions provide vocational training?

A number of different types of institutions provide vocational training, including vocational technical high schools, trade schools, career colleges, technical institutes, and community colleges.

When researching vocational programs, students should note whether the school is non-profit or for-profit. Many career colleges and trade schools in the U.S. are for-profit, while community and technical colleges are more likely non-profit. For-profit schools operate as businesses with the primary purpose of earning a profit for shareholders. While many for-profit trade schools provide valuable education and training to students, their model can lead to limited investment in students and deceitful business practices.

Non-profit schools, by definition, must reinvest revenue into the institution in the form of faculty and staff salaries, infrastructure, student resources, and more, which can lead to a higher quality of education.

Another consideration is accreditation status, which includes national accreditation, regional accreditation, or no accreditation. Trade schools and career colleges are typically nationally accredited, which is a less recognized form of accreditation than regional accreditation. While this likely won’t impact an individual’s ability to find a job in their trade, it can affect eligibility for financial aid and future educational opportunities.

How much does vocational training cost?

The cost of vocational training programs varies based on the type of program, the length and the institution offering it. Some vocational training programs, like apprenticeships, actually give students the opportunity to earn money while getting their training.

For programs offered at two-year public colleges, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average annual tuition was $3,598 during the 2022-23 academic year. Meanwhile at private colleges, average annual tuition was $20,019 at non-profit schools and $16,444 at for-profit schools. Students can review the costs of specific vocational programs using the Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency List.

Eligibility for federal student aid, like loans and grants, varies by school and program. Students who are planning on using this type of aid to pay for their vocational training should confirm the program’s eligibility status before enrolling.

Is vocational training worth it?

Vocational training can be very valuable depending on an individual’s educational and career goals. For highly skilled trade jobs, it is often the most efficient path to gaining the knowledge and skills needed to qualify for those positions.

Vocational training also prepares students for jobs with significant earning potential, such as electrical installers and repairers, licensed practical nurses, and aircraft mechanics, all of which have higher-than-average annual salaries. Because vocational training programs typically cost less than full degrees, individuals may also see a greater return on investment from their education. They also take less time to complete than a traditional degree, which means individuals can enter the workforce faster.

However, there are some things to consider when deciding if a vocational training program is the right fit. Because these programs focus on training for a specific job or career path, students don’t gain many transferable skills, which can be detrimental if they decide not to pursue a career in that field or need to pivot because of a lack of jobs or other circumstances. Students who decide to pursue a traditional degree in the future may not be able to transfer their vocational school credits to a degree program.

Additionally, because many career colleges are for-profit, there is a history of predatory and deceptive practices that leave students defrauded and without a valuable education. Students considering for-profit career colleges and trade schools should carefully research their options to ensure that the school operates in a responsible manner that serves students and provides a valid education.