What is trade school and is it right for you?

(NewsNation) — Put off by student debt and white-collar job insecurity, data shows members of Gen Z are opting for skilled trade work over cubicles and corporate ladders.

Trade schools are often viewed as a more affordable fast-track to the workforce, linking students to industries unlikely to be pushed out by AI and other job security threats.

A survey conducted by the tech company Thumbtack suggests that 47% of young adults are interested in a trade profession. About 83% said learning a skilled trade could be a better pathway to economic security.

Those sentiments coincide with the growth in vocational training enrollment and declining registration at community colleges and four-year universities.

Here is what you need to know about trade school and whether going to trade school is the right decision.

What is a trade school?

Trade schools are programs with courses that prepare students directly for their intended job without a bachelor’s or more advanced degree from a four-year university.

Common vocational program structures include apprenticeships, preparation for certification or licensure, associate degrees and hands-on training, according to Edvisors.com.

Labor crisis: Why is there a shortage of plumbers and electricians?

How is trade school different than college?

Trade schools may not require ACT and SAT test scores and other elements of what can be a lengthy application process that universities require, Indeed.com explains.

Students often work while they learn, and because coursework in a vocational program is trade-specific, students may not need to register for general education courses that fall outside their desired career.

Trade schools typically have smaller class sizes of about 10-25 people, according to Prism Career Institute.

Upon completion of their program, instead of graduating with an associate's or bachelor's degree like students at a two- or four-year college program, trade school students typically earn a trade certification.

What's the difference between trade school and an apprenticeship?

According to Indeed, an apprenticeship is an industry-based education program that allows people to receive full practical training while also earning an income. A trade school is an educational institution that provides the hands-on experience and learning necessary for the specific trade. An income is not provided.

Some trades, like carpentry, often have both a trade school portion and then an apprenticeship as part of the full training.

What can you go to trade school for?

Students can go to trade schools for a wide range of vocational training to become plumbers, HVAC technicians, certified nursing aids, truck drivers, auto technicians and hair stylists, among other career opportunities. Some of these career opportunities can pay more than $80,000 per year.

Students will have to enroll in specific vocational training for the trade they are interested in, as these trades require specialized knowledge and hands-on learning.

How long is trade school?

Trade school programs vary but tend to range from eight months to two years, according to Scholarships360.org.

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For example, an electrician certification program can be completed in a year or less, but the majority of the training is completed in a paid apprenticeship that can last up to five years, according to Scholarships360. Other trades, like cosmetology, take less than two years to complete a program, but many states require cosmetologists pass an exam and obtain a license after they complete their program.

Can I attend a trade school online?

Online trade schooling is an option, but some programs may still require hands-on training, according to Edvisors.com. Some trade students opt for online training because of the flexibility of remote learning.

To find out if a school is accredited, you can visit the Department of Education's website.

Do I need a high school diploma to go to trade school?

Many (but not all) programs require a GED or high school diploma. Trade education in fields such as cosmetology or massage therapy, or skilled jobs like welding may not require a high school education, according to Indeed.

Applicants, however, may need a GED or high school diploma to become licensed in their trade, depending on the state and industry.

Do I need a college degree to go to trade school?

Some vocational programs for careers such as nursing may require applicants to achieve an associate's degree in a related subject, though many programs for other fields do not.

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Whether an additional degree is required before attending a trade school will vary by industry and desired career path.

How much is trade school?

Trade school is often considered a more affordable alternative to a four-year university. As of 2023, public trade schools cost an average of a little more than $12,000, according to data from the career website Zippia. Alternatively, nonprofit trade schools cost an average of $16,500, while for-profit trade schools cost an average of $20,000.

Tuition costs and other expenses such as textbooks and industry-specific tools or equipment are wide-ranging and vary across industries and program types.

The targeted industry can also dictate tuition costs and related expenses.

Studying to be a motorcycle technician, for example, costs an average of $5,100, while studying to be an auto technician costs an average $22,300, according to Zippia research published in October 2023.

Students may qualify for federal student loans to help cover costs.

How do you get into trade school?

Trade schools, like universities, require students to apply. The process, however, is often less intensive, since vocational programs train students specifically for their intended job, and therefore tend to have fewer prerequisites.

Some schools have a minimum age requirement of 18 and may require proof of completed standardized testing, according to Indeed. Depending on the program, applicants may also need to take an entrance exam or a skills assessment.

While not all programs require transcripts from other educational programs, personal essays or letters of recommendation, some do.

How much could I earn in a trade?

Earnings in a trade job vary by industry, location and experience.

The median annual salary for barbers, hair stylists and cosmetologists, for example, is about $29,000, according to Scholarships360.com.

Other occupations such as elevator and escalator installers and repairers can earn a median annual salary of $99,0000 — one of the top-earning trade occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Is there a labor shortage with trade workers?

America could be potentially facing a skilled labor shortage with tradesmen aging out of the workforce.

Some 1.9 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade could go unfilled if the "talent conundrum" isn't resolved, according to a new study from the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte. Some trades like plumbing are expected to be 550,000 workers short by 2027, Bloomberg reported.

Mike Rowe, host of “Dirty Jobs," said he believes a shortage is forthcoming.

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“For every five trades people who retire, two replace them. And it’s been that way for over a decade," Rowe said on NewsNation's "CUOMO." "I talk to people every day who are making close to $200,000 — plumbers, steamfitters, pipefitters, electricians."

What is job security like for trade workers?

About 95% of skilled trade workers are optimistic about their job security and don't think they'll be replaced by AI, according to the 2023 Thumbtack report.

That said, some trade industries are expected to employ fewer people throughout the next decade. Power plant operator jobs, for example, are projected to see a 10% decline from now until 2032, with an anticipated numeric loss of 4,700 jobs, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Other careers such as transportation, storage and distribution managers could see faster than average growth.

What else should I know?

The Federal Trade Commission warns that although many vocational schools and certification programs are legitimate, some may present misleading information about salaries, job availability, qualifications of school staff and connections to businesses and industries.

Applicants should never sign anything they don't understand and should avoid schools that guarantee employment after graduation.

The FTC also encourages anyone who is considering trade school to research the programs’ accreditation and accreditors. (To find out if a school is accredited, visit the Department of Education's website.)

Attending an unaccredited school may prevent students from accessing potential federal financial aid, transferring credits to an accredited school and getting a job in their field, according to guidance from (but not specific to) the state of New York.

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