Trade schools allow you to learn the necessary skills to perform a specific job. Programs are a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on learning, and you can major in a variety of fields, such as cosmetology, culinary arts, health care, hospitality and more. They can be more cost-effective than going to college and allow you to enter the workforce in just a few months. However, trade schools are not the right choice for everyone. Here’s what to know.

What is a trade school?

A trade school, also known as a vocational school or college, is a post-secondary institution that offers job-focused training by teaching students the technical skills required to perform a specific job.

Trade schools offer diplomas, certificates and even associate degrees in fields such as health care, cosmetology, hospitality, medical assisting, construction, electrical and automotive technology. These programs are short in duration, lasting anywhere from several weeks to two years, and accelerate the students’ ability to enter the workforce.

What programs do trade schools offer?

Each trade school has its own academic offerings, however, most of them offer the following programs — all of which lead to good-paying jobs:

Program Average Annual Base Salary
Source: PayScale
Lab Technician $48,154
Culinary Arts $58,000
Computer Programming $66,293
Cosmetology $31,107
Dental hygiene $62,003
Welding $49,272
Plumbing $59,078
Electrical Technician $59,990
Hospitality management $50,954
Automotive Technician $53,104
Carpentry $50,084
Construction $45,662
Medical Information Technology $42,926
Accounting Clerk Assistant $40,371
Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Technician $54,418

Pros of going to trade school

It’s more affordable

According to College Board’s latest report, the average in-state student at four-year public colleges spends $27,330 a year between tuition and fees, in addition to other expenses, while out-of-state students spend $44,150.

Students attending trade schools, on the other hand, spend an average of $33,000 for their whole education, partly due to the short duration of the programs.

“That doesn’t mean that all programs are inexpensive — some can have high tuition and fees, and students should investigate the full cost of the program — but comparatively, they can be cheaper than a four-year degree,” says Julie Lammers, senior vice president of Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility at America Student Assistance (ASA).

You learn by doing

Trade schools offer a combination of both in-classroom instruction and hands-on learning, which is more dynamic than your traditional college education. Classes are also more career-focused, meaning that you’ll only learn what’s relevant to get a job in your chosen field of study.

The main reason behind this is trade schools’ teaching model being geared toward making students workforce-ready upon graduation. They focus on what’s vital for you to obtain gainful employment in a particular field.

They offer a faster track to entering the workforce

Trade school programs can last from several weeks to two years, depending on the school and program you choose.

For example, some cosmetology programs can be completed in as little as one month, while the fastest you can complete a culinary arts program is six months, according to data by the National Center for Education Statistics.

That means you can enter the workforce and start earning a good salary at least two years ahead of your college-going peers.

Simple admission process and multiple starting dates

To be admitted into a four-year college, you’re typically required to meet certain GPA requirements, in addition to passing a standardized test, such as the SAT or ACT. Trade schools, on the other hand, only require you to have a valid high school diploma or GED, in addition to being at least 17 years of age, to be admitted into their programs.

Trade schools also have more starting dates than traditional colleges, as their academic year isn’t strictly limited to semesters or quarters due to their short duration. That means you can enroll as soon as you finish high school.

Small classes and individualized attention

Because most courses are taught simulating a real-world working environment, Lammers says that trade schools need to keep classes small.

“This allows for more dedicated time with instructors and a strong cohort of like-minded fellow trainees to learn from,” she says.

Small classes also allow trade schools to provide better career services, as there’s more room for counselors to give individualized career coaching to students.

“Job placement is a strong component of any trade program,” Lammers says. “Whether it is for full-time employment or for a work-based learning experience like an internship, there is often a career coordinator working to help place participants in relevant jobs,” she adds.

Cons of going to trade school

Fast-paced environment

Since most trade school programs only last several months, professors have to go over a ton of information over a relatively short time. Oftentimes, courses are intensive and exhaustive, and students must learn fast to succeed.

You’ll need to be extra careful when choosing a school

Lammers points out that it can be hard for students to tell which schools are worth their time and money, and which aren’t.

“Not all trade programs are created equal, and we don’t have a strong way to evaluate the quality of every program — particularly those training programs that may be new,” Lammers says. “ Students should look carefully at a program’s success metrics — completion and job placement being two of them— to ensure they can deliver on what they are promising,” she adds.

You can find out some of this information on College Scorecard and read reviews online about the different schools and programs. Additionally, you can reach out to alumni on social media groups to learn more about their experiences.

You may not be eligible for federal financial aid

If you attend a program at an accredited technical school or one that’s part of a community college, you will be eligible for federal financial aid, including the Pell Grant and federal student loans.

However, if a program lasts less than 15 weeks and takes less than 600 hours to complete, you won’t be eligible for the Pell Grant, although you still may be eligible for federal student loans.

“It really depends on the program,” Lammers says. “If federal aid is not available for the program, students should see if the training program provides any scholarship funding before relying on private loans to fund these programs. ” she adds.

It can be hard to pivot or take your career to the next level

Because you’ll learn specific skills that are relevant to a job in a particular industry, switching trades is not in the cards. Unless you retrain, most credits are not transferable between programs. Likewise, career growth is also limited to your current skill set, so if you want to move up the career ladder, you’ll likely need to get additional training.

Trade school vs. college: Which is right for me?

When it comes to choosing between going to college or attending trade school, Lammers says it’s all about personal choice.

“While the traditional school-to-college-to-job path has worked for some, many young people are looking for paths that better suit their needs and aspirations, and we need to do more to better support and validate those aspirations,” Lammers says. “Trade schools are not an ‘alternative’ to college, or something lesser, but a valid choice based on a specific career aspiration,” she adds.

If you want to learn a skilled job, enjoy hands-on learning and are interested in entering the workforce as soon as possible, then a trade program may be right for you. But if you’re interested in learning a discipline within a specific field that offers multiple career choices across different industries, then going to college may be the better option.

In the end, it’s about what works best for you and your long-term goals.