What Are Technical Schools?

Female technician guiding young trainee
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A technical school is a postsecondary institution that trains its students for a specific trade. Sometimes called a technical college or trade school, a technical school differs from most four-year colleges in that the education has a narrow focus on a particular profession. Where a four-year university delivers a broad and versatile education, a technical school provides hands-on training centered around a single trade.

Technical schools typically offer two-year associate's degree programs, although they may also have shorter certification programs. Typical areas of study include business administration, culinary arts, engineering, automotive technology, computer technology, medical technology, and cosmetology. Technical school programs exist for most professions that require hands-on technical expertise.

What Do Technical Schools Teach?

Your coursework at a technical college is going be specialized and hands-on, for you need to practice the skills for the profession you plan to enter. If, for example, you are training to be a radiologist, your two-year degree program is going to include courses such as Fundamentals of Radiologic Science, Radiation Physics, Anatomy & Physiology, Radiobiological Protection, Radiographic Procedures, Diagnostic Imaging, Diagnostic Imaging, and various radiology clinics. You may also have courses on written and oral communication, since these skills are important when working in a hospital environment.

The type of coursework required to get a degree from a technical college is going to vary significantly for different fields, but the general idea is that students gain depth in a narrow area, not breadth across multiple disciplines.

Some of the popular areas of study at technical colleges include:

Medical: Many essential employees in hospitals, clinics, and doctor's offices have degrees from technical schools, as do dental hygienists. If you want to be a radiologist, cardiovascular technician, or respiratory therapist, you're going to need a specialized associate's degree that prepares you to pass a national certification exam.

Aviation: Many air traffic controllers and aviation maintenance personnel, and aircraft mechanics got their training at technical schools. Workers will need to be licensed by the FAA, and a technical school prepares them for the exam.

Computing: Not all computer science jobs require a four-year degree, and trade schools often offer programs in cyber security, electronics, mobile application development, computer information technology, and computer programming.

Culinary Arts: Many chefs and head cooks learn their skills through experience and apprenticeships, but many others attend technical schools. Programs are also available in areas such as brewing and restaurant management.

Engineering: To become an engineer, you're going to need to earn a four-year bachelor's degree. However, a career as an engineering technologist or technician typically requires a two-year degree from a technical school. Technologists and technicians assist engineers and are essential to engineering projects.

Veterinary: Becoming a vet requires many, many years in school to earn a bachelor's and doctoral degree. But you can gain specialized training to assist vets with a two-year program focused on becoming a veterinary technician or vet assistant.

Media Arts: Technical schools offer a range of programs in areas such as animation, photography, web design, graphic design, and film & video production. Some careers will require additional schooling, but the media industry has plenty of jobs for specialists with an associate's degree.

Skilled Trades: Most trades don't require an associate's degree, but technical schools can play a valuable role in gaining skills and advancing one's career. Training in construction, engine repair, welding, and appliance repair are offered by trade schools, and you'll even find training for highly specialized jobs such as underwater welder, lineworker, and commercial diver.

Pros and Cons of Technical Schools

First, the pros...

Demand: The demand for workers in many trades is growing, but the actual number of students entering technical schools has been declining in recent decades. Because of the growing need for skilled, specialized workers, employment is often easy to come by

Salary: Because the specialized skills taught at many trade schools are in such high demand, you're likely to make a good salary. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, radiologic technologists earn an average of $73,710 a year, dental hygienists average $77,090, and aircraft technicians average $66,680. Technical specialists in medical, mechanical, and electronic fields tend to bring in good salaries.

Time and Cost: According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of a technical school education is $33,000. You're likely to pay that much (or more) for a single year of a bachelor's degree program. Plus, you'll be out of school two years sooner than a bacehlor's degree student, which means you have two extra years when you are earning money, not paying it.

Convenience: Many trade schools are designed to accommodate people with work and family obligations. Evening, weekend, and online courses are available for many programs.

Accessibility: Most technical schools have open admissions, so almost anyone can attend.

And now the cons...

Salary: Not all trades have a rosy outlook for employment. Cosmologists, for example, earn an average $27,630 a year, and the job market is in decline. Bakers and some other specialties in the culinary arts have average salaries below $30,000 a year.

Advancement: Because technical schools train students for a specific job, it can be challenging to advance into leadership positions without additional training in areas such as business management, communications, and economics. Technical degrees are not very versatile.

Hands, not Minds: If you like learning lots of different things, debating issues with friends and colleagues, brainstorming problems, and having broad knowledge across diverse fields, a trade school is definitely not for you. In a technical school, you train for a specific technical profession, and your degree is good for only that profession.

Best Technical Schools

Technical schools tend to have strengths in specific professions, so keep in mind that the best schools for your particular interests and career goals may be quite different than the schools in the list below. Each of these schools offers in-demand programs and rigorous job training, and each has a proven record of excellent job placement.

  • Fox Valley Technical College: Located in Appleton, Wisconsin, FVTC enrolls about 12,000 students and offers a wide range of certificate and degree programs. Business, health, computer, and law enforcement fields are all popular.
  • Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics: Located in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, this highly specialized school enrolls just over 600 students. The demand for PIA trained aircraft mechanics and avionics technicians is huge.
  • Lake Area Technical College: Lake Area Tech takes pride in the fact that 99% of their graduates are either employed or continuing their educations. The campus of about 2,200 students is located in Watertown, South Dakota. Agricultural and automotive programs are particularly popular.
  • Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture: This small school of just 331 students in Curtis, Nebraska, offers excellent hand-on training in many areas of agriculture and veterinary technology.
  • State Technical College of Missouri: Located in Linn, Missouri, State Tech enrolls about 1,700 students across a broad range of specialties. The school has 500 industry partners and a 99% job placement record.
  • Carolina College of Health Sciences: As it's name suggests, this small school in Charlotte, North Carolina, specializes in training students for careers in the health sciences. Associate degree programs include nursing, radiologic technology, and neurodiagnostic technology. Carolinas College also offers certificate and bachelor's degree programs.
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Grove, Allen. "What Are Technical Schools?" ThoughtCo, May. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/technical-schools-overview-5181630. Grove, Allen. (2021, May 3). What Are Technical Schools? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/technical-schools-overview-5181630 Grove, Allen. "What Are Technical Schools?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/technical-schools-overview-5181630 (accessed January 28, 2023).