What Is a Vocational School?

Female technician guiding young trainee
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A vocational school is one that prepares a student for a specific type of job. In other words, a vocational education provides the skills needed for a career in a particular trade or craft. A student who attends a vocational school (sometimes called a trade school) will focus almost entirely on that target career.

The vocational approach is in sharp contrast to most traditional bachelor's degree programs in which students take courses in a wide range of subjects to develop broad and versatile knowledge and skills. For example, a student majoring in biology at a liberal arts college will also take classes in chemistry, physics, history, literature, writing, and the social sciences. At a vocational school, a student might study the biological sciences, but courses would be targeted towards a specific career goal such as becoming a dental hygienist, radiologist, or surgical technician.

The Vocational School Experience

Vocational schools typically have open admissions, although some specialized programs are certainly an exception to this rule. Often, to be admitted a student need only be 16 or 17 years old and have completed high school or earned a GED. Programs can have limited spaces, but the application process rarely involves things like the SAT or ACT, letters of recommendation, admissions essays, or other measures that are often required by four-year colleges and universities.

Vocational schools draw a diverse range of students. Some will be recent high school graduates who are continuing their educations, while other students are adults who are returning to the workforce after a period of time or who are looking for a change.

Almost all vocational school programs can be completed in two years or fewer. Some lead to a two-year associate degree, while others might take a year or less and lead to certification or licensure in a specific profession. A vocational school might be a private, for-profit institution or it could be run through a state-funded community college. The latter will typically have lower costs.

Many vocational programs are designed with working people in mind. Evening and weekend classes are common so that students can balance their classwork with jobs and family commitments. Classes tend to be small, and most have a significant hands-on component, since students are learning trade skills that require specialized tools and equipment.

What Can You Do With a Vocational School Degree?

Many students who enter the workforce straight out of high school find that job opportunities are extremely limited. Jobs in retail, food service, and construction often don't require further education, but they can also be jobs with limited potential for growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees with an associate's degree earn an average of $124 more per week than those with a high school diploma, and $316 more per week than those who never completed high school.

Employees' salaries, of course, are going to vary significantly based on the type of vocational degrees they earn, and some degrees are in much more demand than others. Healthcare is a field with high demand, and vocational education can lead to careers such as

  • Nursing aides
  • Medical technicians
  • Surgical prep technicians
  • Phlebotomists
  • Laboratory technicians
  • Radiologists

Other common vocational fields include

  • Plumbing
  • Welding
  • Paralegal
  • Computer support
  • Laboratory science technology
  • Real estate
  • Hospitality
  • Firefighting
  • Automotive
  • Cooking

Vocational schools across the country offer hundreds of specialized training opportunities, so the primary challenge is finding one that matches your specific interests and career goals.

The Pros and Cons of Attending Vocational School

In our highly technological world, the majority of careers require some form of training and education after high school. Many jobs, however, do not require a four-year college degree or graduate degree. A vocational education increases a student's employability and earning potential. Vocational school is also highly efficient—rather than a four-year commitment, a one-year certificate program or two-year associate's degree will provide the necessary training.

Vocational school does, however, have some limitations. For one, you'll be training for a specific job, and that type of focused, specialized training can limit job mobility. The broader and more flexible preparation provided by a four-year college doesn't have as many limitations, and it can be easier to advance into senior positions and management. Also, while a vocational degree certainly increases one's earning potential, those with a bachelor's degree earn, on average, about $340 more per week than those with an associate degree.

That said, attending a vocational school can be an efficient, effective, and affordable way to advance one's career.