What Is Vocational School? [2024 Ultimate Guide]

By Joy Cromwelle
Edited by Briana Sukert
Updated on April 13, 2024
Edited by Briana Sukert
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As you make plans for your next steps in life, the question “What is vocational school?” may be running through your mind.

What is Vocational School

Even if you don’t feel like a four-year college is the right fit for you, increasing your education could be a strategic move. Enrolling in vocational classes could provide the workforce training that you need.

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With a vocational diploma in hand, you might be on your way to an in-demand career with promising earning potential.

What Is a Vocational School?

For many careers, training is essential, but that doesn’t mean that you have to go to college. Instead, vocational schools may offer the necessary preparation.

In a vocational program, you can learn essential skills for entry-level jobs in your chosen industry. You can also develop a foundation for future advancement.

Vocational Schools

Vocational Schools

This is a general category that includes both technical and trade programs. The term is sometimes shortened to “vo-tech school”.

A vocational certificate may help you get started in fields like:

  • Cosmetology
  • Childcare
  • Culinary arts
  • Electrical trades
  • HVAC
  • Medical and dental assisting
  • Pharmacy
  • Plumbing
  • Welding

Unlike college degree programs, vocational diploma programs don’t involve extra courses, such as writing or history classes. Instead, you’ll focus solely on the essentials for your chosen field.

Vocational studies may be offered through community colleges, four-year colleges, trade schools, and technical schools. Some vocational programs are available as partnerships with public high schools.

Technical Schools

Technical Schools

You’ll typically spend 1 to 2 years studying at a technical college. This approach to education often involves many classroom lectures that focus on the math, science, and theories of your chosen field.

Simulated practice environments are common, but you may receive some hands-on training as well. After earning your vocational diploma from a trade school, you may receive further training in an apprenticeship or an entry-level job role. In some industries, that may be a necessary step toward full licensure.

Trade Schools

Trade Schools

Compared to technical schools, you may have more opportunities for hands-on learning if you enroll at a trade school. Working under the supervision of an experienced tradesperson can help prepare you to enter the job field shortly after completing your program.

Trade schools often specialize in lines of work that feature manual labor. That can include welding, childcare, and HVAC repair. While there are some distinctions between trade and technical schools, it’s also quite common for people to use these two terms interchangeably.

If you’re set on one approach over the other, it’s helpful to read through program descriptions carefully to make sure that you understand a school’s style.

Common Vocational School Programs

Cosmetology Vocational Programs

There are a wide variety of vocational college programs available. Whether you’re into building things, repairing broken items, or helping people look and feel their best, there may be a vocational course that’s right for you.

1. Cosmetology

If you want to boost people’s confidence in their appearance, cosmetology can be a strategic vocational college choice. This field doesn’t just deal with cutting and styling hair. It can also include skin and nail care.

Cosmetology students learn about beauty techniques, and they also study safety and sanitation procedures. They may train to work as hairdressers, colorists, manicurists, or estheticians.

2. Dental Assisting

Dentists rely on the help of trained dental assistants. In a dental assisting program, you can learn to participate in various procedures related to oral healthcare. That may include taking x-rays or administering fluoride treatments.

Assistants also study clerical topics, such as medical coding and billing. Dental assistants tend to work in dentists’ offices. There may also be job opportunities with government agencies, insurance companies, or dental labs.


HVAC Vocational Programs

Vocational students who study heating, ventilation, and cooling learn to work with furnaces, air conditioners, and related systems. They may perform maintenance, testing, installation, and repair for systems in private homes and commercial buildings.

Many HVAC students also study refrigeration. Such programs may be referred to as HVACR training. This additional component allows them to work with home or industrial refrigerant systems, such as freezers and ice machines.

4. Massage Therapy

Earning a vocational certificate in massage therapy could be a strategic path for people who want to use their hands to bring healing to others.

Massage Therapy Vocational Programs

Massage students learn how to provide relief for sore or injured tissues. The classes may cover human anatomy and medical terminology. Massage therapy students study a variety of massage techniques and ways to help clients relax. There may also be courses on additional wellness topics, such as nutrition.

5. Welding

Students in welding programs learn to cut metal and bond pieces of metal to one another. Success in this program involves studying the properties of various metals as well as welding techniques and shop safety.

Those with welding training may go on to pursue a career as a welder, a metal fabricator, or a pipefitter. These jobs are often found in industries like manufacturing, construction, and repair services.

Vocational Careers & Salaries

Vocational Careers & Salaries

Vocational training can lead to careers in a variety of sectors, such as construction, production, installation and repair services, healthcare, and personal care services. Many people with vocational skills choose to open their own businesses.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in the installation, maintenance, and repair sector pay an average annual salary of $48,750.

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Electrical and Electronics Installers and Repairers $62,020
Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters $56,330
Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers $50,590
Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers $44,190
Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics $44,050
Massage Therapists $43,620
Dental Assistants $41,180
Medical Assistants $35,850
Pharmacy Technicians $35,100
Barbers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists $27,630

The educational and certification requirements for the above jobs vary, and different states may have different regulations. Some careers may also require an apprenticeship or licensure.

Students who study trades often find jobs with contractors, manufacturers, or construction companies. In addition to private employment, there are often government jobs for these industries as well.

Those who receive healthcare-related training may pursue assistant roles in medical offices or pharmacies. Assistants may carry out clinical or clerical duties. People with massage or cosmetology training often work in salons and spas. In addition to small-business settings, these jobs may be available in retail locations, hotels, and resorts.

Pros and Cons of Vocational Training

Vocational classes can provide a strong career start for a variety of industries, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is cut out to be a vocational student. Understanding the pros and cons of going to a technical or trade school may help you decide whether this is how you want to get your career off the ground.

Pros Cons
  • Shorter time commitment than most college degrees
  • Lower overall cost compared to college tuition
  • Focuses on in-demand skills
  • Quick path toward learning a skilled trade
  • Courses may not transfer to other college programs
  • Less respected in some people’s eyes than a college degree
  • Fewer career paths available compared to bachelor’s degree options
  • Can lock you into one particular field

While there are limits to the types of jobs that vocational training can prepare you for, it can be the right choice for many students. If you’re interested in one of the fields associated with this type of schooling, then vocational courses may provide a faster and more affordable approach to getting started.

Financial Aid and Scholarships for Vocational Students

Financial Aid for Vocational Students

Getting a vocational diploma may be cheaper than earning a bachelor’s degree, but you may still need assistance paying for trade school.

If you choose an accredited school for your trade program, you may be eligible for government aid like grants and loans. You can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to learn more about your options. The FAFSA may help you secure state aid as well as federal funding.

Some trade and technical students can apply for scholarship money, too. Scholarships may be offered through your educational institution, or they can be provided by industry organizations or other outside groups. Some scholarship funds are reserved solely for vocational students or learners who are going into a certain field. If you’re working, your employer may cover a portion of your tuition costs as well.

What Are Examples of Vocational Training?

Examples of Vocational Training

Programs that prepare students to work in specific fields are often known as vocational training programs.

Educational institutions that run vocational programs include trade schools and technical schools. The courses may prepare students for jobs in culinary arts, manufacturing, allied health, design, repair, construction, or cosmetology. Both online and on-campus studies may be available. There are in fact online vocational schools for students who need to learn from a distance.

Other types of training can fall under the vocational umbrella as well. They include learning on the job, serving as an apprentice, or gaining job skills in the military.

Is Vocational School the Same as College?

Vocational school and college are two different approaches to education and career preparation.

Vocational School Traditional College
  • Usually completed in under 2 years
  • Often lower overall tuition
  • Focuses on field-specific classes
  • May prepare you for a specific career path
  • Often completed in 2 to 4 years
  • Typically higher tuition
  • Includes general education courses
  • Could be useful for starting a number of different jobs

Although vocational school and college aren’t the same, some community colleges do offer vocational programs.

What Jobs Can You Do with Vocational Training?

Vocational Training Jobs

Some vocational students prepare for allied health positions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for medical assistants is growing at a 19% rate. Most employees in this field earn between $26,930 and $50,580 annually.

Massage therapy is another growing vocation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 21% increase in jobs over the next decade. Massage therapists can be self-employed or may work for salons, spas, hotels, or chiropractic offices.

Some technical schools and apprenticeships help students develop electrician skills. That’s a job that often pays between $33,810 to $98,720 each year. Electricians may work for contractors or manufacturing companies.

How Long Does Trade School Take?

Completing a vocational course

Completing a vocational course of study can take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years. It varies depending on the topic you are studying, the school’s course list, and the amount of hands-on practice that you receive.

Let’s consider the average length of a few different programs. Pharmacy tech studies often take 8 months or 9 months. Welding training may last anywhere from 7 months to 2 years. Meanwhile, culinary arts students often spend 12 to 13 months preparing for careers in restaurants and other food-service settings.

What’s the Difference Between a Vocational School vs. Trade School?

Essentially, trade school is a type of vocational school. There is overlap, but “vocational training” is a broader term.

Trade School Vocational School
  • Refers to programs at trade schools
  • Usually lasts several months
  • Trade careers can include allied health, manufacturing, or installation
  • Can include hands-on experiences
  • Includes trade and technical programs
  • May take up to 2 years
  • Can also include fields like web development and nuclear technology
  • Could have lectures or hands-on training

Either one can help prepare you for careers that require specialized skills.

What’s the Difference Between Trade School vs. College?

Many students are encouraged to earn a college degree, but vocational training might be a better fit for some people.

Trade School College
  • Shorter program—often takes 2 years or less
  • May not require high school credentials
  • Fewer courses to take
  • Leads to certificates or diplomas
  • Longer course of study—often takes 2 to 4 years
  • Often requires a GED or a high school diploma
  • Includes a wider range of classes
  • Leads to degrees

Financial aid may be available for both trade schools and traditional college programs.

Is Vocational School Worth It?

vocational school

Yes, vocational school is worth it for many students. Compared to traditional colleges, this type of training offers a quicker, more specialized approach to higher education.

If you want to work in hands-on careers or skilled trades, vocational training can be a beneficial option. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, several vocational fields are experiencing impressive growth rates.

For example, there is an increasing number of roles for medical assistants, dental assistants, electricians, chefs, massage therapists, wind turbine technicians, and industrial machinery mechanics.

Getting Your Vocational Degree

Getting Your Vocational Degree

College isn’t the only way to prepare for a career. Instead, some students choose to go to vocational school. Spending time in a trade or technical program can help you learn in-demand skills for your chosen vocation.

You can usually earn a vocational diploma more quickly than a college degree. Not only can you save time with this approach to schooling, but you may save money as well. Plus, since you’ll be job-ready in less time, you may have the opportunity to start earning a full-time salary sooner.

If you’re ready to begin your training for the workforce, you can start today by exploring accredited vocational schools.

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