By Mary Jo DiLonardo
Traditionally, trade school jobs have suffered from an image problem, but that’s changing.
Good pay, less debt and strong demand for workers are encouraging students, parents and advisors to take a closer look at skilled trade career paths. As more people realize the common myths about the skilled trades simply aren't true, perceptions of the past are fading.
How Did We Get Here? A Brief History of Trade School Jobs
Not long after the Civil War, there was a massive demand for skilled labor as industry boomed in the United States. Educators launched a forward-thinking education model with the creation of the St. Louis Manual Training School out of Washington University in 1879. Although students also studied academics, the emphasis was on technical skills needed for jobs in woodworking and metalworking.
For nearly a century, vocational programs evolved, with the government offering federal funds to encourage and support these alternative educational opportunities.
Beginning in the 1960s, educators pulled back on these programs.
When research began to show that U.S. students weren’t performing as well academically as students in some other countries, the emphasis on traditional academic education soared and vocational skills took a hit. Soon, career technical education (CTE) was mainly promoted for students with learning issues or those who didn't shine academically.
The mantra evolved that “everyone needs a bachelor’s degree” to compete and succeed. New programs like the Guaranteed Student Loan Improvement Act in 1979 helped create a surge in four-year college enrollment.
With all the emphasis on the importance of four-year degrees, those who chose a less-traditional, vocational path were viewed with disdain — as if they couldn’t hack a “real” career.
Recently, opinions and approaches have started to change, but there’s still some PR work to do.
The Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College
Although there’s a constant demand to fill skilled jobs, there’s still some negativity surrounding the choice to follow a vocational path.
It wasn’t that long ago that students had two choices after high school. They could opt for the traditional college path, which is what the “smart” kids did. If grades or motivation were lacking, they could attend trade or vocational school.
"When I attended high school in the '90s, if you were a student who took vocational classes, everyone thought it meant you couldn’t cut it in regular school,” writes Katie Bingham-Smith on the Grown & Flown blog.
Students could face derision from their peers, and parents often worried what other parents would think. Thankfully, that has changed. Now that Bingham-Smith’s son is in high school and wants to attend vocational school, he has her full support.
“No one stops to think that perhaps certain students are exploring other options because having a corporate job just doesn’t suit them. No one considers that these students may not want to spend their life doing something they hate simply because others said it was the right path to take.”
The Benefits of Trade School
The benefits of trade school are numerous. Here are the top reasons to choose a skilled trade as a career path.
1. Job demand
According to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Manufacturers' Outlook Survey, “attracting and retaining a quality workforce” is one of the biggest challenges in the industry. For example, there have been from 575,000 to 700,000 job openings every month this year.
2. Good pay
Skilled jobs often come with impressive paychecks. Here are some annual mean wage examples from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
3. Shorter training
Instead of spending four years in school, most students following a skilled path learn their trade in two years or less. Often, much of that training is hands-on, so they enter the workforce quickly with real-life experience.
4. Less debt
The average cost of college in the U.S. is $36,436 per year for a four-year undergraduate degree, including books and room and board. Trade school costs vary widely, but they are often less than the cost of one traditional college year and frequently much less than that.
5. Future career possibilities
Once you've learned a skilled trade, you have career advancement options. You can take on the responsibilities of management, gain more skills and move up the career ladder internally or move laterally into a related field.
How To Keep Changing the Story about Trade School Jobs
One of the best ways to lessen the stigma around trade school jobs is to introduce students to people who work in those fields. Watching videos of the work and the workers can also help.
“Growing up, I was in the generation that everyone preached that you have to go to college if you want to be able to support a family,” says Anthony Strada. “So, I went, but I just went through the motions, not realizing I had my best opportunity in front of me the entire time.”
That opportunity was the electrical and HVAC company founded by his dad. It’s now Strada’s career path. “It’s very rewarding,” Strada says, pointing out that he’s used his college degree “a grand total of zero days in my entire life.”
Wind turbine technician Charlie Tran wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he left high school. He knew he liked mechanics and taking things apart, but he had difficulty picking a career. He worked at his parents’ restaurant and considered nursing and dental hygiene careers, but stumbled upon wind energy work after clicking on a career job email.
“It matched everything I had always liked doing — being outdoors, seeing new places and maintaining things,” says Tran.
Personal stories such as these go a long way toward changing perceptions and showing others what a good opportunity the skilled trades can be.
Mary Jo DiLonardo is an Atlanta-based writer who has worked in print, online and broadcast journalism for more than 30 years. She has covered education, health, lifestyle issues and nature for many outlets including WebMD, CNN and Treehugger.