What Is a Trade School?

Jul 1, 2020 ·
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The skilled trades are jobs that require special skills. They’re found in industries like automotive, manufacturing, energy, healthcare and technology. Skilled industrial trades include jobs like mechanics, welders, machinists and collision repairers. Skilled service trades feature jobs like nurses, therapists and healthcare aides. In construction, skilled trades jobs include plumbers, carpenters and electricians.

There is a form of post-secondary education, known as trade school, that is designed to help prepare individuals for these types of careers. Here's a simple trade school definition:

Trade school prepares students to enter skilled trades fields like technician repair and welding. Trade school is a viable alternative to traditional 4-year college, often with a shorter, less-expensive, specialized program.

The United States is currently experiencing a skilled labor shortage, according to CBS News. Industries including mining and logging, durable goods, transportation, warehousing and utilities, manufacturing and construction had more jobs than workers in 2019. There’s a lot of opportunity for those looking for career growth in the skilled trades industries. A trade school education teaches students the skills they need to qualify for these jobs, as well as provides employment assistance and networking opportunities to gain a career in the skilled trades.

Keep reading to learn all about trade school, how it compares to traditional college and how to make the right choice for you.

What is the Purpose of a Trade School?

Trade schools, also called career schools, vocational schools or technical schools, teach students curriculum based on a specific skilled trade. Students typically need to have at least graduated high school or have the equivalent of a high school education, like a GED, to attend trade school.

The purpose of trade schools is to deliver a focused education that equips students with skills specific to a particular occupation. Oftentimes, these tend to be hands-on careers, such as cosmetology, automotive repair or carpentry. Trade schools teach students everything they need to know from the ground up, so in most cases, no prior experience or training is needed.

How Do Trade Schools Work?

Unlike traditional 4-year liberal studies universities that require classes and electives in subjects students may never apply to their career, a trade school is focused on the industry students are preparing to work in. Students get hands-on experience to prepare them for work in their trade.

Trade school is often shorter than traditional college, around 8 months to 2 years. Some trade school programs, like the Universal Technical Institute (UTI) computer numerical control (CNC) machinist training program, take just 36 weeks to complete.


What Do You Learn at a Trade School?

That depends on the trade you’re studying. In auto mechanic school, for example, you’ll learn the skills you need to be an entry-level automotive technician. Classes may be a combination of in-person lectures, online training and hands-on work in a lab using real equipment. Students take courses like Automotive Engines Service & Repair, Automotive Climate Control Systems & Repair, and Vehicle Brake Systems.

In welding training school, you learn how to become an entry-level welder. This type of trade school teaches a variety of welding techniques, like GMAW, GTAW, SMAW, oxy/fuel and FCAW welding

At any type of trade school you attend, from dental hygienist trade school to marine mechanic school, you can expect to be prepared for an entry-level career in your chosen trade. Look at the curriculum a technical school offers to see if it aligns with your career goals. 

Types of Trade Schools

For skilled trades that aren’t taught at traditional colleges, you might be able to find vocational college programs for them. There are also vocational schools devoted to subjects that may be taught at traditional 4-year universities, but that have shortened programs because they’re focused on a particular subject. Some types of trade schools include:

Trade schools can be both broader in a subject for entry-level positions, or more specific for advancement in an industry. For example, there are Manufacturer-Specific Advanced Training programs for automotive, diesel, marine and motorcycle professionals who want to specialize in certain brands.

Regular college isn’t for everyone. For many people who pursue the skilled trades, they find careers that are meaningful and that took far less time and money to study for in a trade school. With a trade school education, you can become an entry-level worker and grow a career, or use what you’ve learned to start your own business.

The Difference Between Trade School, Technical School and Vocational School

When looking into any type of trade school, you’ll probably hear the terms technical school and vocational school used quite often. But what do they mean, and how do they differ from trade schools? Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Trade School: Put simply, trade schools are secondary schools that teach the skilled trades. They typically focus on hands-on careers that require a base level certification or a certain number of on-the-job hours to qualify.
  • Technical School: A tech school refers to an institution that offers certain certifications and associate’s degrees needed to enter technical job fields. While trade schools tend to offer more hands-on training, tech schools often follow traditional classroom lectures and job training. In some cases, they may offer a more broad education, with special focus on occupation-specific skills. However, this can vary from school to school.
  • Vocational School: ‘Vocational school’ is often used as a broad term that includes both tech and trade schools. Vocational degrees are designed to equip students with the skills they need to enter their field of choice immediately, or within a few years.

These three terms are commonly used interchangeably. However, it can be helpful to know the differences and how programs compare to one another when making your decision. 

What Careers Do Trade Schools Prepare You For?

There are hundreds of career possibilities you can pursue with trade school program completion. Some examples of trade school careers include:

  • Automotive or motorcycle technician
  • Baker
  • Bartender
  • Chef
  • CNC machinist
  • Collision repairer
  • Construction worker
  • Dental hygienist
  • Diesel technician
  • Electrician
  • Fitness or yoga instructor
  • Florist
  • Graphic designer
  • Hairdresser
  • Hotel or restaurant manager
  • Licensed vocational nurse
  • Locksmith
  • Makeup artist
  • Marine mechanic
  • Masseuse
  • Paralegal
  • Plumber
  • Technology specialist
  • Welder

Salaries for Common Trade Careers 


How Long Does Trade School Take?

Trade school length will depend on the program. Typically, trade schools for a specific subject will take anywhere from 8 months to 2 years.

For those who don’t yet have a high school diploma or GED, some trade schools like UTI will offer GED assistance to help students get their GED so they can apply.

What are the Advantages of a Trade School?

If you’re interested in a skilled trade, there are many advantages to choosing a trade school for post-secondary education. These include:

  1. Time: Trade school is typically a much shorter program than a 4-year education. You can complete your education and begin a professional career earlier out of high school by choosing a trade school.
  2. Money: Because they’re shorter programs, trade schools are also typically less expensive than 4-year schools. Plus, with financial aid available like scholarships and grants and employer-paid tuition reimbursement, you could get part or even all of your trade school paid for if you qualify.
  3. Career assistance: At trade schools like UTI, you get more than the skills you need to succeed in an entry-level position. UTI representatives are dedicated to helping students get jobs. With skilled trades-focused career fairs, early employment assistance and a wide network of employers looking to hire UTI students, the level of career services dedication at a trade school like UTI is a major benefit to students.
  4. Focused education: There’s no requirement to take classes in subjects you hate a trade school. Instead, you get to focus on the subject you’re interested in, the one you want to work in throughout your career. At some traditional 4-year colleges, you may have to spend 6 months to 2 years taking liberal studies courses or electives that don’t relate to your career goals.
  5. Classroom experience: Since trade school education is dedicated to a specific subject, the classroom environment also mimics a real-word work environment. Students get hands-on experience with the equipment and tools they’ll use when they graduate. Students can practice, learn and make mistakes in a supportive, true-to-life environment that goes beyond the typical college classroom.
  6. Network: Another cool aspect to trade school is that all of your fellow classmates share your passion for what you’re studying. This adds to the networking opportunities you’ll find in trade school for your career. The common bond also can lead to friendships that help you throughout school and last a lifetime.

Trade schools are good options both for people coming out of high school and for adults who want to learn a skilled trade for a more fulfilling career. Most trade schools will offer free in-person and virtual tours so you can see for yourself if the trade school environment is a fit.

What About a College Education?

For those who decide to take the college route, there are several different options: community colleges and private or public universities.

In college, you typically spend the first half of your program completing general education courses. This may include math, history, English and science courses. These classes most likely will not directly relate to your career, but they’re designed to give you a broad knowledge, and they also give you flexibility to decide what major you want to go into as you get further into your program.

Earning an associate’s degree from a community college typically takes around 2 years to complete, while a bachelor’s degree takes about 4. After graduating, students can either begin working in the field or decide to further their education with graduate programs. Many complete internships during or after their program in order to gain experience in the field.

While the community college route might seem similar to a trade school, there are some key differences. Like a traditional university, community colleges require you to take some prerequisite courses, such as math and English. Trade schools, on the other hand, allow you to dive right into the coursework for your chosen career path.

So how do you know if college is the right decision for you?

This is all dependent on you and your goals. For example, if you are interested in business, but aren’t sure if you want to go into accounting, marketing or management, college may be the right choice. Once you’re enrolled as a business major, you’ll be able to take a variety of courses to get a better feel for what you want to do as a career.

Many colleges today offer online programs, which provides great flexibility for working students or parents. These programs allow students to complete their coursework at times that fit into their busy schedules. However, more and more trade schools are beginning to offer online learning options as well.

While traditional college is the right choice for some, it’s not for everyone—and it’s important to not overlook the potential benefits of a vocational school. If you know what you want to do for work and are interested in a hands-on career, trade school may be the way to go.

Trade School vs. College Statistics


Trade Schools Near Me

There are trade schools all over the country for whatever subject you want to study. You can use the web to search for “trade school,” the subject you want to study and where you live. You’ll see results for the subject you’re interested in wherever you are.

If you’re interested in automotive, diesel, motorcycle, marine, CNC machining, collision repair and welding schools, UTI has 12 campuses in 9 states. Find UTI locations here. UTI offers housing assistance for relocating students.

Related Questions

What are the requirements for attending a trade school?

That depends on the school. Generally, you’ll need to be at least 16 or 18 years old depending on the school and will need to have a high school diploma or GED. Some programs, like certain nursing schools, may have additional requirements to apply.

For UTI trade school requirements, students need to be at least 16 years old and have a high school diploma, state-issued GED or state-authorized equivalent exam. Instead of a diploma or GED, a student may also be eligible with evidence of having previously attended a Title IV-eligible program at a postsecondary institution under the Ability to Benefit provision prior to July 1, 2012, or with successful completion of an associate degree or college degree, or with successful completion of an officially recognized homeschooling program.

Are trade schools worth it?

If you know you want to pursue a career in the skilled trades, attending trade school can be beneficial. Trade schools provide true-to-life, hands-on experience. Students learn in small class settings and can connect with industry employers at on-campus career fairs and through employment assistance.

Is Trade School for You?

Trade school can be a smart choice for those who know they want to pursue a skilled trade and who want to gain the expertise they need for an entry-level position. Trade school is a shorter education than traditional 4-year college. It’s typically less expensive, and it provides hands-on experience that students will encounter in the real professional world.

If you’re interested in pursuing a skilled trades job in auto, diesel, welding, motorcycle and motorsports, collision repair, marine or CNC machining, request info from UTI.
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