President Barack Obama set a goal that by 2020, the U.S. will once again lead the world in post-secondary education. To meet this goal, community colleges, trade schools and vocational schools will need to play an important role in educating U.S. citizens.
In today's skills-based labor market, research shows that the targeted skills gained through associate degree programs and certificates can result in excellent job prospects and, in some cases, higher pay than those learned through four-year degrees. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that by 2018, there will be a shortage of 3 million degree holders in the workforce. They also estimate a need for at least 4.7 million new workers with post-secondary certificates.
Vocational school programs and career paths
Vocational schools offer certificate and associate online degree programs ranging in length from a few months to two years. Fields of study at vocational schools can vary from trades such as plumbing, HVAC or construction to technology-focused programs in computer support or computer networking. Students can also attend vocational school to study cosmetology, massage therapy or other specialties in the personal care industry.
Jump to the best online vocational degrees
Certificate programs at vocational schools offer career training that focuses specifically on a particular skill or industry. According to a 2010 report by Complete College America, certificates are "practical and often underutilized credentials that can provide graduates with an appealing combination of rapid postsecondary achievement and portable skills and knowledge. Certificates can position graduates for immediate workforce success, while establishing solid foundations for future academic achievement."
The report, Certificates Count, found that the 750,000 certificates awarded in 2007-2008--a number they hope to double by 2015 and again by 2020--were distributed as follows:
- Health care (43.3 percent)
- Personal and culinary (12.7 percent)
- Mechanical (8.9 percent)
- Business (7.9 percent)
- Security (3.4 percent)
- Transport (2.5 percent)
- Construction (2.3 percent)
- Engineering tech (2.1 percent)
- All other (17 percent)
Vocational schools also offer associate degree programs. Unlike certificate programs, associate degree programs include general education requirements as well as career-specific courses. Associate degree programs generally take two years to complete, and those offered at vocational schools have an applied or occupational focus.
Opportunities and challenges with online vocational training
Because vocational training emphasizes skills that can be applied directly to the workplace, many vocational training programs are hands-on in nature. Online vocational schools may require students to complete laboratory requirements at a nearby college campus or provide internship opportunities so students can get the practical experience they need to be successful in the job market.
Students in beauty and cosmetology programs may work at student-run salons at nearby schools or do an internship at a nearby barbershop, while students in plumbing, welding or HVAC programs may apprentice with local tradesman to gain on-the-job experience and networking connections.
Online vocational training schools may also make use of instructional videos and laboratory kits to help students hone practical skills at home.
Careers and wages for vocational school graduates
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many careers that students train for at vocational schools have a promising job outlook and salary figures to match. The following careers generally require a certificate or associate degree (listed along with 2009 mean annual wages and 2008-2018 job outlook from the BLS):
- Plumbers: $49,870, 16 percent job growth
- Electricians: $50,850, 12 percent job growth
- HVAC: $43,670, 28 percent job growth
- Cosmetologists: $27,070 20 percent job growth
Can vocational training lead to more advanced education?
Vocational schools offer programs designed to help students finish school quickly and begin working. These entry-level degrees allow workers to begin gaining industry experience and building a resume without spending years in the classroom. After gaining some work experience, students may choose to go back to school to earn a bachelor's degree or higher and move into management or supervisory positions. For example, while a certificate or associate degree is sufficient for many professions within the construction filed, most constructions managers hold a bachelor's degree in their field. However, the importance of practical knowledge and on-the-job experience in many vocational fields means training from vocational schools is often the best way to get started.
At a glance:
- Vocational schools offer certificates and associate degrees. In 2008, over 43 percent of all certificates awarded were in the field of health care.
- By 2018, 4.7 million new workers with certificates will be needed.
- Graduates of vocational training program can earn approximately $50,000 a year in fields such as construction, plumbing or HVAC.
If you'd like a specific career and you want the fastest path to get there, vocational training may be the perfect option. Vocational associate degree programs offer intensive, efficient training in fields like cosmetology, HVAC and automotive. Coursework generally requires about 60 credit hours, which means you gain the training to enter the field with confidence, without spending time on extra classes you don't need for the career of your choice.
Exploring online associate degrees in vocational studies
The Federal Trade Commission advises potential students to compare different vocational education programs. Take the time to research the requirements needed to graduate, how the instructors are trained, and whether credits transfer to other schools.
Course requirements and the structure of vocational studies programs vary. For typical campus-based or online associate degrees in vocational studies, schools might require 18 to 20 course hours of general education, plus complete studies for the occupational/vocational focus, adding up to about 60 credit hours.
Other schools may offer vocational degrees online that are combined with hands-on applied training at a campus-based location.
Vocational degrees online can prepare you for a wide range of careers. Vocational education in general is designed to prepare students for successful employment. Associate degree colleges and vocational training schools offer a wide range of programs such as medical assisting, nursing, massage therapy, paralegal studies and interior decorating.
Exploring online bachelor degrees in vocational studies
Earning a Bachelor of Vocational Education degree qualifies you to help others find their own careers. Degrees in this field focus on career and technical education, preparing you to teach others in your specialization, whether it's automotive technology or laser technology. Coursework for a technical education degree could include assessment and instruction, instructional design, program evaluation, leadership skills, and behavior management.
Earning online bachelor's degrees in vocational studies can qualify you for roles in the career training, counseling, rehabilitation and ongoing education of U.S. workers. Graduates can choose from paths such as human resource management, mediation, labor consulting, teaching and career counseling.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of vocational and school counselors will increase by 14 percent, 2008-2018, and opportunities should exceed the number of vocational degree graduates. The Association of Career and Technical Education reports that the September 2011 American Jobs Act devotes $447 billion to support vocational training for laid-off U.S. workers. By completing an online bachelor's degree in vocational studies, you can build a career in helping to put the nation back to work.
OnlineDegrees.com recently ranked which majors provided the biggest "bang for your buck," with "bang" defined as opportunities for a well-paying job and "buck" determined by the overall cost of earning a degree in the field (including the cost for each year of enrollment and number of years needed to earn a diploma or professional certificate).
That study looked at expected numbers of job openings and average salaries provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Statistics and Outlook, which were cross-referenced with details from the Institute for Educational Sciences' National Center for Educational Statistics regarding the cost and availability of currently available degree programs.
Best Online Vocational Degrees
The U.S. education system (if not the entire society) has always struggled to determine the dividing line between academic and vocational training. When early colleges and universities primarily trained the children of the wealthy in classical languages, literature, and science, education in the trades was a matter of on-the-job training or formal apprenticeships through guilds of skilled craftsmen.
Today, however, vocational programs are part of the wider public education system, and higher ed degree programs (including online programs) are offered in fields such as carpentry, plumbing, and various construction trades. In addition, important jobs such as computer support specialist and other technology-related fields are blurring the line between high-tech professions and skilled trades.
Keeping in mind that (1) this analysis is based on historical information that can change in a fast-paced economy, and (2) government classifications for job titles and degree fields do not always correspond to what you will find in an employment ad or university listing; here are the top 20 vocational degrees that may offer the best return on your investment:
1. Construction, General
This catch-all category covers various topics in the construction field, including hands-on and management training related to residential and commercial building.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $60,380
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 23.5%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $6,155
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 150
2. Industrial Mechanics and Maintenance Technology
Professionals in this field are responsible for fixing and maintaining motorized construction equipment, such as cranes, trucks, and lifts, not to mention all of the other heavy-duty gear that underlies our industrial infrastructure.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $51,815
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 16.32%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $6,412
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 414
3. Construction Engineering Technology
People in this profession support those putting up buildings or performing other construction tasks by contributing knowledge of both engineering and construction technology to specific challenges such as selection of construction techniques, safety inspections, and audits.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $63,883
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 14.3%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $10,386
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 226
4. Building/Home/Construction Inspection
In addition to being a component of a number of vocational jobs, inspection is its own skilled trade offering those with building and construction knowledge the chance to review plans and finished structures for compliance with client expectation as well as government safety and code standards.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $57,415
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 17.85%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $6,722
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 74
Laying the pipes that move our water supply (and other vital materials) through cities, towns, homes, and buildings is just one task for pipefitting professionals, who are also responsible for planning, design, inspection, and maintenance of a critical component of our modern infrastructure.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $55,280
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 22.4%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $6,451
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 49
Try getting someone on short notice to fix your fixtures to get a sense of the demand for this important profession. In addition to wiring and repairing home electrical systems, electrical workers are in high demand for virtually every construction endeavor.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $52,132
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 14.48%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $7,392
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 717
7. Construction Management
The high salary for management positions in construction demonstrates the value assigned to those who combine technical skill with the ability to manage projects and people. And the higher cost of education for this profession highlights the need for extended training for success in this field.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $84,410
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 16.1%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $15,131
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 283
From home cabinetry to modern office design, carpenters provide the skilled labor needed to turn ideas into the homes and buildings in which we live and work, as well as the furniture filling the rooms in those structures.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $50,440
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 23.85%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $6.481
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 420
9. Construction Engineering
The high numbers listed below highlight that professional engineering training both costs more and pays more for those interested in supporting the construction of homes, buildings, roads, and bridges with knowledge of vital engineering principles.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $91,108
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 13.64%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $22,321
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 35
10. Apparel and Textile Marketing Management
Lest you think that high-paying vocational jobs just relate to the building trades, the job of the apparel/textile marketing manager requires specific skill in textile creation and design, coupled with an understanding of customer need and manufacturing/distribution processes that ensure the right clothes reach the right people at the right time.
- Average Salary of Related Professions: $87,795
- Projected Job Growth (2012-2022): 9.9%
- Average Tuition Cost Per Year: $10,388
- Number of Schools Offering Programs in this Field: 61
As you look over this listing, keep in mind that dollar figures (both salary and program cost) are averages, meaning some will earn or pay more than these figures while others will earn or pay less and that salary ranges may vary by state. For state detailed information visit our Best Online Degrees tool.
Remember also that while vocational degrees are an excellent choice for many, they remain one set of options in an increasingly complex job market where the knowledge, skills, and abilities that define a job are harder to categorize than ever.
Additional vocational degrees with high "bang-for-the-buck" ratios:
11. Building Construction Technology
12. Plumbing Technology
14. Well Drilling
15. Petroleum Engineering
16. Electrical and Electronics Engineering
17. Manufacturing Engineering
18. Electrical and Power Transmission Installation, General
19. Computer Support Specialist
20. Building/Property Maintenance