For those desiring a quick education path to their career, the targeted skills learned through vocational degree programs and certificates — particularly those tied to specific in-demand jobs — can result in excellent job prospects. A 2020 report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce also states that in some cases, "workers with certificates and associate's degrees earn more than those with bachelor's degrees."
What is vocational education?
Vocational schools offer practical, career-focused education programs designed to help students enter the workforce in a shorter amount of time than they would by enrolling in a traditional four-year degree program. These entry-level degree or certificate programs tend to concentrate specifically on teaching a particular skill and helping students to gain industry-related experience — and build a resume — without spending years in the classroom. Vocational certificate and associate online degree programs usually range in length from a few months to two years.
Who can benefit from vocational education?
- Trade or vocational education can be a likely fit for someone established in a career but looking for supplemental education to further their career growth.
- Vocational programs can also make it possible for career changers to enter a new field that may offer higher salaries.
- Those fresh out of high school may find enrolling in a trade school a relatively quick way to earn a postsecondary credential and start earning instead of going to a four-year college.
Featured online trade school programs
If you'd like an education program that can help you enter the workforce sooner rather than later, take a look at these featured programs. The average annual salaries and projected job openings noted in the table below are nationwide figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; average figures for your location may vary.
Important factors to consider when choosing a vocational program
Earnings: It's tempting to enroll in the most popular trade program, but prospective students should be aware that popular programs may not always align with higher earnings. When choosing a program, take a careful look at historical data on earnings associated with the particular program. This data reflects average wages earned by those in these fields. (Note: Earnings are likely to vary depending on location.) Also, keep potential earnings in mind as well as the cost of a particular program before making a decision about where you'd like to enroll.
Duration: Students who make a decision based solely on a shorter time to completion may end up making a choice that could affect their earning capacity after graduation. This would also apply to program choices within the same field. For instance the choice between a heavy equipment mechanic, diesel mechanic or aircraft mechanic may seem like similar jobs for mechanics, but earning outcomes are significantly different.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2019), diesel mechanics may earn an annual mean wage of $50,360, whereas heavy equipment mechanics can earn about 9 percent more, and aircraft mechanics can earn about 30 percent more a year than a diesel mechanic. An online diesel mechanic course may take 7 months to complete and a course in aircraft mechanics may take 2 years. Prospective students should consider not just the duration of a course, but earning outcomes as well when making a career choice.
Do vocational online schools work for hands-on trades?
To meet the practical requirements of a vocational program, online trade schools may make use of educational and instructional videos as well as laboratory kits to help students hone practical skills at home. This is especially important for online students as vocational education emphasizes skill-based learning that can be applied directly in the workplace
For online vocational programs, students should make sure they have access to faculty and hands-on, practical sessions at a nearby college campus or internship opportunities. For example, students in plumbing, electrician, welding or HVAC programs may become an apprentice with a local trades person to gain on-the-job experience and networking connections. This allows vocational students to get the practical experience they need to be successful in the job market.
Accreditation is important
Several accrediting bodies are associated with programmatic accreditation of vocational programs. Accredited online vocational schools ensure students that they have chosen a school that meets quality standards of academics and education outcomes. Accreditation also opens up the opportunity to apply for scholarships or other types of financial aid that you may be eligible for. Many licensing agencies require that you complete an accredited program in order to be eligible for a license to practice your trade
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.
Vocational programs: which level is right for you?
Before enrolling in an online vocational school, students need to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Some online trade schools or community colleges may require SAT or ACT scores.
Course requirements and the structure of vocational studies programs vary. Other schools may offer vocational online certificate programs that are combined with hands-on applied training at a campus location.
Online vocational certificates
Duration: The length of a course can vary, ranging from a few months to a year, depending on the field.
"About 94% of certificates and 57% of associate's degrees awarded are in career-oriented fields," according to the 2020 report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Certificates are usually earned by people who want to prepare for a specific occupation. Some certificate programs can prepare you for licensure or certifications. Other programs can earn you college credentials should you decide to further your education. Short-term certificate programs often cost less than an associate degree. Earnings are typically higher than those of a high school graduate.
Fields can vary greatly from auto repair, locksmithing, and carpentry to cosmetology, home repair and aircraft mechanic. Each state may offer a variety of certificate programs that are unique to the demands of the industry in that state.
Certificates that take a longer time to complete (1 to 2 years) generally tend to carry more value in the job market than those that can be completed in less than 12 months.
While vocational certificate programs may offer faster entry into the workforce, some may not provide flexibility to transfer to an associate degree program later on should you want to earn a higher postsecondary credential.
Online vocational associate degree programs
Duration: At least 2 years
Mostly awarded by community colleges across the country, an associate degree is the second most popular degree earned in the country (after certificates). Associate degree programs generally fall into two tracks:
- Those offered by vocational institutes and community colleges that are technically oriented and can prepare students to enter the job market
- Those offered by community colleges and are designed to prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges
Technical vs. community college
Whether you choose a technical or community college, associate degree programs are designed to offer intensive, efficient training.
- For typical online vocational programs in community colleges, students may be required to take 18 to 20 course hours of general education, plus complete studies for the occupational/vocational focus, adding up to about 60 credit hours. Community colleges may require you to take a few courses that may be unrelated to your vocation, such as math and English.
- In contrast, vocational or trade schools have a more applied or occupational focus. Although coursework generally requires about 60 credit hours, you can gain the knowledge you need to enter the field with confidence, without spending time on extra classes you don't need for the career of your choice.
While a certificate or associate degree is sufficient for many professions within the construction field, most constructions managers hold a bachelor's degree in their field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After gaining some work experience, students may choose to go back to school to earn a bachelor's degree, or even a master's, and move into management or supervisory positions.
- The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate's Degrees, January 28, 2020, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/subba/
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,https://www.bls.gov/ooh/
- Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, June 2013, https://cew-7632.kxcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.FR_.Web_.pdf