As demand for tradespeople continues to grow, trade and vocational schools are drawing students of all ages who seek active, hands-on careers with fresh challenges and opportunities. We connected with Travis Coffey of Philadelphia, Pa., who finished Orleans Technical College’s six-month Residential and Commercial Electricity program in 2020. Here’s a look at what drew him, and many others, to trade school.
Coffey almost finished an associate degree in business when he was younger, but it was prohibitively expensive. Trade school is more affordable, he says, and it allowed him to start working and making money faster.
Trade schools keep students focused on a vocation and what they need for certifications and degrees they may be able to achieve in six months, a year or two years. Costs vary depending on the program, the region of the country and whether you attend a public or private school. Midwest Technical Institute estimates the national average for annual tuition at $3,440 for a two-year college and $9,410 for a four-year college. Complete trade school programs, start to finish, can average $5,000 to $15,000.
Coffey wishes he had known sooner how affordable trade school was, and how helpful the school would be in finding him employment that began when he graduated. That assistance helps many students minimize debt.
If your budget is tight but you are highly motivated, you may be able get trade school tuition costs covered in connection with an apprenticeship.
High-demand tradespeople, such as sheet-metal workers or insulators, are actively recruited through trade unions or directly through contractors for apprenticeships that may also pay for tuition, if you’re willing to work and go to school at the same time. Classes may be in the evening, on a specific day of the week or during off-season weeks, depending on the program and industry.
Coffey didn’t have an apprenticeship. But he was able to plan ahead and put work on hold while studying full-time and getting his certification as quickly as possible.
With the rising popularity of online learning, a growing number of students juggle full-time jobs with studying for new careers on their off time. For hands-on trades, working students and apprentices need to plan for evening or weekend classes for hands-on lessons and training in workshops and labs.
With more flexible learning that fits around work and family responsibilities, universities and technical colleges alike are attracting more students who aren’t fresh out of high school. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that of the 19.7 million students enrolled in post-secondary institutions, 7.5 million were 25 years or older. And those students bring life experience and maturity to the classroom.
Coffey’s classes had plenty of younger students, but he graduated from the Residential and Commercial Electricity program at age 45. Three other classmates were in their 40s. His effort to go back to school and improve his earnings inspired his 25-year-old son to enroll in the school’s carpentry program.
If you’re young and mobile, trades can be the ticket to exploring different areas of the country. The more specialized your expertise, such as a crane operator, refinery pipe fitter or alternative energy specialist, the more travel you may be able to do. At the same time, pursuing broader skills for residential and commercial customers, such as electrical work, carpentry and construction, can keep you closer to home and family.
Coffey was originally going to go back to school to continue training in custodial work and pursue better pay. Then he remembered enjoying electronics when he was younger and saw the electrical field had even more potential for moving up and earning better pay.
Some people opt for trade school after already investing in a four-year university degree because of better or steadier employment opportunities. Expanding a trade education with additional certifications and licenses can further raise your earnings. “The more you learn, the more money you make,” says Coffey.
In some cases, trade school graduates with certificates and degrees earn incomes comparable to what some four-year university graduates earn, but without as much school debt. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists median wages as $23/hour to $27/hour for tradespeople such as electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, steam fitters and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians. That’s $48,000 to $56,000 per year, plus overtime and the potential for union benefits like health insurance and pensions.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers an online Occupational Outlook handbook with descriptions, required training and potential earnings for various trades. It also highlights emerging industries and rising demand for wind turbine service technicians and solar photovoltaic installers.
Coffey leaned into his early interest in electronics to pursue a new trade. You may also want to build on skills or interests you already have. Some colleges and schools may let you test out of classes, such as vocational math, or offer credit for skills you mastered on the job or through previous experiences, such as military training. Ask about these options as you’re researching trade schools to speed your education and lower tuition costs.
For more information on trade and technical schools, state directories and financial aid, top career programs and requirements, check out this website.
Note: If you’re wondering how a trade school, technical college and vocational school differ, here is a good explanation.