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29 September 2022

Trade Schools vs. College: Which is right for you?

Business Advice | 6 minute read

I want to pump gas.

That is the earliest answer I remember having to the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? My answer evolved to a house painter. Then, as a pre-teen, I discovered music and theatre and thought maybe I’d be the next member of the Spice Girls ( that didn’t work out).

But then I got to high school. Dreams turned to practical plans based on grades and test scores, and the world suddenly had clear expectations for my peers and me regarding our future–especially when the beginning of the school year came around, and we went to our school counselor to make a plan. This “plan” usually meant that you went straight to a traditional four-year college after high school. We never learned about any other options, including trade school and other technical education.

It’s not uncommon for young adults to learn next to nothing about alternative options to college–especially the trades.

One recent online survey found that “more than half of the 500 men and women polled said they’re not interested in attending a trade school” and that many surveyed between “ages 18 to 24 would rather work in a coffee shop than in a high-paying skilled trade.”

And while “European nations prioritize vocational training for many students, with half of secondary students participating in a vocational program, in the US especially, “since the passage of the 1944 GI Bill, college has been pushed over vocational education. And a “college-for-all narrative has been emphasized for decades as the only pathway to success and stability.”

In addition, other research points out that “technical school students are sometimes considered lazy or unsuccessful by peers who attend four-year universities,” and trade school is often seen as a ”backup” option for young adults who aren’t accepted into a traditional four-year school. Parents often discourage their kids from trade school because they think it doesn't offer the same job stability that comes with a degree from a traditional four-year college.

But there’s data that tells a very different story. Skilled workers are in high demand, and there are plenty of opportunities for young adults to build successful careers in the trades.

One article explains that “Australia is in its biggest tradie shortage in decades, with prices and demand adding further pressure to the construction industry. In fact, “the worker shortage is at the worst level since the industry records started.”

So stigma aside, which is better: trade school or college?

The answer is: It depends. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons to consider when making a decision between college vs. trade school.

How do trade schools differ from traditional colleges?

There are many differences between trade school vs. college beyond the types of jobs they prepare graduates for, from the topics they cover to how many years they take to complete, and of course, their cost.

One of the biggest benefits of going to trade school is that trade school students can (usually) complete their degree and certifications faster and at a lower cost than those who attend a traditional four-year college/university program. This means that they can also get to work faster.

How long is trade school compared to college?

In Australia, it takes about the same amount of time to earn a trades certification as it does to earn a four-year degree. According to Pathway To Australia, “most trade-based apprenticeships take four years to obtain the Cert III in a person’s chosen trade. During the apprenticeship, students “work on-site under a supervisor, as well as off-site with an education provider for a small amount of time.”

On the other hand, “Undergraduate programmes at a university typically take three years to complete and four years for an honours degree.”

Trade school examples

There are a variety of programs you can enter as well, which offer:

  • Personal Interest or Continuing Education Certificates
  • Pre-Apprenticeship Training Certificates or Diplomas
  • Career Diplomas
  • Vocational Degrees

Vocational degrees are the most advanced and take up to two years to complete–but they are not very common.

On the other hand, “Canada typically offers university degrees as four- or five-year programmes, while college degrees are shorter, about two or three years.” There are a variety of subjects across the arts and sciences you can study.

How much does a technical education cost?

The total cost can vary, but the average cost in Australia for trade school is between $7,000 – $14,000 Australian dollars per year.

Traditional college programs, on the other hand, cost “anywhere from AUD $20,000 to $55,000 AUD for an undergraduate degree,” and depending on the topic studied, “the lower range is for three-year degrees like basic arts or sciences, while the high end includes subjects like law and medicine, which both require more than three years.”

What are the pros and benefits of trade schools?

One of the biggest benefits of trade school is that you can receive an education that prepares you to get involved in a booming industry, work while you complete your education and start your career sooner. While it’s possible to work as a full-time university student, it’s often more difficult to balance work with classes due to scheduling. College classes often take place in the middle of the day, so many students work early in the morning or late at night outside of class. Trade schools usually offer a bit more flexibility. Therefore, choosing a trade school or college might come down to what works best for your lifestyle.

Another benefit of trade school? If for some reason, you don’t complete your full program, you still have some skills you picked up while in training to fall back on. It can be trickier to find work based on your study if you drop out of a traditional four-year college, as you’ll have fewer applicable skills to fall back on right away.

Plus, there’s no age limit for when you can attend a four-year college. Since you can decide to go to a traditional college at any time, going to trade school early on when you’re young can be a smarter choice that maximises your time and resources as a young adult.

Is trade school worth It?

When choosing between college vs. trade school, it’s helpful to look at the overall return on investment (ROI) expected after completing trade school and entering the field. To calculate ROI, it’s helpful to compare the cost of attending trade school with the typical salary you can expect to make in your chosen field.

Welder apprentice salary: AUD $62,212

Carpenter apprentice salary: AUD $51338

Hvac apprentice salary: AUD $74,100

Plumber apprentice salary: AUD $53,842

Electrician apprentice salary: AUD $52,840

College Costs and Return on Investment

Many high paying careers require a traditional college degree to enter, but the rising cost of attendance (COA) for parents and students can make it harder to see a good ROI on a traditional college degree:

According to The Oz, “University fees hiked a huge 6.3% in the first quarter of the year.”

Choosing between college vs. trade school means you must weigh multiple factors, including cost, time to complete, return on time and investment and more. Then there’s the final piece to consider– what are your personal interests, and which career path will help you pursue those interests?

And while you may not have a crystal ball to see into your future and find the answer to whether you'll choose college vs. trade school, at least you have this article to look back on while you debate (as long as you bookmark it, that is).

Want to learn more about a career in the trades? Check out our case study page to hear from real trade business owners who’ve grown a successful career on the tools.

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