When Teens Want to Go to Trade School Instead of College
Choosing a career path is a daunting decision at any stage of life. However, it can be particularly overwhelming for teenagers who are unsure about making the four-year commitment to achieve a college degree.
I had known what I wanted to do since I was twelve; I was going to star on Broadway. Thankfully, I had supportive parents. I attended a liberal arts college and earned two bachelor's degrees, one in music and one in English/theater. I worked a few years in a dental office as I went to audition after audition and then went to Japan to teach English. Life ensued, decisions were made, and I became an early childhood teacher and returned to school for a master’s in education. Then, COVID came along, and now I write about parenting, children, and education. Thankfully, I still have theater and music as professional hobbies.
All of this goes to say that even if you think you know what you want your career to be at seventeen, life often has other plans or bumps in the road.
According to data from the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person changes careers three to seven times; that doesn’t include job changes within the same field.
It used to be a person would go into a trade or attend college, seek out a job, and then work their way up the ladder refining their skills. However, modern technology and the cost of attending college have significantly altered this scenario.
Many children currently in high school are considering forgoing college for trade schools. Or, they may look at community college as a way to test the waters or earn credits at a more affordable rate. While many jobs still require a person to have a four-year degree, a college education isn’t the be-all-end-all it was a few decades ago. It is also much more common and accessible for adults to return to college or take courses while working.
So what do you do if your child wants to attend trade school instead of a four-year college? What are the options and job prospects? And, how do you best support your teen with their career decision?
What is a Trade School?
A trade or vocational school is any post-secondary school that offers training for a specific job. Trade schools can be stand-alone institutions like Lincoln Tech, culinary schools, or cosmetology schools, or they can be part of a community college or even a high school program.
Learning a trade or attending a vocational school is often associated with blue-collar work. Blue-collar work is hands-on work or manual labor. People often think of blue-collar work as unskilled labor. But, many blue-collar or manual labor jobs are skilled trades such as electricians, IT professionals, plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics. And whether a blue-collar job requires a trained professional like an electrician or someone starting in the workforce like a fast-food cashier, they are all essential to our day-to-day life.
For some trades, people can learn on the job through apprenticeship programs or by actively watching and doing; however, many require a certification or degree from a trade school.
When you graduate from trade school, you will have the skill set to perform your job of choice at the entry-level. On the other hand, when you graduate from college, you will have generalized knowledge of your field of choice but may not have acquired much hands-on training or experience in your field.
As a result, when graduating college, you may be unsure what to do with your degree. “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” is a lyric from the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q that my parents put on my graduation cake.
Trade School Specs
In most cases, attending a trade school is less expensive than attending a four-year college; however, it isn’t cheap. The average trade school program costs $33,000 in America. On the other hand, a traditional college degree can cost anywhere from $40,500 to $139,700.
The upside is that, just like college, there are financial aid options. In addition, technical school graduates typically have additional perks, including job placement, and their skills are in high demand.
Additionally, most trade school programs take two years or less, so grads can begin working full-time sooner. And, with less student loan debt than the average college student, young adults with trade school degrees can pay their debt off faster.
Most technical colleges require a GED or high school diploma. Some more academically based programs like those in healthcare may have additional requirements. However, the placement rate for trade schools is much higher than traditional colleges.
On average, a trade school graduate will earn between $42,000 to $99,000 annually.
Trade School Program Salaries
As with all jobs, salaries tend to increase with more experience and training over time and will vary based on location. Here are the average salaries for some of the most common skilled labor positions
Vet Assistant - $29,807
Cosmetologist - $31,530
Early Childhood Teacher - $36, 321
Medical Assistant - $37,165
Culinary Arts - $40,011
Auto Mechanic - $47,990
HVAC Tech - $54,690
Carpenter - $55,1190
Electrician - $63,310
Plumber - $63,350
Aircraft Mechanic - $69,470
Dental Hygienist - $81,360
Computer Programmer - $96,550
Health Service Manager - $119,840
Why Should My Child Consider Trade School?
Not all students are created equally, and the unfortunate fact is that the college system is set up for those children who are academically advanced. But, of course, grades, test scores, and academics do not correlate with intelligence despite what your kid might feel or you might believe.
Many young people are simply not suited for a rigorous four-year program. My 8-year-old with ADHD has already told me he doesn’t want to go to college, and I told him as long as he has a job, he’s contributing to society, and he’s happy I am OK with that!
Children and teens who love working with their hands and problem solving may benefit significantly from technical education. If your child is unsure what career path they’d like to take, have them volunteer or take a part-time job in a field they think they might like. Many local communities have volunteer opportunities at animal shelters, child care centers, nursing homes, and outdoor landscaping projects. In addition, they could sign up to work with a program like Habitat for Humanity.
Another reason to consider a certificate program over a degree program is financials. If your child needs time to work while they attend school or save up for a few years, they can work towards an associate's degree or vocational training while still working and living at home.
How Can I Support My Child's Decision?
The idea of your teen not attending college may create feelings of concern for some parents. After all, it’s been ingrained in our society that being a college graduate equates to success.
If your child is on the fence about college, listen to their concerns and the reasoning behind their feelings. Keep an open mind and explore options together. The job market is tough right now, regardless of your field, and many high school graduates are looking beyond the traditional college path.
Offer to visit trade schools with them or to help them conduct research. Discuss their potential career path should they choose a technical school or two-year program.
Observe what lights your child up and brings them joy; is there a way to turn that into a career or at least a jumping point?
The best thing you can do for your teen considering trade school is to offer love and support and commit to being their ally as they work to discover who they are and what they want to be.