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What is a Trade School? Everything You Need to Know

Last updated July 3, 2024

If you enjoy hands-on, experiential learning where you can see the results of your hard work, enrolling in a trade program or at a trade school may be a great fit for you! Attending a trade school is often an affordable learning experience that prepares students to enter in-demand careers and industries. Here’s what you should know about trade schools, like how they work and what you'll need to apply!

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What is a trade?

Trades are skilled jobs that require focused, specialized training and education. Some common trades are in industries like construction, manufacturing, and carpentry– but the definition of “trades” is rapidly expanding to include careers in technology, cosmetology, culinary arts, healthcare, and many other industries. 

How do trade schools work? What makes them different from four-year colleges?

Trades are taught through trade schools, technical and vocational schools, and at participating community colleges. The types of trades taught through each kind of school or program will vary.

Some key differences between trade schools and four-year colleges include:

  • Education. Students in trade programs focus only on the specialized trade they’re studying, while students attending a four-year college typically must take elective courses before they begin taking courses for their major.
  • Time spent in school. Because trade students only study the trade they’ve chosen, they typically spend much less time in school than students at four-year colleges. Trade programs usually last anywhere from a few months to two years.
  • Degrees/certificates. Students completing a trade program do not receive a degree, but rather, a certificate of completion which is often industry-recognized. Students attending four-year colleges typically graduate with their bachelor’s degree.
  • Cost. Trade programs are typically much more affordable than tuition at a four-year college.

What do I need to enroll in a trade school?

Typically, the only thing students need to enroll in a trade school is their high school diploma, GED, or equivalent.

A man wearing a green glove on his right hand kneels over a wooden plank and drills a hole into it - What is a Trade School? Everything You Need to Know

What are the benefits of attending a trade school?

Attending a trade school has many benefits! Here’s a few:

  • Class sizes. Class sizes at trade schools are typically small, meaning you’re likely to receive consistent, hands-on support from your instructors. 
  • Strong job prospects. Trade jobs are consistently in-demand, pay well, lead to stable salary increases over the years, and often offer union protections and benefits. The types of trade programs offered in your area may have been built around the industries in-demand near you. For example, maritime jobs in the Pacific Northwest, energy jobs in Texas, and off-shore wind farm jobs in the Northeast are all in-demand!
  • Earn and learn. Many trade programs have employer partners who offer internships, pre-apprenticeships, or apprenticeships to students. These are great paid opportunities that help students apply their learning to real-life situations and gain valuable on-the-job experience!

Are trade programs affordable?

Generally, trade programs are more affordable than tuition at a four-year college. With this in mind, students may find that they need some financial assistance to cover the full cost of their trade program. 

Students attending an accredited trade school can complete the FAFSA, which can make them eligible to receive financial aid such as scholarships, grants, and loans. This financial aid (especially scholarships and grants, which typically don’t need to be repaid) can significantly reduce the cost of a trade program!

The cost of attending a trade school in your area will depend on a variety of factors, so if you’re interested in a school or program, be sure to do your research to understand its affordability.

Where should I start my search?

We recommend starting your search on this database, which can help you find and learn more about trade schools in your area. After finding a few schools and programs you’re interested in, it’s important to ensure that they’re accredited so you will be eligible to receive federal financial aid. Be sure that the school(s) you’re interested in are accredited before applying. 

What should I keep in mind when researching trade schools and programs?

There are a few things to keep in mind as you begin your research:

  • Job availability and salary potential. As you think about what you want to study, knowing the job market in your area is important. For example, if you live in an area where there are lots of tech jobs, or where construction is booming, those are great industries to think about pursuing. In addition to this, it can be helpful to have a general idea of the pay that people working in industries that interest you make.
  • Accreditation. Be sure that the schools you’re interested in are accredited. Not only do accredited schools meet specific criteria for quality of education, they are the only types of trade schools that are eligible for federal financial aid. This means that if you’re enrolled at a trade school that isn’t accredited, you won’t be able to complete the FAFSA and receive federal financial aid like loans and scholarships. 
  • Transferable credits. If you’re considering transferring to a four-year college once you complete your trade program, keep in mind that some or all of your credits may not be transferable. When researching trade schools and programs, check in about how their credits work and what the likelihood is of your credits transferring in the future.

How can I succeed in my trade program?

Success in a trade program requires more than just attending classes and completing assignments. Here are key strategies and resources to help you thrive during your time in a trade program:

  • Engage actively in classes and training. Make the most of your hands-on learning opportunities by actively participating in all practical sessions and lab work. What you’re learning is literally going to be your job! Don’t hesitate to ask questions whenever you need clarification or a deeper understanding of the material.
  • Utilize available resources. Take advantage of career services offered by your school, including resume writing assistance, job search workshops, and interview preparation sessions, all likely offered through your school's career services center!
  • Seek out practical experience. You may have the opportunity to apply for internships or pre-apprenticeships while in your trade program, which will allow you to gain even more real-world experience. These opportunities not only allow you to apply what you’ve learned, but also enhance your resume.
  • Build a professional network. The connections you make in school will be the building blocks of your professional network. This will include fellow students and your instructors, who can provide support, advice, and potential job leads.
  • Find a mentor. Seek out experienced professionals in your field who can provide mentorship. A mentor can be someone you look up to at your job or an instructor you really connect with, who can help you navigate your career path. Being proactive and asking for support can feel scary, but the benefits can be enormous!

Have any questions about trade school? Text #Jobs to 33-55-77 to chat with one of our advisors. If you're using a mobile device, click here to have the text message set up for you!

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Types of Trade Programs
Five Trade Jobs That Affect Your Everyday Life

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Five Trade Jobs That Affect Your Everyday Life

Here are five trade jobs that affect your everyday life!

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