trade school

While it might seem like a college education is essential for a successful post-high school career, don’t give in quite yet. Maybe college isn’t your thing. And maybe, just maybe, you’d excel in a more hands-on, trade-oriented career. To get there, you may not need a 4-year school, as some jobs don’t require a Bachelor’s degree. So don’t get pressured to attend a 4-year school if you don’t need to.

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If you think that a trade-oriented career is up your alley, you can start the process by enrolling in a trade school, or also commonly called vocational or tech school. A trade school is a technical post-secondary institution that teaches you a specific skill or trade, preparing you for a technical occupation. You’ll get hands-on education and relevant job training for less time and less money.

The stereotype is that getting a trade school degree means that you won’t land a mid-level or high paying job. But, that isn’t necessarily the case at all. Research gathered by the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics tells us which trade school degrees will produce the highest paying jobs. In addition, you can earn just as much money (if not more!) by learning a trade, and you won’t have the student loan debt that most people have who pursue a 4-year degree. Plus, it won’t take you as long to learn your trade, so you can get to work a whole lot quicker than the traditional path.

And if you’re worried about finding a job– don’t.  

Many of the careers we mention below have a positive job outlook for the next decade, so for the most part, you’ll be in good hands. In addition, with the surge of college education in recent years, there’s been less of an emphasis on learning a trade, which is creating a void in those careers in our society. So while a college graduate with a Business degree might find it hard to land a job, you could go to school for fewer years, spend less money, and come right out with a skill that can benefit the area in which you live.

Let’s talk a little about the kinds of degrees, certifications, and continuing education programs you could pursue. Not every program will result in a degree–and that’s ok–because you may not need one for your trade. But–it will still be important to have specific training to get you ready for the job. When looking at trade school degrees, you might see the following ways to earn a trade school degree:


At a trade school, you could earn a diploma or certificate for your study in a specific area, which could take considerably less time than a degree. They will not be the same as an Associate or Bachelor’s degree, but could be exactly what you need to begin work in your career.

Associate Degree

Some careers, like a Respiratory Therapist, will require an associate degree from a junior/community college or trade school. An associate degree can typically be completed in 2 years. While you’ll be able to enter your profession right away, having an associate degree is a good starting place for anyone who thinks that maybe in the future a 4-year degree will be necessary.

Non-Credit Programs

Some trade school careers might require a basic education but no formal degree. That’s where non-credit programs come in. They will give you a fundamental background and get you ready for your career, without any credit.

Continuing Education

Other careers might require continuing education in your field, but not require a certification or degree. These classes are targeted towards professionals in a field that need extra or specific training.

How do I pick the right job path?

Ultimately the decision about what career to pursue is your decision. But, here are a few factors to consider:

  • your interests: what do you like to do? what brings you joy? what makes you want to get out of the bed in the morning?
  • your skillset : in what areas are you skilled? what past experiences do you have that will help you in a job?
  • your dreams: what do you want to do with your life? what big dreams do you have?

How do I find the right career for me?

  • find your passion:  the best way to find out what job could be best for you is to discover your passion, and it’s okay if that takes time. Don’t feel like you have to rush into a trade school if you aren’t sure yet. If you are sure, then great! If not–consider a ‘gap’ year and take some time.
  • consider job shadowing: take your top 3 career interests and shadow a few people. Take a good look at what their day looks like and see if you would enjoy what they do. Job shadowing is a great way to nix potential careers off your list or fall in love with a specific trade.


Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ): $47,710

Masons will work with building materials like bricks, stones, limestone, tile, or concrete to create structures, including chimneys, walkways, walls, and more. The job could include basic construction work like tearing down existing structures or designing and rebuilding them. Masons will need a basic understanding of math and construction, and expert knowledge in building materials, mortar, and safety procedures.

Education and training you’ll need:

Education: at least 18 years of age and a high school diploma or equivalent

Apprenticeship:  while you don’t need any formal education for this career, you need on-the-job training. You will need an extensive apprenticeship to learn the trade and to be able to work unsupervised.

Skills you’ll need:

  • read and comprehend technical and safety instructions
  • creativity to create beautiful, unique patterns
  • mathematical skills
  • ability to carry or lift heavy materials
  • communication with team members about job details

Job Outlook for 2019-29: down 3%

Licensed Practical Nursing

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $48,820

Licensed Practical Nurses, or LPNs, will provide basic nursing care in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, or in private care. If you choose nursing as your career, you will be expected to follow procedures, work collaboratively with other nurses, document patient histories and/or symptoms and medical changes, communicate with superiors and peers, perform basic nursing duties, and oversee a patient’s dietary requirements.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: a non-degree award that typically takes 1 year to complete. The state-approved nursing program will prepare you for the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-PN, which you must complete to become an LPN.

Skills you’ll need:
  • care and compassion for your patients
  • interpersonal skills to work with co-workers and patients effectively
  • listening and speaking communication skills
  • basic medical knowledge
  • problem-solving skills

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 9%


Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $49,520

Unlike masons who work with bricks, a carpenter will use wood as the main building material for his trade (other materials could include drywall, fiberglass, or plastic). Carpenters will build, repair, assemble, and/or install structures typically made from those materials. But–you won’t just be constructing. In a sense, you’ll wear a lot of hats as a carpenter: a designer (you’ll get to design your pieces!), a project manager (you’ll have to manage the project from beginning to end!), a Scheduler/Planner, and more!

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent

Apprenticeship: an apprenticeship will be required to learn the applicable carpentry skills

Skills you’ll need:

  • math skills: you’ll be taking lots of measurements, so a basic knowledge of algebra, geometry, and measuring will be vital
  • budgeting/financial skills: you might have to create a budget for a project (and stick to it!)
  • attention to detail: the slightest ‘off’ measurement could compromise the whole project, so paying close attention to detail is important!
  • critical thinking skills: as a carpenter, you’ll need to thoroughly think through your project from beginning to end, identify any issues that arise, and be able to solve them.
  • time management skills: you will be scheduling your work, and to keep customers, get the work done on time!

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Job Outlook for 2019-29: little or no change

Construction/Heavy Equipment Operating

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $49,100

As a Construction or Heavy Equipment Operator, you’ll be driving, maneuvering, and operating heavy construction equipment for the purpose of constructing buildings, roads, or other structures. It is important to remember that construction operators could have harsh working conditions, with having to work outside in all weather conditions or working at night due to road construction. If you enter into this field, you’ll definitely need to love getting dirty, as this profession will involve a lot of manual labor, greasy work, dusty environments, or muddy construction sites.

You can specialize in three areas:

  1. Paving and surface equipment operators
  2. Pile-driver operators
  3. Construction equipment operator
Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent

Apprenticeship : typically, you’ll need 3-4 years of apprenticeship coupled with technical training in addition to on-the-job training

Licensure: some states might require you to earn your CDL license to operate/drive machinery

Skills you’ll need:
  • communication skills with co-workers
  • hand-eye coordination
  • ability to complete manual labor/lift heavy objects
  • troubleshooting skills to identify/fix problems with equipment
  • machine operation skills

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Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 4%

Diesel Mechanic

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $50,200

Diesel Technicians and Mechanic will inspect and repair any vehicle with a diesel engine, like a bus or truck. You could work in oil-change shops, car dealers, tire/automotive shops like Auto Zone, or gas stations. Opportunities for growth could include leading or supervising team members or owning your own shop.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent

Training: While a degree won’t be necessary to become a diesel mechanic, employers prefer vocational training in diesel engine repair coupled with on-the-job training.

Continuing Education: continuing education might be required for automotive diesel mechanics as technology and vehicles continue to progress and evolve.

Skills you’ll need:
  • attention to detail
  • communication skills with team members and customers (customer relations)
  • manual dexterity/hand-eye coordination

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 3%


Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $56,330

Plumbers work with, repair, and install pipes that carry liquids and gases, and could do the following job descriptions:

  • interpret blueprints and identify the best layout for pipes
  • install fixtures, like sinks, dishwashers, or toilets
  • ensure proper function of pipes in a home or business
  • give quotes/job estimations
Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent

Apprenticeship: you will need a combination of classroom instruction and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training to become a plumber. In a classroom setting, you’ll learn about local codes, safety, and blueprint reading.

Licensure: most states require plumbers to pass an exam and gain licensure, as well as 3-5 years of work experience before  being able to work unsupervised

Skills you’ll need:
  • math skills for measuring and calculating
  • critical thinking skills for thinking through issues and solving them
  • listening & communication skills–being able to listen to customer issues and communicate solutions/quotes
  • troubleshooting skills to identify and solve problems

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 4%


Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $56,900

Essentially, an electrician will work with electricity in a variety of fashions. Electricians design, install, maintain and repair electrical power, communication or control systems, and lighting. Becoming an electrician might mean you’re signing up for a non-traditional work schedule, as you may need to repair systems on nights and weekends, or outside in inclement weather.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent

Training: Training to become an electrician is quite extensive, requiring classroom instruction and an 8,000-hour on-the-job apprenticeship.

Licensure: Most states will require electricians to be licensed before working unsupervised, which will include passing an exam and knowledge in building/electric codes and electrical theory.

Skills you’ll need:
  • analytical skills to identify problems
  • troubleshooting and problem-solving skills
  • sound color vision (as many jobs will require you to work with colored wires)
  • communication skills to work with a team
  • ability to work and balance your body at high elevations (no fear of heights in this job!)

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 8%

Architectural and Civil Drafter

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $57,960

If you love design and architecture but don’t want to complete all the schooling associated with that, check out a career as an architectural and civil drafter. In this job, you will complete detailed drawings of architectural or structural buildings, maps, or any civil engineering project that needs a sketch, like highways and bridges. You’ll take the architect’s design and turn it into a technical drawing.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: Some drafting programs will result in an associate degree from a community college or tech school, while others will end in a diploma or certification. No apprenticeship is needed.

Skills you’ll need:
  • knowledge of building materials
  • mathematics skills
  • knowledge of engineering practices
  • basic engineering skills
  • design/drawing skills and/or proficiency in the design computer programs
  • communication skills to work with architects and engineers

Job Outlook for 2019-29: 4% decline

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Rotary Drill Operator

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $53,820

A rotary drill operator will work in the oil and gas industry. Specifically, this career will take the engineer’s plans and put them into action. Your job will be to complete the physical work necessary to dig and drill, in order to retrieve natural oil and gas resources.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: you will need a formal education to enter the oil industry, some programs leading to an associate degree. The oil welling programs will combine classroom instruction with lab training to give you the preparation you need.

Apprenticeship: while an apprenticeship isn’t necessarily required to get a job, expect to get an entry-level or assistant type job. Most companies are requiring experience in the industry before an operating job is offered. After years in an entry-level position, you can work your way up to a rotary drill operator.

Licensure: your state might require specific licensure for this career.

Skills you’ll need:
  • critical thinking skills
  • communication skills
  • mathematics skills
  • manual dexterity

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 27%

Cardiovascular Tech

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $58,100

If you want to work in the medical field, but nursing or a career as a doctor isn’t for you, consider a health-related position as a Cardiovascular Tech. Cardiovascular Technicians will conduct cardiovascular and pulmonary testing so that patients can get diagnosed properly. They work hand-in-hand with physicians and help in diagnosing heart and blood vessel problems. You can find jobs in general medical facilities, hospitals, diagnostic centers, specialty centers, and doctors’ offices.

As a Cardiovascular Tech, you can specialize in three areas:

  • Invasive cardiology
  • Cardiac sonography
  • Vascular technology/sonography
Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: Associate degree (with one year being dedicated to basic studies and one for specialized studies). Some certificate programs might be available as well.

Skills you’ll need:
  • technological and computer skills
  • listening skills
  • communication skills
  • problem-solving skills
  • steady hands
  • explanation skills

Job Outlook for 2019-29: 5%

Commercial Diver

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $54,800

Ok, so your dream of becoming a navy seal didn’t pan out, but you can still work in water with a little education and training. As a commercial diver, you will work underwater to inspect, repair, and construct various structures. Plus, you’ll get to do it all in scuba gear. Think of it as construction combined with scuba diving. If those two things interest you, then you might want to take a good look at a career as a commercial diver.

Duties could include:

  • taking photographs underwater
  • conducting experiments
  • using power tools underwater
  • rigging explosives
  • welding underwater cracks
  • laying foundations for bridges

Various kinds of divers:

  • offshore divers (working with oil and gas companies)
  • onshore divers (working with engineering projects)
  • naval divers (working with boats/ships)
  • HAZMAT divers (working with hazardous materials)
  • scientific divers (working as underwater scientists)
  • media divers (working with film and video)
Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: high school diploma

Training: most commercial divers get a certification in the field and complete on-the-job training.

Skills you’ll need:
  • problem-solving skills
  • teamwork
  • mechanical skills (like welding)
  • close attention to detail & safety procedures
  • independence

Job Outlook for 2019-29: 5%

Home Inspector

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $62,860

Becoming a home inspector isn’t exactly difficult, but it doesn’t come without risk. As a home inspector, you will perform a comprehensive assessment of various buildings like new or existing homes, businesses, commercial spaces, condos, apartments and more. You evaluate the safety of these buildings, fire hazards, and whether or not the home is up to code. You will need knowledge of plumbing, electric, structural foundation, heating and cooling systems and more. Your job will be to make sure the building is up to code and that it meets zoning regulations.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent

Apprenticeship and Training: You won’t need any formal training for this job, but on-the-job experience will be required.

Licensure: Some states also require licensure to practice. You could take classes/training at a community college/trade school to get prepared.

Skills you’ll need:
  • independence to complete jobs alone
  • teamwork skills if you need to complete a job with a peer
  • ability to handle tight/small spaces
  • ability to climb ladders
  • administration skills (recording accurate information/complete and file paperwork)

Job Outlook for 2019-29: 3%

Respiratory Therapist

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $62,810

Respiratory therapists will provide medical care for (diagnose and treat) patients who have breathing problems or cardiopulmonary disorders. Note that this is a medical field job-which means you could work long hours (even at night!) in hospitals and other health care facilities.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma and associate degree. Graduates must also pass the National Board for Respiratory (which offers two levels of certification: the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)).

Licensure: Respiratory therapists are required to gain licensure (except in the state of Alaska) in order to work in the field. Requirements vary by state.

Skills you’ll need:
  • interviewing skills to get information from patients
  • work well with physician and other healthcare providers
  • compassion, patience, and care
  • science and math skills
  • interpersonal skills

Job Outlook for 2019-29: 19% (huge opportunity here!)


Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $62,150

The term boilermaker doesn’t sound too appealing, but the career does match its name. A boilermaker will manufacture, assemble, install, maintain, and repair boilers, tanks, closed vats, or other large vessels in which liquid or gas pass through. If you enter into this profession, get ready for manual labor and potential travel to job sites.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent

Apprenticeship:  In order to become a boilermaker, you’ll need to apply for a formal apprenticeship through the union or an employer. This on-the-job (and often paid!) training will be combined with classroom instruction at a vocational/community school and prepare you to work unsupervised after a number of years.

Skills you’ll need:
  • physical fitness for heavy lifting and manual labor
  • ability to read and understand blueprints
  • understanding of necessary tools and equipment
  • mechanical skills
  • critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • ability to work in dark and damp work environments
  • unafraid of confined, tight spaces

Job Outlook for 2019-29: 1%

Aircraft Mechanic/Aviation Maintenance

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $66,680

Aircraft mechanics do exactly what you think they do: they perform routine, scheduled, and emergency maintenance on aircraft.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: Most aviation mechanics will get their education at an FFA-approved school. Others are trained through on-the-job training or through the military. Because of the changing dynamics of flight and the intense use of computer work, an associate degree could be required.

On-the-job Training: for those who don’t want a formal education, an 18-month long on-the-job training experience could suffice.

Licensure: You’ll need to pass both the written and practical tests to be approved by the FFA in order to work unsupervised in the field.

Continuing Education : ongoing, continuing education might be required in this field.

*to recap: to get your AMT training you can take 1 of 3 routes (a formal education at an FFA-approved school, extensive on-the-job training, or training through the military).

Skills you’ll need:
  • ability to work in loud environments
  • mechanical skills
  • aviation flight instruments/computer repair knowledge
  • strong attention to detail
  • dexterity
  • physical strength
  • observational skills

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Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 5%

Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $75,920

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, a diagnostic medical sonographer will “operate special imaging equipment to create images or to conduct tests.” In short, you’ll be taking ultrasound images of internal images so physicians can use them for diagnostic purposes. Most diagnostic medical sonographers will work in a hospital setting, but some could work in imaging centers. Job duties could include capturing appropriate images for each patient,

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education : High school diploma or equivalent + formal education.

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers need formal education, typically an Associate Degree or a post-secondary certificate.

Skills you’ll need:
  • medical knowledge, especially anatomy
  • ability to multi-task
  • computer/technological skills
  • collaborative working skills

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 17%

Power Utility Tech/Line Installer and Repairer

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $61,470

A power utility tech will do exactly what you think they will do, and get paid well to do it! They will install and repair electrical power systems, fiber optic lines, and telecommunication cables. And while this might be a degree you’re interested in, you will really need to think long and hard before you pursue it–mainly because it can be extremely dangerous. You will work with electricity and power, and often in hazardous working conditions (like nights and possible inclement weather) and at great heights.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: High school diploma or equivalent + post-secondary technical instruction

Apprenticeship: long-term on-the-job training/apprenticeship is required

Skills you’ll need:
  • accurate color vision
  • exceptional strength
  • unafraid of heights
  • dexterity
  • hand-eye coordination
  • communication skills
  • teamwork/collaborative skills

Job Outlook for 2019-29: 3% decline

Web Developer

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $77,200

Web developers will design and create websites for clients. A basic understanding of graphic design and computer programming is needed. And with the world’s dependence on the internet, you won’t be without job opportunities.

While some web developers work in the computer science, advertising, or publishing industries, many choose to be self-employed or freelance.

Education and training you’ll need: 

No formal post-secondary education is necessarily needed; however, computer/web developing coursework at a technical school is desired. No apprenticeship or on-the-job training is required for the position.

Skills you’ll need:
  • time management skills (to complete tasks/job on time)
  • customer service skills to retain clients
  • ability to be self-motivated
  • technical and computer skills
  • graphic design skills
  • troubleshooting and problem-solving skills
  • attention to detail

Featured Programs

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 8%

Dental Hygienist

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $77,090

Maybe you love the dental field, but becoming a dentist is not in your cards. Dental hygiene offers you a good solution–you’ll still get to work with clients and their teeth under the supervision of a dentist. A dental hygienist’s duties include cleaning teeth and examine mouths for gingivitis and other diseases. On top of that, they will also educate patients on proper dental hygiene.

Other duties include:

  • applying fluoride and sealants
  • take and apply dental x-rays
  • communicate patient’s oral health with a dentist
  • administer anesthetics

A dental hygienist is not the same career as a dental assistant. They both work in dental offices, but they differ in job duties. Dental assistants will not be able to clean teeth or work on patients as dental hygienists do; instead, they escort patients to cleaning rooms, keep patient records, sterilize equipment, and make dental appointments. While a dental assistant is still a viable career, it will not earn you almost $75,000 a year–that’s reserved for dental hygiene.

Education and training you’ll need: 

Education: All dental hygienists will need an associate degree to practice. Most programs for dental hygiene will take about 3 years to complete. Look for a program accredited by the  Commission on Dental Accreditation .

Licensure: You’ll also need to be licensed to practice, requirements varying from state to state. It will also be necessary to pass written and clinical boards in order to be licensed to work in the field.

Skills you’ll need:
  • attention to detail
  • manual dexterity
  • compassion and care for patients
  • communication and interpersonal skills

Job Outlook for 2019-29: up 6%

Air Traffic Controller

Median Pay 2020 ( BLS ):  $130,420

The top spot on our list goes to the Air Traffic Controlling career, and with good reason. Professionals in this field can earn over $120,000 per year–which makes it a very desirable career.

Air traffic controllers do exactly as their name suggests; they control air traffic amongst aircraft. It may not seem extremely difficult, but it’s actually a big job. A lot of people’s lives are on the line.

Most air traffic controllers work in control towers. The job itself can be quite strenuous because you can’t have a lapse in concentration. Therefore, maximum concentration will be required for this career. You can also expect to work long hours, often at night and on weekends.

Education and training you’ll need:

Education: high school diploma and Associate Degree required

Training: extensive on-the-job training will be required

Becoming an air traffic controller isn’t super easy, even though extensive schooling isn’t required. Additional requirements include:

  • proof of US citizenship
  • pass medical exam and drug screening
  • pass the FAA pre-employment test
  • pass the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery (ATSA)
  • train in courses at FAA Academy before you turn 31 years of age

So yes, you’ll have some hoops to jump through, but the monetary compensation will be worth it if you do!

Skills you’ll need:
  • attention to detail
  • intense ability to concentrate
  • multi-tasking skills
  • decision-making skills
  • communication skills
  • math skills
  • problem-solving skills

Job Outlook for 2019-29: little or no change (only 1% or so!)

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