The Trade School Trend: Why it Might be the Best Personal Financial Decision

Four-year colleges and universities are getting considerable competition these days: Institutions that teach trades are rising in popularity. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that enrollment in vocational programs rose by 16% from 2022 to 2023, a trajectory that’s continuing this year.

With the cost of traditional college high and the job market for those with degrees uncertain, learning a valuable trade quickly and inexpensively has become appealing.

Here are the financial reasons many are opting for a program that will prepare them for a career they love in a field that’s hiring.

Post-Degree Financial Stress

According to a 2024 Strada Education Foundation and the Burning Glass Institute report, 52% of recent four-year college graduates are underemployed a year after graduation. Ten years later nearly half still don’t work in a field that requires a four-year degree.

Although higher education has many intellectual rewards, some common majors don’t equip graduates with job-ready skills or sustainable salaries.

For example, per HeyTutor’s 2024 data for jobs in mass media, often a stepping stone to a career in journalism, there is a 7.8% unemployment rate, 55.2% underemployment rate and a median early-career wage of $35,000. People who graduate with liberal arts degrees (humanities, social sciences, physical sciences and arts) experience unemployment rates of 6.7%, underemployment rates of 58.4% and a median early-career wage of just $33,400.

This is particularly problematic when student loans come into play. An Education Data Initiative report found that the average federal student loan debt balance in 2024 is $37,088, but escalates to an estimated $39,981 when private loans are included.

With minimal career demand and low-paying positions in their fields of study, making ends meet while repaying loans can be extremely stressful.

[Related:Alternatives to College: What to Know]

Career Retractions Versus Job Surges

Additionally, layoffs are prevalent in previously growing and secure sectors, like technology. The tracking website found that 1,191 tech companies laid off 263,180 employees in 2023. So far in 2024, 293 tech companies have laid off 84,060 workers.

Many skilled trade jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, however, are increasing.

Kodi Wilson is campus director of National Technical Institute, a state-approved trade school with campuses in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Houston. NIT provides affordable, fast-track training in HVAC, plumbing and electrical, and Wilson says it’s seen year-over-year growth over the last two years.

“Starting all the way back to Covid, people began really looking for stable careers,” Wilson says. “There was a realization that there was opportunity in the trades because of the employment gap. There are more jobs than employees, so wages in the trades have climbed in the last few years.”

[Related:The Benefits of Career and Technical Education Programs for High Schoolers]

Indeed compiled a list of the highest-paying vocational jobs between 2022 and 2032, with projected growth of at least 4%:

— Wind turbine technician – 45% increase, $58,005 per year

— Solar installer – 22% increase, $69,422 per year

— Industrial mechanic – 13% increase, $69,637 per year

— Respiratory therapist – 13% increase, $104,437 per year

— Ultrasonographer – 10% increase, $131,161 per year

— Dental hygienist – 7% increase, $99,013 per year

— Cable technician – 6% increase, $70,714 per year

— Electrician – 6% increase, $62,739 per year

— Construction manager – 5% increase, $88,319 per year

— Real estate appraiser – 5% increase, $64,075 per year

— Licensed practice nurse – 5% increase, $59,125 per year

— Aircraft mechanic – 4% increase, $82,476 per year

Fast and Affordable Trade Training

Tuition-based education can take place at a specific trade school, and it’s often affordable for most students. For example, Wilson says a complete training for any of the programs at NTI is less than $10,000.

Colleges that offer vocational programs are another option, says Kolina Painter, executive director of marketing for Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, Wisconsin, which offers a wide array of one- and two-year programs in diverse fields like accounting, pipe welding and automotive electrical.

“With flexible learning options, like at Lakeshore, students can often set their own schedule and pace, meaning it will take less time to complete their credential,” Painter says. “That timeliness equates directly to less money borrowed and getting into full-time employment in a field they love sooner.”

Vocational colleges exist all over the U.S., with programs designed to prepare students for immediate employment at a very low cost. Los Angeles Valley College, for instance, has a respiratory therapist program with a total price of $5,200, excluding books and student health care fees (and this career is in one of the fastest-growing and best-paying trades).

High-tech educational options are also emerging, slashing costs and time. For example, Interplay Learning, based in Austin, Texas, developed virtual reality training programs specifically for essential skilled trades like solar, safety and plumbing.

“We’ve trained 170,000 students so far, and each year we’re seeing an increase,” says Dan Clapper, a director for Interplay Learning. “We see high school kids for career exploration and early-career-age people, but also people in mid-career looking to switch to the trades.”

[See: 25 Best Jobs That Don’t Require a College Degree.]

Free and Paid Trade Training

Cassie Pound, co-owner of Quality Heating, Plumbing & Cooling in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says jobs are available right out of educational programs, but formal training is not always necessary.

“Depending on the job, you can work as an apprentice,” Pound says.

“After a certain amount of time and hours you will get licensed. For heating and air, you will need three years of on-the-job training to become an HVAC tech or installer without any type of schooling. You learn on the job and get paid. The trades aren’t always easy, but they can be very lucrative,” she adds.

To find a program, look into ApprenticeshipUSA, through the U.S. Department of Labor.

In fact, compensated on-the-job training is one of the major benefits of the skilled trades, says Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, CEO of JVS, a Bay Area nonprofit that offers career training programs.

“Many people don’t know they have access to hands-on training and apprenticeships where they get paid to learn,” Countryman-Quiroz says. “When folks find out, they think it’s a scam. It’s not, though. Instead of leaving college with six-figure debt, they have no debt and a good job.”

Fears of being replaced by artificial intelligence (AI) can also be relieved.

“A lot of jobs, like in health care and culinary, are not replicable by AI, so these are safer paths,” Countryman-Quiroz says.

Such security is also enhanced by the trades often being connected to labor unions, which may be attractive to those who seek protections, stability and a potential to have a voice in the workplace.

Don’t Discount the Trades

According to Clapper, the skilled trades offer vital economic mobility to a wide variety of people. “These jobs are great for people who immigrated to the U.S., dropped out of high school or college,” he says. “They give everybody an opportunity to break out of minimum wage.”

Closing the gender gap is particularly exciting to Pound, who started a podcast, Power Women of the Trades, to inspire more women to consider such occupations.

“Jobs like plumbing were only a man’s job for too long,” she says. “Starting can be intimidating, but we’ve noticed more women getting into it. Fully licensed plumbers can definitely make over $100,000 a year, and some are union jobs.”

Pound says the trades, especially the more physical jobs, shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to college but as a first choice.

“The U.S. is dependent on trade workers,” she says. “You’re helping with infrastructure, keeping water flowing, buildings cool, the power going. You’re working with your hands, outdoors, solving problems. This is very important work.”

As for GenZers who are just leaving high school, advocates for the trades are touting the benefits. “We are boots on the ground talking to youth who are exploring options,” Pound says.

When kids learn how much they can earn soon after high school, it piques their interest.

“There’s a range for salary potential, but for the areas we work in they can begin with $70,000, $80,000 and $90,000 to more than $100,000 without owning any student loans,” Countryman-Quiroz says. And that, she says, definitely gets young people’s attention.

More from U.S. News

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20 Certification Programs for Careers That Pay Well

10 Best-Paying Tech Jobs

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