student class at trade school

What Is Trade School?

student class at trade school

Career college, vocational school, technical school and trade school are all postsecondary institutions that prepare students for a specific profession. These schools typically take two years or less to complete and award diplomas, degrees and certificates. Trade schools offer hands-on training in skilled trades like HVAC maintenance and repair, welding and electrical work.[1][2]

Should I Go to Trade School?

Is trade school right for you? Start by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. How much money can I spend on or borrow for my education?[3]
  2. What length of study would work best for me, especially if I won’t be working full time while in school?
  3. What do I want to learn, and how will those skills or knowledge transfer into the job market?

These are important considerations because the outcomes of trade school can be significantly different from the outcomes of traditional college. It comes down to cost and potential student debt, program length and career potential.[4]

Considerations for Choosing Trade School

Enter the job market right away, go to college or train at a trade school are some options after high school graduation. Answering the questions below can help you weigh them.

How Much Does Trade School Cost?

The cost of trade school varies with the school and program. Trade school programs can cost as little as $1,000 and as much as $30,000.[5]

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Compared to community college and university, trade school can be less expensive. For example, four-year institutions cost $26,120 a year in 2016, and two-year colleges $10,432 a year.[6]

It’s important to consider program length when evaluating the cost of a post-secondary education. Many students these days take six years instead of four to earn a bachelor’s degree.[7] Multiply six times $26,120 and you get $156,720 as the price tag for that credential. Studies have found that earning an associate degree can take 3 years or longer, which means it could set you back $31,296 or more.

Return on Educational Investment

Given the national student loan debt crisis, it’s important to determine whether the cost of a post-secondary education will be worth the career potentially waiting for you after graduation.[8]

For example, a bachelor’s degree is required to become a high school teacher, but these professionals earn a median annual salary of $60,320, notes the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).[9]

In the field of HVAC service, employers typically prefer workers to have HVAC training from a trade school. The BLS indicates that HVAC technicians earn a median annual income of $47,610.[10] With trade school costing $30,000 or less, you could see a healthy return on your investment in an HVAC program.

Of course, with either educational option, earnings depend on the career you choose and several other factors.

How Long Is Trade School?

learning to be an electrician

Trade school usually takes two years or less to complete. It can be a relatively quick way to prepare for a career, notes the BLS.[11] How long it takes each individual student, however, depends on the particular program and his or her pace of learning.

Trade School Program Lengths

Below are some examples of how long specific trade school programs could take to earn a certificate:

HVAC Technician Training

Six months of HVAC training for entry level positions as an HVAC/R service and installation technician, refrigeration service and installation technician or commercial refrigeration technician.

Electrician Training

Three months of electrician training for entry-level positions as a maintenance electrician, new construction electrician or power plant field technician.

Welder Training

Seven months of welding training for entry level jobs in structural welding, pipe and pipeline welding and thin alloy welding for the construction, manufacturing, petroleum and transportation fields.

With trade school, you can learn the skills to work in growing fields like these in less than one year.10[12][13]

What Can I Learn in Trade School?

Trade schools can prepare students for positions in the skilled trades. For example, in HVAC school, much of the instruction is usually hands-on, with students spending as much or more time in the lab than the classroom.2

Skilled Trades Job Growth

Just as important as what you’ll learn is where you could apply those skills in the job market. Check out the projected job growth through 2026 for some careers you could train for in trade school below:

HVAC Technician

15 percent job growth versus the 7 percent national average for all occupations.10


16 percent job growth.[14]


13 percent job growth.[15]


9 percent job growth.2

Solar Panel Installer

105 percent job growth.[16]

Is Trade School Better than College?

Trade school and college are two different paths to a career. Which is better depends on how much money you want to spend, time you have to study, and the career you want. When it comes to making a decision about this big investment in your future, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of trade school versus college.

Additional Sources