Should You Get a Vocational Degree?

All About Vocational Education and Related Jobs

A vocational school classroom
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College isn't for everyone, an important fact to keep in mind when choosing a career. If you can't see yourself spending four years in school, earning a bachelor's degree, only consider occupations for which you don't need one. A vocational degree may provide the proper educational requirements.

What Is a Vocational Degree?

A vocational degree is an award an institution grants to an individual after he or she completes an intensive job training program. This course of study provides technical preparation for a specific career. One who undertakes it will acquire the skills needed to work in that trade or craft or be a technician.

If you decide to earn a vocational degree, get ready to commit to spending between a few months to two years in a vocational, trade, or technical school, or a community college. Upon completion, you may earn a post-secondary certificate or an associate degree. Licensure in some occupations requires a vocational degree.

Bachelor's or Vocational Degree? Which One Is Right for You?

It takes much less time to earn a vocational degree than a bachelor's degree—two years or less versus four. It isn't nearly as expensive either. According to a 2016 article in U.S. News and World Report, the average cost of attending trade school is $33,000, which is the same as the average tuition for one year of college (Bondar, Mel. "The Financial Case For Trade School Over College." U.S. News and World Report. April 12, 2016.).

While this is a substantial savings, the decision to pursue vocational training rather than a four-year degree or no education beyond high school also depends on other variables. Most importantly, you must fulfill the educational requirements of the occupation you want to pursue. No training at all is needed to work in some careers. That may sound easy (and cheap), but earnings aren't as high, nor are there many opportunities for advancement.

For some careers a bachelor's degree is necessary, others require a vocational degree, and to get a job in some, you can choose between the two. You may be able to enter certain fields with vocational training only but need a bachelor's degree to advance. Explore the careers in which you are interested thoroughly and investigate all the requirements. Make sure the preparation you choose meets your goals.

Vocational education is also a wise option for college graduates who need additional training to work in either a related or unrelated occupation. For example, if you want to be a paralegal but already have a college degree in a different major, instead of spending another four years in school earning a second bachelor's degree, get a certificate from a vocational school or community college.

Your abilities and desires should also guide this decision. If you bristle at the idea of spending four years in a classroom learning things that may not necessarily apply to the work you want to do or you were never a great student to start with, earning a bachelor's degree may not be your best option. If you initially chose a career that requires one, you may have to revise your career goal. You may even be able to find a related occupation that requires two years in a vocational training program rather than four years in college.

For example, one needs a bachelor's degree to become an engineer, but an associate or a vocational degree to become an engineering technician.

How to Choose a Vocational Training Program

It is imperative to note that not all trade schools are equal. Thoroughly investigate programs before signing up. To decide whether a program is good, consider three things: accreditation, reputation, and quality of training.

First, compare the program's accreditation to the requirements of the occupation for which you are preparing. Also, find out if you need a state occupational license and what you need to do to get one. Must your training program have accreditation from a particular organization? If so, make sure the program you attend has it.

Check out the program's reputation. How do employers regard it? Talk to them and to other people who work in the field to find out. Look for online reviews as well.

Ask your future colleagues where they received their training. Find out if they were well-prepared for the jobs once they began working. While vocational education costs much less than college, it is still a significant amount of money to spend. Be a smart consumer and make sure you get what you pay for.

Jobs That Require a Vocational Degree

From health care to trades and crafts, the options are wide and varied when it comes to the careers for which vocational education can provide the necessary training. Here are 10 occupations that promise to have the highest employment growth over the next several years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Audio engineers, also called sound engineering technicians, record, mix, synchronize, and mix music, sound effects, and voices. They use recording equipment and computers running complex software to do their jobs.

Educational Requirements: Post-secondary non-degree or certificate program (several months to one year)

Licensing Requirements: None

Number of People Employed (2016): 17,000

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 6 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 1,100

Median Annual Salary (2017): $55,810

Working under the direction of registered nurses (RNs), LPNs administer basic patient care. Their duties are limited by the regulations in the states in which they practice.

Educational Requirements: State-approved certificate or diploma program at a technical school or community college (at least one year); some high schools and hospitals also have programs

Licensing Requirements: National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) required in all states

Number of People Employed (2016): 724,500

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 12 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 88,900

Median Annual Salary (2017): $45,030

Makeup artists use cosmetics and prosthetics to change or enhance the appearances of individuals who are on television shows and in movies and stage shows.

Educational Requirements: State-approved cosmetology program (approximately nine months)

Licensing Requirements: State-issued license

Number of People Employed (2016): 5,000

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 12 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 600

Median Annual Salary (2017): $59,300

Hairstylists cut, color, and style hair, and use chemicals to straighten or curl it. Most work in free-standing salons, but some have jobs in spas and hotels.

Educational Requirements: State-approved barbering or cosmetology program (approximately nine months)

Licensing Requirements: State-issued license

Number of People Employed (2016): 617,000

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 13 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 80,100

Median Annual Salary (2017): $24,850

Dental assistants perform laboratory and office duties in dentists' offices. Some may also provide patient care, but that depends on the regulations of the states in which they work.

Educational Requirements: Some states require formal training from a trade or technical school

Licensing Requirements: Mandatory in some states

Number of People Employed (2016): 332,000

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 19 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 64,600

Median Annual Salary (2017): $37,630

HVAC technicians install, maintain, and repair heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems. Some specialize in one type of equipment or job function.

Educational Requirements: Certificate or associate degree from a trade school or community college (six months to two years) or a three to five year apprenticeship.

Licensing Requirements: Certification from the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA)

Number of People Employed (2016): 332,900

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 15 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 48,800

Median Annual Salary (2017): $47,080

Environmental engineering technicians carry out the plans environmental engineers develop. They set up and test equipment, maintain records, collect and analyze pollution samples, and help find ways to mitigate the sources of pollution.

Educational Requirements: Post-secondary certificate from a technical school; alternatively an associate degree from a community college or a bachelor's degree in a natural science; the program must be ABET-accredited.

Licensing Requirements: None

Number of People Employed (2016): 17,000

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 13 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 2,200

Median Annual Salary (2017): $50,230

Nuclear medicine technologists perform nuclear imaging tests that help doctors diagnose patients' diseases.

Educational Requirements: Associate degree in nuclear medicine technology (two years); 12-month certificate program for those who already have a related degree

Licensing Requirements: Most states require a license to practice, and some of those require a degree or certificate from a program accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology.

Number of People Employed (2016): 20,100

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 10 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 2,000

Median Annual Salary (2017): $75,660

Paralegals help attorneys prepare for legal proceedings like trials and hearings. They conduct research, draft documents, and interview witnesses.

Educational Requirements: Bachelor's or Associate degree in paralegal studies; individuals who have another degree can get a certificate in paralegal studies (one year)

Licensing Requirements: None

Number of People Employed (2016): 285,600

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 15 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 41,800

Median Annual Salary (2017): $50,410

Veterinary technicians help veterinarians diagnose and treat animals including pets and livestock.

Educational Requirements: AVMA (American Veterinary Medicine Association)-accredited post-secondary program in veterinary technology that usually culminates in an associate degree (two years)

Licensing Requirements: State-issued license

Number of People Employed (2016): 102,000

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 20 percent

Projected Increase in Jobs (2016-2026): 20,400

Median Annual Salary (2017): $33,400

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online