Trade Schools and Apprenticeships - Alternatives to College

Young female construction worker

A college degree is, for many high school graduates, the next step towards young adult life. And indeed, a diploma with a degree in a high demand field such as engineering, finance, computer science or accounting will be a great help in securing a good-paying position with benefits and job security. 

For some high school seniors, the enormous expense and academic rigor of college is not a good fit. Taking out loans, searching for scholarships, navigating the financial aid maze - all of these, coupled with a desire to begin a career sooner than later are great reasons to look into trade schools or apprenticeships. Before beginning the college search and prep process, consider if your child may be better-suited to a skilled position that is more labor-intensive. Also, take into consideration your family's financial situation.

You don't want to go into personal debt or spend your retirement savings on a four-year education.

Consider this: skilled workers such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders, housepainters, landscapers, and more are slowly but surely aging out of the workforce. With so many skilled tradespeople leaving the working world, there are many opportunities for young adults to find lucrative and steady work in skilled trade positions. Statistics show that more than half of the skilled-trade positions will open in the next decade, requiring new and younger workers to take their places. 

"Of the 21 skilled trades professions identified by the Virginia Manufacturers Association, the oldest in the U.S. is electrical and electronics engineering technicians, with 38 percent of jobs held by workers 55 years and older. Meanwhile, a third of electrical and electronics repairers are at least 55, while 72 percent are 45 years and older." -

With the emphasis in high schools across the country on sending students to pursue a degree - whether 2 year community colleges or 4 year universities - trade schools have been discounted and aren't even considered in many cases. This is a missed opportunity for many students who may find academia less than stimulating and be drawn to more hands-on work.  For example, an experienced and in-demand plumber can earn upwards of $50 per hour, or for a 40 hour work week, over $100,000 per year. 

There are hundreds of skilled trade positions that could be a great fit for a young adult who isn't interested in pursuing a college degree. While some do require education, others are apprentice-based and depend on on-the-job training and self-motivation to learn the skills needed to be employable. Some positions require both formal education and apprenticeship, but the benefit of apprenticeship is that in most cases, the apprentice will earn money while on-the-job training is taking place.

The bureau of labor statistics reports need increase in these apprentice-based positions in the years 2012-2022:


  • Construction trades workers: 22% growth
  • Health technologists and technicians: 24% growth
  • Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations: 10% growth
  • Construction and related workers: 12% growth


"The average annual salary for an apprentice who completes his or her program is more than $50,000. Compared to high school graduates, workers who complete an apprenticeship can earn approximately $300,000 more over the course of their careers". -


There are some jobs that are available to both vocational or 2 year degreed applicants and bachelor's degrees holders. For example, RN positions are open at many skill levels. There are jobs for those with an AA degree and jobs for those with bachelor's degrees. The difference can possibly be reflected in the job responsibilities and salary. The bigger disparity will be if, down the line, the AA degreed nurse wants to pursue a different career path that requires a bachelor's degree - however, that can always be remedied by returning to school.

Another career that can be pursued with our without a degree is construction management. While a 4 year degree will allow for quicker advancement and placement at the managerial level, a skilled and well-trained contractor or construction manager can build a small business on his or her own and earn a good living while being independent and avoiding corporate life. Good general contractors and sub-contractors (plumbers, electricians, dry wallers, painters) are always in high demand in the home building and remodeling industry.


With jobs opening up rapidly in the skilled trade and labor field, it's worth considering if this career path is the right one for your young adult.