The Value of Trade School in a Bad Economy

Arthur Posey is a retired high school guidance counselor and freelance blogger specializing in issues that relate to education (including education reform, TEFL and the importance of vocational schools). When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him rafting his favorite rivers or fixing up his motorcycle.

A few short decades ago, all it took to land a decent job was a high school diploma or a GED.

Flash forward a few decades to 2013:

In the last ten years, the price of higher education at a four year university has risen drastically. According to an article on, tuition at private nonprofit four-year colleges has risen by 60% in the last decade. That’s nothing compared to public four-year colleges, whose tuition rates have increased by 104% in the same amount of time. It’s hardly a surprise that student debt has surpassed credit card debt for the first time in history, with over $1 trillion owed by students. Meanwhile, the job market continues to shrink. College graduates are having a harder time finding jobs that have anything to do with what they studied in college.

So what’s one solution to this problem for people who find themselves unemployed? Trade school.

For years now, higher education has been framed as a necessity, as opposed to an option – and now the American economy is suffering a shortage of skilled workers. The shortage stems from the cultural emphasis on the importance of attaining an undergraduate degree, combined with the social stigma associated with trade schools; culturally speaking, highly trained blue-collar workers (plumbers, carpenters, welders, etc.) are often looked down on by their white-collar counterparts, despite the fact that they often make more money than the average college graduate.

According to an article posted on back in May, there’s a growing deficiency of skilled workers in the United States. Our economy needs skilled electrical technicians, boilermakers, crane operators, masons, plumbers, power line technicians and pipefitters. The article on goes on to explain that the gap will only increase in the near future, since many of the people who currently hold these positions are approaching retirement age. If we don’t do something soon, we’re going to see a labor scarcity that could significantly damage the American economy. What people don’t seem to realize is that we’re not going to fix that labor shortage by sending more kids to university.

In a bad economy, having a trade or vocational education is better than having a traditional 4-year degree, for a number of reasons:

1. Trade school takes less time to complete. It takes most people four years to earn their undergraduate degree – it only takes an average of two years to finish trade school. This means you’ll spend less time in the classroom and more time getting valuable hands-on experience.

2. Learning a trade is cheaper than an average education at a four year college. A recent statistic cited on CNN Money said the class of 2013 will graduate with an average $35,200 in student loan debt. That is an absolutely astronomical amount, considering the high unemployment rates amongst recent graduates. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who went to school on a full-ride scholarship, paying for college can be a lifelong endeavor.

3. America needs skilled workers. The current shortage of skilled labor is adversely affecting the economy. Trade school can fix this—students who complete trade school are ready to immediately enter the workforce. They have the skills and know-how to fill the rising demand for skilled workers, which is a huge advantage in an economy where undergraduate degrees are barely worth the paper they’re printed on.

Americans are tired of the higher education system. People are looking for ways to better themselves that don’t require massive investments of time and money. Vocational education could be the answer they’re looking for. If we want to help get the American economy back on track (that is, if we want to fix the labor shortage and stop outsourcing blue collar jobs overseas) without sacrificing ourselves, our time and our money on the altar of higher education, we need to start promoting other, often marginalized options like trade school.


Check out more of Arthur Posey’s writing on alternative education:

Inspiration Avenue: The Myth of Higher Education

Uncollege: Vocational Schools: A Great Alternative

3 thoughts on “The Value of Trade School in a Bad Economy

  1. I teach (and chair) the radiation therapy technology program at the
    Community College of Denver. CCD is a big school with a large “liberal
    arts” component. Even though the number of CTE students is about the
    same as the liberal arts or transitional students, CTE still seems
    under represented. Things are improving but the need to expand
    vocational training is being held back by an unrealistic perception of
    the US economy, a vintage 1965 perception that the road to social
    mobility or even financial security in through a four year liberal
    arts degree.
    Older and displaced workers come to the radiation therapy program
    because it somehow fits in with their middle class sensibilities.
    Anymore, I don’t hesitate to recommend the welding program as an
    alternative to jumping into radiology technology because the job
    prospects are better. HVAC training should be promoted too.

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