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Trade School vs. College: Here’s What You Need to Consider


Graduating high school seniors often assume that they must attend a university to build their career, but in some cases, there are other, more approachable paths for their future that capitalize on their strengths. A career in the trades is one such option. Many trades, one of which is plumbing, rely on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to support essential public infrastructures.

The plumbing trade, specifically, is essential to maintaining potable water and sanitary health conditions, as well as repairing and maintaining water delivery infrastructure. This provides versatility for plumbers who, on any given day, could be servicing homes, businesses, medical facilities and public works, which are vital to the country’s health and well-being.

Trade School vs. College: Pros and Cons

If you’re interested in a career that has a direct impact on your community — and you’re ready to hit the ground running with your future — enrolling in a vocational school may be the right path for you. And with the current labor shortage, there’s no better time to enter trades like plumbing for job security. We’ve outlined the facts for you, so you can understand the top differences between trade school and college and make an informed decision.

Specializing in a Craft vs. General Education

Trade schools are often referred to as vocational or career schools because they focus in on a specific vocation or career. College, on the other hand, requires that students take classes that can vary from topics within a major all the way to random electives such as ‘Walking’ – seriously, some of us have taken it. If you want to skip straight to specialization and get to work more quickly on what matters most to you, the focus and speed of a trade school may be for you.

Trade School Costs Less Than College

How much your education costs varies based on where you live, where you decide to attend school and what kind of institution it is. With student debt at an all-time high in the U.S., this is a big deal. Students who choose a skilled trade often have a better return on investment for their education because they’re paying less for their education and sometimes getting paid during training.

  • A four-year college can cost between $25,000 and $53,000 per year, according to
  • A trade school program, on the other hand, is typically around $33,000 total, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Trade School Takes Less Time to Complete

The longer it takes to complete school, the longer it takes to start earning an occupation’s full-time salary. Many trades, including plumbing, offer a dual benefit of shorter education and paid training. Apprenticeships, unlike many college internships, pay you as you learn, providing income, instruction and progress toward the next step in your career.

Read: How Pre-Apprenticeships Increase Diversity in the Plumbing Industry

What is the average time it takes to complete trade school? 2 years or less.

Plumbing and other vocational programs typically take up to two years or so to complete depending on the program. A vocational certificate program, for example, will take less time — even as little as 10 weeks — depending on your experience. There are many vocational programs out there, including online plumbing courses and plumbing night school, to fit your schedule too.

How long is a plumbing apprenticeship program? 2-5 years.

If you want to jump straight into the workforce, you can join a plumbing apprenticeship program with a local company or a plumber union apprenticeship. Both options can take two to five years depending on the program.

How long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree? 4 years.

A university bachelor’s degree will last three to four years at least and could take longer for those working full time during classes.

Trades Provide an Attractive Salary after School

Not only does a trade school education cost less in time and money, but it also provides a desirable salary. Those who attend trade schools make an average salary of over $59,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This can be even higher depending on the trade you specialize in. A plumber’s salary can range up to $97,000, depending on location, education, experience and specialized licenses.

Those entering the workforce from a trade school can also make their salary go farther, with fewer years of school to pay for and little to no educational debt.

Find a Job Quickly after Trade School

You can expect plenty of job opportunities in the trades since the labor shortage is creating a high demand for skilled workers. In fact, construction and extraction jobs, which include plumbers, are expected to match the national average growth pace for all jobs.

And while other professionals may have less job security in times of economic stress, many trades like plumbing are considered essential industries that must carry on no matter what, which means you can expect more stability.

Read More: How a former pro helps "build plumbers" as an instructor at HBI

Attending Trade School and College

There are many differences between trade school and college, but the good news is you don’t necessarily have to pick only one. One of our favorite parts about the trades is there are many paths to success. If you join the trades, you can actually do both trade school and college if you’d like.

Students should consider which education path is more accessible to them right out of high school. One option could be to enter the workforce immediately to minimize debt and gain work experience, then consider college to specialize in a certain focus and enhance your resume. Vocational computer-aided design programs, for example, can give you a leg up in architectural design. Or gaining experience as a plumber can start you on the path to becoming a plumbing engineer after getting a degree in mechanical engineering.

Seriously Considering the Trade?

SharkBite is committed to creating resources and information to help you make an informed decision about your future. Learn more about a career in plumbing and whether that path might be right for you.