Vocational degrees: Career and online vocational school options

Early vocational degrees may have focused on carpentry, welding and other manual trades, but today's campus-based and online vocational schools can train students in dozens of career disciplines. Here are just a few of the fields where vocational degrees can get you in the door:

  • Accounting
  • Information technology
  • Criminal justice
  • Electronics
  • Health science
  • Nursing
  • Paralegal
  • Web design

Whether you're looking to change careers or take your first steps into the workforce, programs at traditional or online vocational schools are there to help you make sure you're prepared.

Advice from a vocational expert

vocational career expert

We talked to David Ruggieri, president of Florida Technical College, about his view on vocational degrees and his advice for prospective students at vocational college programs.

1. What types of people are best cut out for vocational training and careers?

People who enjoy creating and making things, or working with their hands in general, are best suited for vocational careers.

2. Do you see a good number of nontraditional students going back to school to attend vocational programs? What reasons do they typically have for doing so?

Yes. Nontraditional students are a majority of the students we see coming back to school. Many of them do so because they realize the job market is very favorable to people who have vocational skills. They know so, because they have tried to make it without vocational training and they have been unable to grow professionally. The job security of a trade has always been good even in an evolving global economic landscape.

3. What are a few things that students should keep in mind when considering a vocational career, or deciding which to pursue?

The main thing they should consider is whether or not they can see themselves working at that job for the next 20 years. Start with the end in mind. What you want to be and how you accomplish it. Choose a career path that makes you happy and pays the bills.

4. How can students best prepare for vocational training/programs?

Visit three to four schools. Don't get sold on the appearance, don't get sold on the first sales pitch. Decide which school can help you achieve your goal best and has what it takes to guide you along the way. It has to feel good if you are to persevere.

5. What's the most important thing you've learned in your time working with students in vocational programs?

That a student that is committed to success can achieve success and have a fulfilling vocational career. Education is the great equalizer. It doesn't automatically deliver success but it is indispensable to achieve it.

What exactly are vocational programs?

The easiest way to describe the difference between vocational schools and traditional colleges and universities is that vocational schools stop short of awarding four-year academic degrees. Some may exclusively confer professional certificates, while others may offer a mix of programs that culminate separately in certificates or associate degrees.

Career skills taught at vocational schools also tend to be more hands-on. Workers who primarily operate equipment, follow procedural templates or work specifically with a trade-standard symbol set can usually learn their necessary skills in vocational programs, while those who write reports, take on supervisory roles or participate in decisions about a company's overall direction are more likely to need a four-year degree or higher.

Top industries for vocational degrees

Data published by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that health care and the health sciences have some of the highest employment numbers among vocational fields. According to BLS reports, the workforce will support approximately 3,238,400 registered nurses by 2022 — an increase of more than 500,000 over the 2012 total — and employment of medical secretaries, sonographers and physical and occupational therapy assistants is expected to grow between 36 and 46 percent in all cases.

Many non-medical vocational degrees have a bright outlook over the next several years as well, particularly in trades that relate to construction. Brick, block and stone masons are slated for a 35 percent increase in employment by 2022, which the BLS expects to lead to around 25,000 new jobs, and jobs for helpers of electricians are projected to grow at a rate of about 37 percent.

Campus-based vs. online vocational schools

Instruction in a greater and greater variety of subjects is being designed for the virtual classroom, and programs that lead to vocational degrees are no exception. One fact that's particularly surprising about online vocational schools is that their available certificates often go beyond the sort of white-collar, office-oriented career training you might expect.

Even though it may seem difficult to deliver practical training in applied sciences via distance education, advancements in multimedia and broadband technology have made it possible to replace certain hands-on experiences with virtual substitutes. Vocational schools across the country have begun to offer online certificates in such subjects as carpentry, automotive technology and dental assisting.

Are vocational programs a good fit for you?

Whether or not an individual program is a good fit for an individual student has a lot to do with the specific characteristics of the student and the program, but there are general conditions under which pursuing vocational training might be especially appropriate. Here are a few examples of situations where vocational degrees can offer their greatest benefit:

  • You're younger, maybe just out of high school, and you want to give your earning power a boost while you take time to make careful decisions about continuing your education
  • You're on the entry level of an occupation and want to formalize your dedication to growing your skills and moving up the professional ladder
  • You're a working professional, unfulfilled by the direction your bachelor's degree has taken you and willing to invest time in developing the necessary skills for a career change

It's also the case that skilled trades have the reputation for job security that's often lacking in the layoff-prone office and administrative culture. Degrees from traditional and online vocational schools aren't immune to volatility in workforce demand, by any means, but the skill-sets learned through vocational training and experience have a way of retaining their value across a spectrum of economic circumstances.

Top states and regions for vocational careers

Many of the most popular careers for graduates of vocational programs tend to be most widely available in high-population states — Texas, New York and California make the top five in total employment for nearly every vocational career — although salary expectations can sometimes be another matter.

Registered nurses in Hawaii, for example, earned a higher mean annual wage in 2014 than their counterparts in all U.S. states but California, pulling in $18,500 more than the national average for the year. Salaries for skilled masons were highest in Massachusetts in 2014, the BLS reports, where the state mean of $77,630 outdistanced the national annual average by more than $26,000.

Overall, though, data published by the BLS and the College Board combine to suggest that California may be the best state for vocational students. Not only does it offer competitive salaries in numerous vocational fields — especially nursing — but the state's average tuition cost at public two-year colleges was lowest in the nation in 2014. New Mexico placed second for vocational tuition affordability on the recent College Board report, followed by Texas in a distant third.

Check out the vocational schools below to get started on your vocational career path of choice today.

1. "The Best Jobs That Don't Require A Bachelor's Degree," Jenna Goudreau, Forbes, June 21, 2012, accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2012/06/21/the-best-jobs-that-dont-require-a-bachelors-degree/
2. Fastest growing occupations, Employment Projections, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed July 13, 2015: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_103.htm;
3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed July 13, 2015: Registered Nurses, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Registered-nurses.htm; Electricians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/electricians.htm; Brickmasons, Blockmasons, and Stonemasons, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Construction-and-Extraction/Brickmasons-blockmasons-and-stonemasons.htm
4. Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed July 13, 2015: Electricians, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes472111.htm; Brickmasons, Blockmasons, and Stonemasons, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes472021.htm; Registered Nurses, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm
5. Online Career Training Programs, Ashworth College, accessed July 13, 2015, https://www.ashworthcollege.edu/career-diplomas/
6. Certificates of Completion, Bryant & Stratton College, accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.bryantstratton.edu/online/certificate-programs
7. Online Certificate Programs, Kaplan University, accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.kaplanuniversity.edu/programs/certificates.aspx
8. Tuition and Fees by Sector and State over Time, The College Board, accessed July 14, 2015, http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-sector-state-time
9. Interview, David Ruggieri, July 13, 2015

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