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Learn a Skill and (possibly) Get Paid to Do It

The truth is that utilizing the benefits of an apprenticeship or trade school program may prove a better investment of time and money for some students than attending a 4-year college right after high school. Here's why.

With the rise of tuition year after year, the expense of paying for residence life, and the unknowns of balancing collegiate requirements with social life, many students struggle to make a four-year collegiate experience beneficial for themselves at 17 or 18 years of age. Additionally, those students who are interested in working in an industry that requires a specific skill set may do better starting at a trade school or apprenticeship program than those who attend a four-year institution right after high school.

Why should parents and students stop and consider these options? Let's define the options first:

  • Apprenticeship programs are generally two-year programs starting as early as 16 years of age. There are two types of apprenticeship programs: youth and adult. Youth programs focus on ages 16 through 18, provide high school and college credit (you must complete all high school graduation requirements), and help participants develop the necessary skills to be successful in a particular industry area. Adult programs often offer collegiate credit as well as skill development in a particular industry area. This is in addition to being paid a scalable wage and earning bonuses and raises while they are in the program. What this means is that while students are earning college credit, often covered by the program, they are not only learning skills but also earning financial stability.

  • Trade schools are somewhat like community college certification programs in that they offer certifications in a specific set of skills. These programs however are generally taught by educators with many years’ experience in the field who understand the current needs of the industry. Additionally, these programs often have specific job placement programs as well as strong connections with industries to provide internships and jobs for their students. Trade schools are only as good as their graduates, so they are heavily invested in making sure their graduates have the highest level of skill possible to enter the industry that they are interested in and meet the ever-changing needs of industry leaders.

Why aren't these types of programs much more interesting to today's students? I offer that it's because of a negative stereotype. Unfortunately, many students (and their parents) have come to believe that these programs are not as prestigious as attending a four-year program. While in the past there was an industry-driven demand for qualified candidates to have an advanced degree, today's industry environment is looking for trained, experienced employees who are willing to learn the ways of their company. While four-year institutions are fantastic at giving background and orienting students to the industry overall, trade schools and apprenticeship programs give students real-time experience in an industry as it continues to evolve.

Unfortunately, many students (and their parents) have come to believe that these programs are not as prestigious as attending a four-year program.

One example is the rising STEM industry. Students interested in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), one of the fastest growing industries to date, may find greater success in trade and apprenticeship programs as well as greater abilities to develop advanced degrees. According to the STEM Jobs website[ii]:

“The programs offered at trade schools are often shorter and tailored to teach students practical skills with the goal of direct employment. Many employers will even pay for students to continue their trade school education once they join the company. A student who enrolls in a trade school will typically finish their education more quickly, allowing them to join the workforce and begin building a career earlier.”

This same article also discusses the benefits a student can gain financially by attending a trade school or apprenticeship program:

“According to the Association for Career and Technical Education, graduates with technical or applied science associate degrees out-earn bachelor’s degree holders by an average of $2,000 to $11,000.” When you think about these earnings of a student over 10 years, that amounts to $20,000-$110,000 more than their classmates who attended four-year universities. When you factor in the amount those students paid for their education, the advanced financial success of those who attend trade schools and apprenticeship programs is even more pronounced.”

There are so many benefits to be considered at local trade schools and apprenticeship programs, especially for students who do not have a specific passion for a future career that requires a 4-year degree or who do not like school to begin with. This option may provide career pathway clarification, development of financial stability (which can help fund any future education needs), career networking opportunities, and even time to develop personally.

More and more it is becoming evident that considering additional options such as trade schools or apprenticeship programs may benefit students in greater ways than any other option available to them. Therefore, it is worth it for parents and students to stop for a moment and consider the benefits these options offer in giving them the experience and skillset they need for the potential careers they are interested in.

Who might best be successful in these types of programs? Consider the following scenarios:

Not every student does well in traditional school settings. Some students thrive in the traditional model, but there is a growing number who do not. Technical schools and apprenticeship programs offer a wide variety of specialty skill development programs that give the opportunity to earn well-paying jobs in a non-traditional learning environment.

Not every student is interested in a liberal arts education. Most 4-year colleges offer a great liberal arts education, which is good for some careers, but not all. The blue-collar workforce, specialty technical areas, and even IT do not always require a liberal arts education.

Not every student can afford to work at a minimum wage job. Earning a trade school or apprenticeship certification can mean a better job while completing a college education (if needed). Many students need to work while in college to fund their education or personal living expenses. Most work minimum wage jobs or even work two or more jobs. If a student took 18 months or so to develop a skill, they could conceivably work in a new career that would better help them pay for their college education. If they completed some college courses while involved in these programs (most apprenticeship programs offer some college courses) they could also reduce the number of semesters they would need to pay for that education.

Not every student is interested in putting off their career aspirations for four more years. Many students have clear ideas about what they want to do with their future but are frustrated by having to spend so much time learning in classrooms that have nothing to do with their future careers. Completing general education courses and industry theory courses may be a waste of time in the face of trade schools and apprenticeship programs.

Completing an apprenticeship program pays you to learn on the job. Students who apply and are accepted into an apprenticeship program are not only educated based on their age (high schoolers complete high school and college course requirements, collegiate students receive collegiate credit), but they're also paid a scalable wage (they are eligible for raises) for the two years they are enrolled in the program. While they are working with a mentor in the industry, learning in real-time the skills, character, and networking it takes to be successful in that industry area, they are also earning money. Upon completion of the program, many students can become self-sufficient. Think about that, an 18-year-old can be completely self-sufficient and not in debt at all with 2 years of industry experience on their resume.

Completing a Trade School or Apprenticeship Program may offer better skill development and industry networking. Trade schools and Apprenticeship programs have been around for longer than formal liberal arts college education programs. Traditionally a way for people to learn a trade in real-time, these programs offer opportunities for skill development, industry networking, and education that goes far beyond the classroom. These programs offer students the opportunity to support themselves, develop marketable skills, and enter the workforce much sooner than 4-year programs all while being able to learn first-hand, rather than in theory, how an industry works.

Not every teen is the right fit for every post-high school option, but there is an option (or combination of options) for every teen to build a pathway to a successful career after high school.

To join other parents in the discussion of this topic and other post-graduation planning topics, click HERE

👉For more about the different options available to high school students and how to help them know which option or combination of options is best for them, check out Stephanie's newest book College Is Not Mandatory: A Parent's Guide to Navigating All the Options Available to Our Kids After High School.

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[1] *not their real names [i] “The Advantages of Attending a Trade School”. HVAC Technical Institute, October 16, 2014, [ii] Posts, Legacy. “The Benefits of Trade Schools”. Stem Jobs Career Network, April 27, 2016,


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