The U.S. Income Gap: How Trade School Can Be a Vehicle to the Middle Class

Electricians at Wolf Creek Power Plant complete fix on a differential
Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - USA / Flickr

Colleges are marketed as the gateway to opportunity, but for many families this dream just isn’t a reality. The average cost to attend a public college is $10,116 and this only accounts for tuition. Books, meal plans, and room and board ramps this expense to over $20,000 for one year.

Families scramble to cover these expenses and students leave school with massive debt. Currently, the average student loan debt is over $31,000. This is a terrible way for graduates to start their careers, as these higher monthly payments cut into their ability to save money, buy a house, or purchase newer vehicles. In fact, 67% of Millennials are struggling to manage their student loan debt.

That said, graduating does help students secure employment easier. The unemployment rate for college graduates is only 2.1% compared to 7% for those who haven’t graduated. Therefore, education opens the door for more opportunities and for some, trade school could be the perfect way to achieve this.

Trade school continues to be a viable option for those looking to start a career where they’ll always be in demand. Here’s a closer look at the benefits of trade school, some of the dangers associated with going, the career outlook, and why schools don’t promote it as a viable option.

The Benefits of Trade School

Trade school, also known as vocational school, sets students up in career paths to become plumbers, carpenters, massage therapists, electricians, and more. One of the primary benefits of a trade school is that students complete their education in two years compared to four.

What’s more, the Simple Dollar reports the average cost of a trade school program is $33,000. Depending on the college you select, you could easily eclipse this number within the first two or three years while pursuing your degree. This makes trade school a better financial deal unless you’re going into a specialist field such as nursing or education.

Career prospects — rather than the prospect of staying debt-free — should be an ideal driver of which course you select after high school. And there are few better options than trade schools.

These programs train you to go out into the workforce. And the outlook for careers in these fields continues to be promising. ZipRecruiter states the average hourly rate for an electrician is $21, while plumbers make on average $57,000 annually.

What’s more, these are jobs that are in constant demand. With many experts about to enter retirement age, these sectors don’t have enough younger workers to fill in the gaps left by retirees. This is a perfect time to cash in on an ever-demanding career!. 

What Are the Risks?

There are many risks associated with these jobs. Plumbers must work with gas-powered appliances while carpenters use power tools to get the job done. Because these fields come with higher risks, trade schools stress the importance of job safety through education.

Another aspect to be careful of is the fact that some trade schools have been exposed as scams. Case in point is ITT Tech, which relied on third-party data brokers to aggressively recruit students. It was also guilty of raising costs while under-delivering to students by way of quality of education and job placement services.

Therefore, it’s important to do your research when examining trade schools. Find out what results are promised and compare them to reviews left by former students. Compare their fees to similar schools and whether they offer job placement services after you graduate.

It’s also important to note trade schools train you for a specific skill. If you want to make a career change later in life, it’ll be more difficult to do so given your focused education.

That said, with all the benefits of trade schools, why don’t more high schools promote them?

Underselling Trade Schools

In terms of recruiting and marketing, college is where the money is. Recruiters use certain tactics to stress the importance of needing to go while neglecting to recognize that some families can’t afford it. In some instances, it isn’t the most viable option regardless of cost.

Students’ or their parents’ viewpoints also bias their decisions toward higher education. College is marketed as a right of passage and a place of discovery. Trade school is viewed more as a downgraded education, where you stay at home and go to work right away.

However, these short-sighted views do nothing to address the value of trade schools. In two years’ time, students can finish school with minimal debt and a skill they can take with them anywhere. And many of these fields offer great salaries with excellent perks, union protections, and independence.

Moreover, the job market is steady for trade school professions while others remain uncertain. There’s a huge need for younger workers to fill the gap created by older generations retiring. With that in mind, we should be emphasizing how trade school could set students up for a financially stable life instead of minimizing its importance.

Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer that lives in the Northwest region of the United States. She has a particular interest in covering topics related to politics, social justice, and workplace issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.