Blog Home

Trade Schools vs Apprenticeships

Trade Schools vs Apprenticeships

Posted by Matt Krak

May 14, 2021

An HVAC worker on a computer.

Finding the right fit

If you’re looking to break into the skilled trades, an apprenticeship or technical education through an accredited trade school after high school can be your launching point into a successful career. But for new technicians, determining whether you should pursue a trade school degree or on the job training programs can often seem like a daunting task.

The reality is that there’s no one size fits all approach to the trades, and plenty of technicians will say their preferred vocational training method is absolutely essential.

At the end of the day, we’re here to help streamline your career path and highlight the key distinctions between trade school vs. apprenticeships. With that in mind, we’ll attempt to breakdown these opportunities so that you can determine what learning environment fits your needs.

Pros of trade school

Trade schools offer the most streamlined preparation for technicians. Vocational schools offer future technicians the opportunity to learn the hands-on skills required for their job in a classroom setting; covering a wide range of skill sets necessary to work well within the trades.

By focusing on a large variety of core systems and technologies within a given industry, these programs help prepare students to solve virtually any problem in the field. Some of the major perks you’ll find through a trade school are:

  • Qualified educators that are professionally trained technicians and teachers

  • A combination of the hands on learning you’d receive from an apprenticeship, as well as classroom learning covering the ins and outs of your industry

  • The development of soft skills that are crucial to working effectively (eg. communication, time management, budgeting, etc.)

  • An increased likelihood of finding and keeping a position in the industry

As many professionals can attest to, a formal education in the trades shows recruiters that you have initiative and will bring more experience to the table over other candidates, leading to more opportunities down the road in your career.

For example, research published in 2011 by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that HVAC technicians with an HVAC certification earn $200,000 more on average over the course of their career vs. workers without any formal training. The leverage you gain through having a formal certification gives you the opportunity to earn more than other technicians in the field.

Cons of trade school

While trade schools offer a major opportunity for aspiring techs, they’re not without their costs. By committing to an training program, you also are agreeing to:

  • A large financial commitment (eg. the average student graduates with $10,000 in student loans, which many schools offset by offering financial aid and a wide range of scholarship opportunities to qualifying students)

  • Losing out on real world experience (ie. no background working with real customers)

Pros of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships focus entirely on building the technician through real world, on the job training. Rather than learning from a community college, apprenticeships will mainly involve working with real technicians to grow your skills.

The advantages these programs provide allow you to gain practical experience working in your desired field with more financial mobility than typically available in formal education. In general, these types of programs offer you:

  • Immense amounts of training through real-world application (eg. working with real customers face-to-face)

  • Compensation for your education where the more you learn, the more money you make (depending on employer)

  • A full time job upon completion of the program

  • No costs associated with training

The ability to learn on the job allows you to invest in your future without needing to pay a dime. On the contrary, you actually end up being offered a wage to learn that increases as your skills progress.

These apprenticeship programs also offer a direct pipeline into the workforce, providing you with an almost guaranteed opportunity to find work once your training is finished. Employment data from the University of Essex in 2009 seems to agree, with results showing “that firm-based apprenticeship training leads to substantially lower unemployment rates” for technicians when compared to trade school training.

Cons of apprenticeships

While apprenticeships typically come with the benefit of pay and a job offer, they’re not without their trade offs. The quality of your education is tied directly to the technician you’re learning from, so be sure to find an apprenticeship that will give you the most for your time and energy.

While these programs may offer financial incentives to students, they also come with drawbacks:

  • No guarantee that the person you’re learning from is a qualified technician or teacher

  • Competition is extremely high and it may be difficult to land a suitable apprenticeship

  • Can be a frustrating work environment if you don’t enjoy the company culture or instructor

Making sense of the statistics

At the end of the day, there isn’t an absolute answer about which program you should consider. In order to make your choice easier, you should research the trade schools in your area, determine what cost makes sense for you, and find the number of firms recruiting for apprenticeships in your area, before making the final decision.

Keep in mind that you also don’t have to be mutually exclusive with which program you take; a certification from an accredited trade school might be the determining factor that lands you your registered apprenticeship.

The moral of the story is that prioritizing the quality of your education will open the door to new opportunities down the road, regardless of your profession. Whichever path you decide to take, you can rest assured knowing that there have been plenty of successful technicians that were once in your shoes.

With summer approaching and the demand for tradespeople on the rise, you’ll be well on your way no matter which direction you choose.