College? Trade school? Apprenticeship? All three?

We’ve all seen the social media memes mocking people for racking up huge college debt in the process of earning a degree that may or may not help them get a job, that if they do get, could likely pay far less than what they could make in a lot of the trades.

How true are these memes? There’s more truth than fiction in them. But everything in life is at least a little more complicated than a meme.

So, for you, your kid, or anyone out there trying to choose a path…

Is trade school better than college? Is an apprenticeship better than both? Is it best to have some combination of two or all three? Or can someone just go directly into a career path without doing any of these three things?

(For the sake of this article, we are using the term “trade school” to describe both career and technical education (CTE) programs that are integrated into a high school or GED curriculum, and independent trade schools that are typically geared to students who’ve already earned a high school diploma or GED.)

The right answer is: “It depends.”

Let’s start with some statements we can all be pretty confident are true.

  • There is currently high demand for people in most skilled trades, making it comparatively easy to find a job or reliable subcontract work if you have a good work ethic and put a little effort into it (especially if you use TraLaMa).
  • Skilled tradespeople make more money than many people assume.
  • Many college degrees do not easily convert to jobs, and when they do, those jobs can start out with lower salaries than jobs in the trades.
  • College tuition and debt continue to rise, and most colleges cost a lot more than trade school.
  • People without real-world experience can have a hard time landing their first job in both the skilled trades and other professions.
  • For certain careers, going to college is necessary.

Let’s immediately address this last fact. For kids who want to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and other professions that require a college degree, they need to go to college. Hopefully, through good planning, smart decisions, and some financial aid, these kids can go into the workforce without too much or any debt… and are able to find a good-paying job.

But what about everyone else?

Sometimes, you can just go get a job.

In companies that value training and promoting from within, an entry-level job can lead to a career in the trades. In organizations like this, leaders identify reliable employees who prove to have good work habits, and show an interest in moving up and taking on new opportunities. These selected employees are then put into a career path that includes whatever types of training and/or apprenticeship is appropriate for that trade. (These companies can be few and far between, but they’re out there.)

Some trades require licensure or certification.

Depending on the state and the trade, a tradesperson may need certification or licensure. Trade schools and apprenticeships can provide a path to these certificates and licenses.

Trade schools can get people moving in the right direction.

While some trades don’t require formal training or specific certification, the education and diploma or certificate received at a trade school can prepare a person to get a job in their desired trade, and be successful at that job. Potential employers will know the job applicant is committed to that career path, and that he or she will have at least some of the skills required to do the job right out of the gate.

Even if it’s not required, apprenticeships can be a great way to start.

No matter what type of training a person has, nor what type of career they’re trying to pursue, getting that first job can be tricky. An apprenticeship can be a great way to get that first job, learn or refine the skills necessary to succeed in that trade, and to set a person up for career success. In some trades, apprenticeships are required for certification or licensure. These requirements vary from state to state and from trade to trade.

College courses can be helpful to tradespeople.

If a tradesperson wants to eventually run her or his own business, or move into a leadership role within an existing company, college could prove helpful with the parts of running a business that have nothing to with the trade itself. Accounting, human resources, marketing, and sales are just a few examples of topics most people don’t learn in the majority of trade schools, or through your typical apprenticeship.

Every person, situation, and career path is different.

No two people are alike, and therefore, the right answer is potentially different for everyone. If you, your child, or anyone you’re advising is considering a career in the trades, it is worth investigating the potential value of trade school, an apprenticeship, and college for that specific person and situation.