What To Expect When Starting Trade School
Career and technical education is on the rise. Is it for you?
Welcome to Trade School
We just don’t have enough workers to replace the ones who are retiring. The construction worker shortage now sits at 500,000, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry trade group.
College is more expensive than ever, and student loan debt is at an all-time high. The stigma associated with a trade education is dwindling, in no small part due to the law of supply and demand: construction wages are going up. You can make a really good living by learning a skill.
Even with the rise of automation and AI, for the time being, we still need actual people to build, install and repair the things in, on and around our homes.
Even though I’m an electrician, I’m not an expert on trade school. That’s why I talked to multiple experts in the career and technical education system, so you can make the most informed decision possible.
First, let’s address two common questions about trade school education. Then I’ll take you step-by-step through what you can expect when you go to trade school. Let’s go!
How Do Trade Schools Work?
If you’re thinking about enrolling in trade school, you’ve probably asked yourself this question a few times already. Is it like college? Will I be in classes all the time, or is it more hands-on?
Let’s clear things up.
First, trade schools offer a more focused approach than traditional college. “Trade schools provide customized training for specific trades or vocations, such as plumbing, welding, or culinary arts,” says Kodi Wilson, director of the National Technical Institute’s Las Vegas campus and a licensed plumber.
Instead of picking a major, in trade school you’re choosing a career path or highly-specialized skill to learn. In addition to classroom time, you’ll likely have workshops, labs and safety training, and learn about the industry you’re going into.
Can You Do Trade Schools Online?
Yes and no. Some tech schools offer online programs, but for the most part you need to be in the classroom. “Online trade schools are not very practical for most trade careers, so those are not common,” says Jill Caren, co-founder of Blue Collar Brain.
Think about it. You’re in trade school to learn a skill. How well can you learn that skill without actually getting your hands on the equipment?
You’ll definitely have classroom instruction and homework like any other academic endeavor, and that might mean some instruction could be handled online. But trade schools have a practical focus, so you’ll be working with your hands whenever possible.
“Trades require hands-on experience and learning, which cannot be done remotely,” Caren says.
Prepare To Work
You’ve researched your school, and you’re ready to get started. What can you expect that first day, week and year? You’re preparing for a job, right? Well, the job starts now.
“When you’re in the classroom, I’m your teacher. When you’re in the lab, I’m your boss,” says Bob Lacivita, a former career and technical educator and administrator at North Montco Technical Career Center and a longtime Family Handyman contributor.
Your pay may be a grade instead of a paycheck, but that will change in no time at all. Work hard, ask questions and listen — your instructors are experts in their fields.
Career and technical educators like Lacivita take their commitment to teaching the next generation of tradespeople seriously. Show up on time and ready to go on Day One, and keep it up throughout the program.
Balance Your Time
Speaking of work, it’s OK to have a job while you’re in trade school, but it’s important to strike the right balance.
If you’re the primary breadwinner in your family, you have different constraints than an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. Think about how much time you can devote to school and work, and plan accordingly. Depending on the school, you may be able to go part-time.
“Trade school programs typically offer both full-time and part-time courses to accommodate student needs,” Wilson says. “Many students work part-time jobs while attending school to gain practical experience and offset tuition costs.”
If you’d like to focus your attention 100% on learning, see if your school offers scholarships, grants or work-study programs, or has someone to help you navigate federal student loan programs.
Trade schools offer accelerated learning, so classes won’t just be sprinkled throughout the day. You’re going to be at school all day long, so dress comfortably. No, not in pajamas, although I had a kid in my apprenticeship program who periodically showed up in his jammies. It was not a good look.
On the other hand, this isn’t a board meeting. Leave the suits and ties at home.
Luckily, you don’t have to buy a new wardrobe. “[T]he attire that we require is items that most individuals will already have,” Wilson says. If you’re unsure, an outfit of jeans or work pants, a clean shirt and work boots is always a safe bet.
Bring What’s Required
Showing up unprepared is disrespectful. In trade school, with its accelerated timeline, it’s also detrimental to your learning.
“Trade schools often provide a list of required tools, equipment and attire if needed that the student can purchase before their programs start,” Wilson says. If yours does, read it!
During my apprenticeship, one guy brought his entire tool belt (with dozens of tools) on the first day, even though the school provided all the gear we needed. Poor guy dragged all that in for nothing.
So read what your school sends you. An email could be notice of a schedule change, or a homework update. A welcome packet will tell you what to bring (and what not to!).
Expect Small(er) Classes
“Class sizes in trade schools vary,” Wilson says, “but are generally smaller compared to large universities.” This allows for much more personalized instruction and hands-on guidance. “[T]rade school instructors usually have industry experience,” Wilson says, “which enhances the quality of personal instruction and mentorship.”
Adds Caren: “While most schools do not provide one-on-one instruction, class sizes are often small enough that you can get the help you need.”
Caren says when you’re deciding where to go, find out the average class size. “This is an important question to ask potential trade schools to ensure it meets your needs,” she says. As an example, Wilson’s school caps class size at 24 students.
Trade or career education is highly technical, and the concepts may be totally new. When I began studying to become an electrician, I’d barely heard of grounding, GFCI receptacles or any other electrical subject. I was in class with guys whose fathers, uncles and brothers (and a few sisters) were all electricians. Man, was I intimidated.
Want to know a secret? Lacivita says his best students were not the ones with “shade tree mechanic” genes or connections. It’s OK if the material is unfamiliar. If you have a question, it’s likely others do too. So don’t be shy. If you don’t understand something, raise your hand and ask. It could be the difference between getting ahead or getting lost.
You may have chosen trade school because you want to work with your hands. And that’s exactly what you’ll do. But first, there will be tests.
You’ll have tests for the school portion of trade school, and the practical side. Even after you’re well established in your career, you’ll be asked to measure your skills through continuing education and license renewal.
“If I was a prospective student,” Wilson says, “I wouldn’t enroll in any form of schooling without expecting some type of testing.” Besides giving your instructors a way to gauge your mastery of the material, Wilson says testing “allows our industry partners to know exactly what to expect when hiring our graduates, creating higher long-term success for everyone.”
You’ve studied hard, passed your tests and your practical labs. You’re feeling good! Now it’s time to get your license.
Licensing requirements vary, so start researching what you need to fulfill the requirements before you graduate. Often the school you attend will help you navigate this, with their programs tailored to meet the requirements of their local jurisdiction.
If you have to take a state test, like I did in Minnesota and Texas, do it right. Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Plan your route so you won’t be late, and check your map app for traffic jams or road closures. Eat a light breakfast, and bring a snack and something to drink if allowed. You can do this!
Find a Job
You’ve got the skills, you’ve earned your license. Now it’s time to get a job!
Start lining up your options before graduation. “Each school offers different services when it comes to helping graduates find employment,” Wilson says. Make an appointment with your school’s counselor to see what your options are.
“Bigger trade schools usually offer job placement services,” Caren says. “Smaller schools may not have specific placement services but may have relationships with employers that can help you find a job faster than doing it on your own.”
If you’re going into a union apprenticeship after trade school, they’ll assign you to a job.
Continue Your Education
“What? I thought we were done here,” I can hear you saying. Not quite.
Once you have your license, you have to maintain it. That means taking continuing education courses to keep up your knowledge of your chosen trade. You wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who isn’t up on the latest techniques, right? Customers don’t want plumbers and electricians who stopped learning, either.
Your state or local government will have standards for license renewal. In Texas, that means four hours every year, while Minnesota requires 16 hours every two years. Whatever your standards are, you must fulfill them before you can renew your license. Many trade schools, like Lacivita’s, offer continuing education as well as regular classes.