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Vocational Training


Melissa J. Doak

Vocational training is training for a specific career or trade, excluding the professions. Vocational training focuses on practical applications of skills learned, and is generally unconcerned with theory or traditional academic skills. A large part of the education in vocational schools is hands-on training. Vocational training thus provides a link between education and the working world. It is usually provided either at the high school level or in a postsecondary trade school.

Why is Vocational Training Worth Considering?

Vocational training offers training for specific jobs. Since vocational training often begins in high school, students can graduate prepared to take a high-paying, skilled job immediately. Graduates of trade or vocational schools have an advantage over informally trained job-seekers because an independent organization certifies that they have the skills needed to successfully perform a specific, skilled occupation.

Traditional Venues for Vocational Training

Secondary School

Most high schools offer some form of vocational training program, increasingly called career and technical education. The expanded concept of career and technical education provides for a planned program of courses and learning experiences that allow students to explore career options, develop academic skills, achieve high academic standards, and prepare for industry-defined work or advanced education. For example, the Tech Center at Yorktown, New York, offers twenty-nine vocational specialties, not only to prepare students for the construction and manufacturing industries (traditional specialties of vocational education), but also for jobs in business, human services, health services, and natural and agricultural science. Specialties are as diverse as advertising art and design, television production, computer graphics, cosmetology, business and computer technology, auto mechanics, carpentry, masonry, small engine technology, practical nursing, floral design, and urban forestry.

Public schools in some states have separate vocational schools where students attend part time, either as part of the school day or in the evening, for specialized programs in addition to academic courses. These programs usually include a sequence of courses as well as work-based learning experiences. Large communities and cities often have separate public schools that students attend full time that provide both academic instruction and vocational training to high school students. These schools commonly use the cooperative training technique, in which students work part time in the job for which they are preparing. The traditional focus of these schools is changing; no longer do students simply train for a vocation, but they are also required to work toward a high school diploma

Melissa J. Doak is a freelance writer of reference books and educational materials.

or a GED. Additionally, students are encouraged to consider going on to some form of postsecondary education.

The 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education, published by the U.S. Department of Education, reports that nearly one-half of all high school students in that year were involved in some form of vocational training, even if just one course. The report found that vocational training at the high school level had positive effects on short- and medium-range earnings. It also found that high school students who participated in vocational programs also increased their academic course taking and achievement, as well.

Despite these positive findings, however, career and technical education in secondary schools is on the decline in the twenty-first century. One reason is that traditional vocational training prepared students for manufacturing jobs, such as mechanics and repair and precision production, but the manufacturing industry in the United States is in decline. Instead, the economy is becoming more service- and information-based. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that this change is partly responsible for a trend toward a greater emphasis on academics in vocational training, as workers in a service- and information-based economy have a greater need for critical thinking and social skills. The greater academic emphasis also results from toughening requirements for graduation from high school nationwide. The focus on academics has led to fewer high school graduates taking any specific labor market preparation courses, and an even bigger decrease in the number of students concentrating in the vocational curriculum.

Another reason vocational training at the secondary school level is declining is that low-achieving students were often "dumped" into the programs, undermining program quality and rigor. Traditionally, high school students in vocational programs have not been expected to go to college. While considerable federal effort and funds have been allocated to change that, there is evidence that those who participate in vocational programs at the high school level are more likely to get an associate's degree or postsecondary certificate than they are to go on to and complete a four-year college degree. Public high schools implemented some vocational education–related reforms in the late 1990s, including greater integration of academic and vocational education and less "block scheduling" of vocational courses. However, these reforms have not yet produced increased achievement or college attendance for those who select vocational training.

The administration of President George W. Bush proposed to eliminate all federal funding for high school vocational education in fiscal year 2006. While some funds would still be available through a new program known as the High School Intervention Initiative, wide local discretion on how those funds might be used, coupled with an expansion of required high school assessments, would lead many local educational agencies to pursue interventions other than vocational education. It seems probable that vocational education options available to high school students will be significantly reduced during the next decade.

Tech Prep Education

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, in addition to providing funds to postsecondary institutions, provided funding to programs known as Tech Prep programs. Tech Prep programs are based on a collaboration between secondary schools and postsecondary institutions to help prepare students for high tech careers in areas such as engineering, technology, applied science, health, and applied economics, and to improve the academic success of vocational students. Tech Prep is a sequenced program of study that combines at least two years of secondary and two years of postsecondary education. It is designed to help students gain both academic knowledge and technical skills. These programs typically lead to either a certificate or an associate's degree in a specific career field. Almost one half of the country's high schools offer some type of Tech Prep program. In fiscal year 2005 $106 million was appropriated for the program, although because of proposed budget cuts, its future is uncertain.

The effectiveness of Tech Prep programs is up for debate. Evaluations in Texas and New York found evidence that students enrolled in these programs were less likely to drop out of high school or have a chronic absenteeism problem and were more likely to enroll in postsecondary school. However, academic achievement and labor market outcomes were not demonstrably improved. This may be because Tech Prep programs are not always implemented as envisioned in the legislation, but instead are often implemented piecemeal or with a focus on improving only academics.

Postsecondary Trade School

The 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education reported that about one-third of college students were involved in vocational programs as a major part of their studies. Postsecondary vocational schools, also called trade schools, provide an educational option other than community colleges and four-year colleges. They also help older students who want to advance or change their careers. Often these schools cater to the needs of working adults by offering classes at night or online.

Trade schools offer both degree programs and vocational certificates. There are many occupations that require a trade school education, including hairdressing, massage therapy, auto mechanics, plumbing, and carpentry. Trade schools also teach students technological, culinary, and health care skills. Some trade schools offer apprenticeships as well.

Recognizing the need for more skilled workers in the information-based economy, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 granted money to postsecondary schools to develop and enhance vocational programs. The Act focused federal investment in high quality vocational and technical educational programs that integrate academic and vocational education, promote student attainment of high vocational and technical standards, provide students with strong experience and understanding of an industry, and develop, improve, and expand the use of technology. Postsecondary institutions that receive the funds have the flexibility to design services to meet the needs of their students.

School guidance offices have information on trade schools. Two comprehensive online resources, http://www.trade-schools.net and http://www.trade-school.org, also list trade schools and the courses they offer. Institutions listed include mechanical and automotive schools, business schools, culinary schools, art and design schools, diving schools, cosmetology schools, education programs, health care schools, legal and criminal justice schools, schools focusing on occupations in the media, real estate schools, technology schools, and travel and tourism schools. These trade schools offer diplomas or certificates that employers nationwide will accept. They also provide their students with assistance in meeting necessary licensing requirements.


Vocational programs at both the secondary and postsecondary levels vary in their quality and effectiveness. While graduation from a good vocational program or trade school can greatly improve one's employment outlook, there are other ways to get specific occupational training. Apprenticeships, military service, community colleges, and distance learning courses all provide opportunities to improve job skills and employment possibilities.


Completing an apprenticeship is an alternative to traditional vocational training. Apprenticeships are most common for highly skilled manufacturing or construction jobs, but are available for more than 850 occupations in many industries. Common programs train people to be boilermakers, bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, firefighters, machinists, millwrights, plumbers, roofers, telecommunications technicians, and tool and die makers. Less common programs train people to be stage technicians and actors, cooks, designers, paralegals, environmental technicians, computer programmers, and landscapers.

Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction. Apprentices are paid while on the job. Apprenticeships typically take four to six years to complete, although some can be completed in as little as one year. Because apprenticeships are paid programs, competition for available slots is often fierce.

About twenty-nine thousand apprenticeship programs exist nationwide. These apprenticeship programs are registered with the Department of Labor, and graduates receive certificates of completion that are accepted by employers around the country. In 2005 more than 150,000 people began apprenticeships, while almost 57,000 graduated from their apprenticeship programs, becoming journey workers.

One reason apprenticeships provide a good alternative to traditional vocational training is that apprentices pay nothing for their education, and are actually paid for the hours they spend learning on the job. In addition, apprentices typically command relatively high salaries when they become journey workers. Among the commonly apprenticed occupations with the highest median annual earnings are power distributor and dispatcher ($48,570), ship engineer ($47,530), power plant operator ($46,090), and electrical power-line installer and repairer ($45,780). The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that other apprenticed occupations are expected to have an exceptional job outlook between 2004 and 2013, including cooks, auto mechanics, practical nurses, carpenters, electricians, and hairdressers.

The first step in entering an apprenticeship program is to find an open program. Good resources include the state Bureau of Apprenticeship, the state office of the Department of Labor, and school career counseling offices. Trade union offices and professional associations frequently sponsor apprenticeships; contacting those offices may uncover openings. Some apprenticeship programs will advertise available openings in the newspaper, on job boards, or with state job services.

In some occupations, apprenticeship programs are highly competitive. Applicants typically must be eighteen years old and must possess a high school diploma or a GED. The application process will sometimes require a passing score on a proficiency or aptitude test, which varies by the program. Tutoring programs can help applicants pass proficiency exams in some fields. Once an application is complete and the applicant has met all qualifications, an interview is usually required. Applicants are then ranked and placed on a waiting list.

A little planning ahead can help hopeful apprentices shorten the waiting period. Successfully completing basic classes in English, math, and science is considered important for all applicants to apprenticeship programs, so a solid high school record in these subjects will help an individual qualify for an apprenticeship. In addition, special interest classes may provide early skill development and improve a student's standing in the application process. For example, classes in industrial mechanics, shop, or mechanical drawing will help those interested in apprenticing in an industrial or construction occupation.

Military Training

Military service also offers ways for enlisted people to pursue vocational and technical licensing and certification, called Vo-Tech programs. These programs either document past training and experience or offer new opportunities to take courses and exams to get the certifications necessary to make a successful transition to occupations outside of the military.


The United Services Military Apprenticeship Program, or USMAP, documents the training and skills learned by military personnel in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard in order to allow them to earn national certification from the U.S. Department of Labor as journey workers in occupational fields. In fact, USMAP is the largest apprenticeship program sponsor registered with the Department of Labor, and nearly twenty thousand enlisted marines and sailors have completed the program. Of the three hundred enlisted Military Occupational Specialties, 257 are available for apprenticeship. The on-the-job training that military personnel receive is combined with technical instruction, as in a traditional apprenticeship program. The length of USMAP varies from one to four years, or two thousand to eight thousand hours of on-the-job training, as well as including 144 hours of apprenticeship-related classroom training per two thousand hours of on-the-job training. The apprenticeships are broken down into skill areas; each skill area requires a set number of hours. Those who complete the program have enhanced job skills that can further a military career or provide an advantage in getting better civilian jobs after the period of enlistment.

Qualifications for the USMAP program are as follows. Participants must:

  1. be on active duty in the Coast Guard, Marine Corps, or Navy;
  2. be designated in a job specialty that is an approved apprenticeable trade;
  3. have sufficient time left in an enlistment to complete the program while on active duty;
  4. have a high school diploma or GED; and
  5. have been promoted to a certain grade level, depending on the branch of service and the trade.

Enlisted military personnel usually can choose their training or duty assignment either when they enlist or when they complete basic training. However, that duty assignment will severely limit their choice of apprenticeship. For example, an enlisted person who prepares food as her job cannot become a computer-peripheral-equipment operator, because it has nothing to do with the work she normally does—but she can become an apprentice cook or baker. However, unlike in civilian apprenticeships, acceptance into the USMAP program is a formality, rather than requiring a lengthy evaluation, ranking, and waiting period. Apprenticeships available in the military are diverse and cover the gamut from manufacturing to clerical work to professional occupations. For example, available apprenticeships include aircraft mechanic, carpenter, dental assistant, graphic designer, machinist, nurse assistant, paralegal, photographer, post-office clerk, purchasing agent, weather observer, and X-ray equipment tester.

Army COOL Program

The Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL) program helps Army Soldiers meet civilian certification and license requirements related to their occupational specialty in the military. COOL provides information on civilian jobs that are equivalent to a military occupational specialty. It also provides information on national certifications available in that occupation, and if state licensure is required. The Costs and Resources section helps Army enlisted personnel see what resources are available to help pay for needed licenses and certificates.

An enlisted soldier transitioning to the civilian workforce may find that his military occupational specialty does not require a license or certificate in the civilian workforce. Or she may find that her military training and experience provides all the necessary credentials. COOL can help soldiers qualified by education, training, and experience to become licensed or certified in the civilian workforce, by helping them locate and navigate the appropriate administrative process (an application, documentation of training and experience, and/or an examination). COOL can also help those who do not yet meet licensing and certification requirements by providing information about resources available from the Army to help them get the supplementary training they need.

The Air Force

The Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) offers sixty-seven fields of study directly related to Air Force specialties. These fields of study tend to be highly technical in nature; graduates are awarded an associate's degree. Enrollment is free to enlisted people in the Air Force. CCAF courses are recognized by organizations that issue certifications for specific occupations as well as by governmental organizations that issue licenses.

The Air Force Institute for Advanced Distributed Learning provides more than four hundred career development courses and other specialized training courses to enlisted people in the Air Force. These distance-learning courses are provided in correspondence and Web-based forms.

Community Colleges

Community colleges provide another way to train for a specific occupation. Community colleges have typically been a low-cost alternative for the first two years on the way to a four-year degree. Community colleges still serve this population of students who intend to transfer to four-year colleges, but they have expanded to serve people who want to expand their skills for a variety of reasons—to advance or get promoted, to learn new skills needed in the marketplace, or to change careers. Contracts with corporations also enable community colleges to provide training of various kinds to corporate workers.

About one-third of all students in postsecondary education are in vocational programs, including those enrolled in community colleges. They enroll with a variety of goals, from earning a certificate, to enhancing job skills, to earning an associate's degree. Most students in vocational programs in community colleges never earn a degree or other credential. However, the 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education found that for the vast majority of participants in community college vocational programs, the vocational training had positive effects on their earning potential. The benefits were higher for those who completed more coursework, but even students who did not complete certificates or degrees derived some earnings benefit from the training they received.

Some occupations expected to grow most quickly in the near future require a two-year associate's degree, which is what community colleges specialize in. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top thirty fastest-growing occupations between 2004 and 2014 will increase job opportunities for physical therapy assistants, dental hygienists, forensic science technicians, veterinary technologists and technicians, diagnostic medical sonographers, occupational therapist assistants, cardiovascular technologists and technicians, and paralegals and legal assistants. Registered nursing, which also requires an associate's degree, is the occupation expected to have the second-largest job growth between 2004 and 2014. Community colleges offer cost-effective, affordable education and training options in these and many other vocational fields.

Employer-Provided Training

Another avenue for occupation-specific training is through an employer. Many employers provide the basic training needed to perform particular jobs. Others provide training that allows employees to advance in the company. Companies may also provide employees with general employment skills assistance such as computer skills training, human resources training, or training on how to work in a team. These are valuable to workers in their current jobs, as well as in future employment.

U.S. companies spend more than $60 billion a year on training programs—either to train new employees, provide employees with additional skills needed in their jobs, or to help employees prepare for new jobs. Large corporations may maintain a training staff in house, but medium- and small-sized companies usually hire a consulting firm or a professional association, or contract their training to a college or university. Sometimes training is provided by vendors; for example, a software company may provide training to customer service employees of a company that adopts new customer service software, either free of charge or for a small fee. Some companies also offer partial or full reimbursement of college tuition for their employees.

On-the-Job Training

Employees learn on the job in many occupations. On-the-job training is particularly used in manufacturing. In textile mills, for example, extensive on-the-job training is generally provided. Training is offered to beginning workers as well as more experienced workers, to enable them to advance to more skilled jobs. This training often takes the form of being paired with a more experienced worker on the floor. Classroom instruction may also be used. As companies develop a greater emphasis on teamwork, many firms have developed training courses that encourage employee self-direction and responsibility as well as the development of interpersonal skills. In manufacturing sectors such as motor vehicle and parts manufacturing and machinery manufacturing, employers frequently offer formal apprenticeship programs that combine on-the-job training with technical classroom instruction.

Distance Learning Courses

Another option for obtaining job skills is to enroll in distance education programs that provide career training. Distance learning programs allow a student to learn at his or her own pace and complete work in his or her own time. They provide the same course materials that would be found in a typical classroom setting, but those materials are delivered outside of a classroom setting—typically either through the mail (a correspondence course) or online. In some distance learning programs a student must be online with a teacher or other students at a specific time, and assignments must be completed according to a rigid schedule. Other courses are designed for students to complete at their own pace. And these courses are diverse: one can develop skills and knowledge in bookkeeping, carpentry, home remodeling and repair, computer programming, Web site design, dressmaking, pet grooming, photography, day care management, motorcycle or small engine repair, court reporting, and many other fields.

Distance learning has many advantages. It can allow students the flexibility to choose when and where they will do their course work. Students may study at any time, read materials at their own pace, focus their efforts on topics that they aren't already familiar with, and also interact with teachers and other students from around the world. There are disadvantages to pursuing a distance education certificate or degree as well. Students must have a high degree of motivation as well as good time management skills in order to be successful. Some students struggle with a sense of isolation, since they can't meet the teachers or other students in person. Still, distance education provides another option for obtaining necessary or desirable job skills.

When looking into distance learning, it is important to find legitimate, quality schools. The key to a successful distance learning experience is having adequately researched and evaluated the program. The school should be accredited. Usually a school will put this information on the homepage of their Web site. The accrediting association should be recognized by the Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited schools at http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/. The best schools are regionally accredited. Some schools may have Distance Education Training Council (DETC) accreditation, but caution is recommended when exploring these schools. While DETC is recognized by the Department of Education, less than half of regionally accredited colleges recognize the validity of DETC degrees. Some employers will not accept DETC degrees either. Unaccredited schools should be avoided.

Also investigate the quality of the faculty. Are the teachers and staff of the program listed on the Web page? If not, be suspicious. If the faculty members are listed, research their backgrounds. Do they hold advanced degrees from many different schools? Is there a good student-faculty ratio? Ten faculty members serving ten thousand students would be a poor ratio, for instance.

Finally, consider student service. All distance learning programs should provide several ways for students to get in touch with faculty or administrators—e-mail, mail, phone, fax, or online forms. Legitimate schools will do this. Phone calls to the school during regular business hours should result in contact with a school representative, not just an answering service or a generic voice mail message.


There are many options available for obtaining occupational skills. Traditional vocational education, offered in high schools and postsecondary trade skills, is still a good choice. Other excellent alternatives include apprenticeships, community college programs, the education and training offered by the military services, and distance learning courses.

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