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Trade School vs. College Degree in the Job Market

For years, the only lauded next step for many graduating high school seniors was pursuing a degree at a 4-year college. Meanwhile, trade school degrees and certifications were viewed as less desirable in the workforce and less lucrative in terms of pay, an assumption that went hand-in-hand with some “blue collar” work. But with the latest developments in the trade industries and the rising cost of a college education, the tide is starting to turn. The path to success looks different now than it did years ago, with many choosing to seek a traditional degree and many choosing a less traditional but equally rewarding path.

According to, Georgia students who graduate with a 4-year degree will have student loan debt of $23,768. This can take years to pay off. Debt aside, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only about 50% of Americans complete college once they start. And once they finish their degrees, the starting salaries of these graduates are often lower than those of skilled tradesmen. This doesn’t mean that pursuing a traditional degree isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for people with certain interests and career aspirations. But there are certainly other paths to success to consider. Here’s how trade schools and colleges stack up in terms of cost, time, earnings and general outlook:


An average trade school degree costs $33,000. An average traditional 4-year degree today costs $127,000, a difference of $94,000.


A bachelor’s degree takes 4 years of attain, with some students taking as long as 6 years. A degree from a trade school takes 2 years or less to complete.


Average earnings for tradesmen in nonresidential construction is $914/week or $47,528 yearly. The average earnings for people with a bachelor degree is $55,000.


The economy plays a big role in unemployment rates. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers with traditional college degrees have the lowest unemployment rates. However, skilled-trade jobs are currently in high demand and there are simply not enough workers to fill the open positions.

If you are undecided about your career path, you may also want to consider the educational environment. In college, courses are held in a classroom or lab and you will usually have homework in form of reading and writing assignments. Some students enjoy learning in this structured environment. Trade schools do have typical lectures and assignments but also offer a lot of hands-on work and on-the-job training (in form of apprenticeships). This may be appealing to students who can’t wait to put their learnings to use and find traditional classroom settings unstimulating.

No matter which path you choose, remember that workers in the construction industry come from a variety of educational backgrounds. No degrees can match the learning you will experience while on the job (or site).