Individuals looking for job training so that they can enter a well-paying career may be confused about their options. They may wonder what the difference is between trade school vs. vocational school vs. tech school. 

On some level, all of these terms may have loose meanings that can be different from school to school. Or, they can have a different meaning depending on the person using them. At the same time, there are broad differences that can help clear up the confusion, and they can help people know whether the career training institution they’re thinking about going to is the right one for them.

Tech Schools Explained

A technical school usually refers to an institution that offers associate’s degrees and certain certifications that are necessary to enter technical job fields. Unlike four-year colleges and universities, these programs can often be completed in just 1-2 years and for half the typical tuition

Students also don’t spend the first half of their program learning broad “core curriculum” knowledge. Instead, they start off learning applied knowledge and skills that directly translate to their chosen career field.

Students who go to technical schools may still need to complete a training program, apprentice program, or an entry level position before they can work in career positions that allow them to employ the full range of skills they learned. However, this is not always true, as some associate’s degrees and technical certifications allow a graduate to begin working immediately.

Trade School Definition

Merriam-Webster defines a trade school as: “a secondary school teaching the skilled trades.” Generally speaking, these schools tend to focus on hands-on careers that require a base level certification or a specific number of on-the-job supervised hours to enter. They can be thought of as more labor-focused industries: auto mechanics, electricians, carpenters, and medical assistants.

Trade schools tend to have much more “hands-on” programs of study. A technical school, on the other hand, may have more classroom lectures and simulated job training. However, some trade schools teach tech school-style courses and have many of the same programs, so the difference is not always obvious.

CET’s hands-on programs more closely mirror a trade school curriculum. Graduates of our career training programs receive a certificate for specialized trade training that indicates the skills, experience, and examination-tested knowledge they have required. These certificates position them for immediate job assignments in their new field, or they can choose to pursue more advanced certification and training to build off their accomplishments.

Vocational School

A “vocational school” can be thought of as an umbrella term for either trade or tech schools. Many institutions refer to the result of programs from either as a specialized trade certification or “vocational degree”. Vocational school programs prepare students for immediate entry into their field or into a stepping-stone position to enter that field within just a year or two.

Some four-year undergraduate institutions offer vocational degree programs, such as the ability to become a paralegal, but certain programs like cosmetology may only be taught in vocational school programs.

The U.S. Department of Education offers robust vocational training programs to public high school students who might be looking to rapidly enter a career after graduation — rather than entering a four-year postsecondary academic institution. The program once supported a range of publicly funded vocational schools throughout the U.S., but public support of postsecondary vo-tech schools has slacked while private ownership of these schools has soared.

Schools like CET do make use of public programs like Federal Student Aid, allowing people to receive job training to change their careers without large financial barriers. Our certificate for specialized trade training programs prepare students for the workforce, putting us under the umbrella of a vocational institution or “vo-tech” school.

Why There Is So Much Confusion About the Difference Between Tech School vs. Trade School vs. Vocational School and Other Job Training Programs

Ultimately, none of the generalizations above are true of all post-secondary academic institutions. Tech schools may offer plenty of trade programs, and vice versa. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics clusters all instructors of these programs under a single umbrella: “career and technical education” or CTE. These instructors are sometimes members of CTE organizations like the Association for Career & Technical Education (ACTE).

How these concepts are grouped shows that the terms can be (and are often) used interchangeably. Many people use the blanket term “vo-tech” as a shorthand to refer to all of these career-focused schools.

No matter what terms are used, though, job training at a career-focused learning institution can make a great deal of sense for today’s ambitious and fast-moving society. Just 60% of four-year degree institution students complete their programs within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, tuitions have increased significantly while the price of wages has remained fairly flat in most fields when accounting for inflation.

These circumstances have pushed people to want to graduate quicker and with a degree that will get them a job, causing vo-tech school enrollment to rise. They can attend flexible programs built around their busy lives with small class sizes, hands on instruction, and programs tailored to their ideal career path.