April 22, 2024

Trade Skills vs. College Degree: What's Best for You?

Brek Goin

As you embark on your next journey, you’re stuck on whether a trade school vs. college is right for you — especially with high schools emphasizing the importance of getting a college degree. 

But what if college just isn’t for you? Is it really your only option to be successful? 

There are dozens of misconceptions about trade schools vs. college degrees — a few that we’re ready to challenge. 

Before you decide, follow along as we dive into the trade school vs. college debate and offer some of our top tips.

You’ll also want to check out our Bred to Build podcast episode discussing trade skill vs. college degrees. In this episode, we have an awesome conversation with Kyle Stumpenhorst, owner of RR Buildings.

Listen to the full podcast episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Table of Contents

Deciding on College vs. a Trade School Starts With Understanding the Big Differences

Whether you are looking for a career change or you recently graduated from high school, there are a few key differences between these options you should be aware of — differences that could not only affect your future, but your wallet. 

Cost to Attend

Unless you’ve received a full-ride scholarship, or a mixture of scholarships, attending a four-year college is almost always more expensive than attending a trade school.

According to the Center for Employment Training, the average cost of earning a trade skill is $33,000, in contrast with an average of $132,000 for a bachelor’s degree, including tuition fees.

While the cost of attending school is important, consider other factors before making your decision

Time Commitment

College and trade schools both offer opportunities for post-graduate career options, but each has its own set of time commitments. 

For example:

  • College students typically take four to five years to complete their degrees.
  • Trade school students typically take less than two years to complete their training.

Why is there such a difference exist in the time it takes to learn a trade vs earning a college degree?

In a trade school, students jump straight into learning specific skills for a particular career, like construction.  

However, students who attend college must take introductory courses for their first two years before taking major-specific classes. 

Skills and Training

When deciding between a trade school vs. a college degree, it’s smart to consider the specific skills and training that each type of school offers. 

Trade schools:

  • Generally offer programs for some of the most in-demand skills. 
  • Are better suited for students who want to learn a specific trade, such as welding, plumbing, etc. 
  • Require their students to learn through more hands-on training opportunities
  • Tailor their studies towards those with kinesthetic and visual learning styles 

However, colleges and universities:

  • Are better suited for students who are seeking a more generalized education that can lead to many different careers
  • Tailor their studies towards those with auditory and visual learning styles; and 

Ultimately, if you’re deciding between a trade skill vs. a college degree, one of the biggest factors to consider is the career path you’re on. If you’re unsure of what field you want to work in, college may be a better route. If you’re certain you want to build in-demand skills, and start getting paid earlier,  a trade school is likely the ideal choice.

Starting Salary

Both college and trade school degrees can lead to a good starting salary.

However, attending a trade school may offer more opportunities for growth and advancement after graduating than after completing college.

There are many careers in the trades — especially in the construction industry — with high demand and average salaries that match or exceed those who would need a bachelor's degree, such as:

  • Construction manager: $97,180 annually or $46.72 per hour (Online Schools Center, 2021)
  • Elevator mechanic: $88,540 annually or $42.57 per hour
  • Electric power line installer: $68,030 annually or $32.71 per hour

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a college graduate in 2019 was $69,316 annually, or $1,334 per week.

What Most Parents and School Advisors Get Wrong About Construction Trade Skills

Construction pays well and will save you time and money. 

So why aren't more people pursuing construction trade skills?

We believe it starts with how our parents, teachers, and school advisors have influenced our thinking about trade skills vs. a college degree.

Can we chalk it up to not knowing much about the construction field? 

We're not 100% sure. 

What we do know is that the majority of school counselors and advisors are still putting a lot of pressure on students to get traditional college degrees, instead of promoting skilled trades, like construction, to students as an equally — if not more — career path. 

We believe this is because of some misconceptions about pursuing trade school vs. college.

Trade School vs. College: 4 Misconceptions About Construction Trade Skills

Remember career day in high school? 

What were some of the different career paths set up at each table that you could learn more about?  

More than likely, you remember adults sharing information about ...

  • Computer science
  • Web development
  • Military branches
  • Medical and health careers; and
  • Typical corporate desk jobs

... but there were few, if any, tables for trade skills.

There were likely no plumbers, no electricians, and no construction workers represented.

Although they are rarely seen at career day events, many jobs (and mentors) are willing to teach you about different trade skills.

Why are these opportunities not highlighted?

In our opinion, it’s for several reasons:

  1. Some educational advisors have the wrong perception of skilled trades as a career. 
  2. Oftentimes, educational advisors don’t have experience in skilled trades, so they naturally — and understandably — are more biased towards familiarity. 

People advise others with certain biases towards familiarity based on their personal experiences. Educational advisors are embedded in the educational fabric and that's what they're familiar with. So, they're much more likely to advise a student to take the traditional college path since, again, that's what they're familiar with.

  1. Some parents have the wrong idea about trade skills, which is why we’re breaking down some of the most common misconceptions regarding a career in the trades. 

Misconception #1: Trade Skills for Construction Are no Longer Necessary Because It’s Just Grunt Work

Popular opinions of those not working in the field oftentimes don’t realize that trade skills, like those needed for construction, will always be necessary.

Having skilled training in construction can give you an advantage over potential hires with a college degree. 

“Grunt work” or not, there will always be a demand for those with specialized skills that often include a strong knowledge of math, physics, and science. 

Think about it:

  • Could state-of-the-art buildings be built without the use of math? 
  • If you didn’t have knowledge of chemistry or metallurgy, you likely wouldn’t start welding materials
  • Operating multi-million dollar machinery can’t be done without strong computer skills. 

People with the mindset that the trades are just grunt work fail to realize that the world doesn’t build itself.

People are used to getting what they need from trades like construction but not respecting the work that’s done — or the skills required to do it.

Misconception #2: Trade Skills for Construction Aren’t Viable Options for Students to Consider in High School

It's difficult to find shop classes in high schools in recent years because the schools pulled out most trade-related classes. 

At one time, school systems were presenting opportunities for you to think about the trades and learn some of the skills necessary to get started in different fields. 

Now, it's rare to see students gaining trade skills in high school, yet they are pushed to choose a career path — and a college — before even finishing high school.

Shouldn’t all students have equal opportunities for training that can prepare them for a career path after high school?

Skilled trades can be the perfect option for high school students who:

  • Do not want to go to college
  • Are not able to afford a four-year university
  • Need to begin earning a liveable wage after graduating; and
  • Have an interest and/or learning style better suited for trades

The reality is: learning trade skills may be some students’ only viable option after high school, or they may show a real interest in careers that don’t require a four-year college degree. 

Misconception #3: Trade Skills in Construction Aren’t in Demand and There’s No Job Security

Many people believe that trade skills in construction aren't in demand and there's no job security. However, this is not true. 

The construction industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the US.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are projected to be over one million jobs in construction by 2024.

As technology advances and more buildings are constructed using updated methods, building materials, and technologies, there will always be demand for skilled workers in this field.

You don't have to chase the desk job to be successful. 

Success is what you decide it to be. Not what your parents or school advisors think it is. However, taking pride in the work you do and doing it well, often allows people to gain a sense of accomplishment and experience rewarding work.

Misconception #4: Trade Skills Won’t Allow You to Make a Good Living in the Construction Industry

You’ve likely heard this common misconception: if you want to make a good living, you need to have a college degree — this is not always the case. 

Many skilled trade workers don’t have a college degree, find success, and make a good living working in the construction industry.

The construction industry has many entry-level positions that don’t require a degree but still offer reasonable pay.

As long as you meet the job’s requirements, have a good work ethic, and are willing to show up to work, many companies searching for an entry-level candidate will show interest in hiring you.

According to payscale.com, an entry-level construction worker earns an average of $16.58 per hour in America.

A San Diego trade school student we've been in contact with is a great reminder of just how well-off you can be with a starting salary. He is 19-years-old, working in the construction industry, and making $37 per hour.

This serves as a great reminder that whether you’re fresh out of high school or looking for a career change, working in the trades is a great way to earn a substantial income with — or without — a college degree.

Trade School vs. College — Is a College Degree the Only Way to a Fulfilling Career?

Simply put, a college degree is not the only path to career fulfillment, despite what you may have heard.

People who have graduated from college change career paths and sometimes find skilled trades as a better fit personally and financially.

For example, Kyle Stumpenhorst, of RR Buildings, earned a degree in computer science, expecting to be: 

  • Happy
  • Experienced and successful; and
  • Making a lot of money

Kyle loved technology and was excited to hop into the industry — but as he embarked on his journey after college, he quickly realized that doing the same tasks, the same drive into work, the same nine-to-five each day each day. The job didn’t fit who Kyle was. 

But isn’t that the only way to be successful? 

Since Kyle had no previous exposure to the trades, that’s what Kyle thought until he started on a home remodel and realized that his calling was in the construction industry — where Kyle realized he didn’t have to follow someone else’s dream. 

As Kyle made the switch to a career in the construction industry, he quickly realized he could pursue this path that interested him, brought him joy, and still be successful, as long as he came into the industry with a winner’s mindset. 

Kyle didn’t follow the “status-quo”. He now owns his own successful post frame construction company in Northern Illinois and has become one of the largest content creators in the industry. Learn more about Kyle’s story and the fulfillment he’s experienced since making the switch in our podcast interview with him. 

Should You Consider Pursuing a Trade Skill in Construction? 3 Questions to Ask

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in pursuing trade skills, specifically in construction. 

While there are various reasons to consider trade skills, it is important to research and ask questions before deciding.

#1: Is the Work Challenging Enough?

Many people find that the work involved in construction is challenging but in a good way. 

It's not unusual to hear tradespeople say, "I fell in love with the challenge."

Every day there is something new happening in construction cut and can often bring a sense of:

  • Satisfaction
  • Accomplishment; and
  • Motivation

Many tradespeople will also express that their work is rewarding because it is constantly evolving and the opportunity for growth is limitless.

If you're willing to put in the effort, have an interest in the trades, and show up to work, you'll find success and never feel you're doing the same thing day in and day out.

#2: Is Construction Work and Its Environment a Good Fit for You?

In recent years, more and more people have been choosing to go into the construction industry as opposed to going to college. 

Consider Kyle Stumpenhorst, a young man who graduated with a four-year degree in computer science and landed a job as an IT specialist. He loved his boss and the people he worked with. 

But there was a problem — the job didn't fit him well, and it wasn't fulfilling.

However, when he discovered a career in building, he began to enjoy life and work again.

A nine-to-five corporate job isn’t for everyone. Some people like the idea of working with their hands and getting dirty. Others like the challenge of learning something new regularly.

We suggest you do work that you love and trust that it can become your money-maker.

#3: Are You Open to Networking in the Construction Industry?

The construction industry is one of the most competitive in the country. To be successful, you need to build a strong network and market yourself. It’s all about who you know.

One way to do this is through social media.

You can instantly connect with owners, trades, and advocates on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Now Is the Best Time to Jump Into Learning a Trade—Especially Construction

In today's economy, it's more important than ever to have an in-demand skill set. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for electricians is projected to me much stronger than then 8% average growth rate over the next decade.

This may be why so many people turn to trade schools and vocational programs to learn new skills — but it may not be the only reason. 

According to Forbes, 40% of construction industry employees are between the ages of 45-64 years old and will likely be retiring throughout the next ten years.

If you have the training and skills necessary to work in this high-demand field, you're already ahead of the game regarding earning a livable wage and enjoying a satisfying job.

Hammr: Helping Tradespeople Gain Networking Opportunities by Engaging With a Professional Online Construction Community

Questioning which is the right path for you isn't easy — and it can feel like the world is on your shoulders as you make the decision. 

Whether you're ... 

  • Ready to take the dive into finding a job in the trades
  • Looking for more answers on trade skills vs. college degrees; or
  • Simply looking to connect with other best-in-class tradespeople

… Hammr is helping build construction businesses that can offer better working environments, great leadership, career paths, and a desire to invest in their people.

While only you can decide on whether a trade school or a college degree is right for your future, we want you to know you aren’t alone — let’s build the world together.

Engage with our community to elevate your career:

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