A Guide on Vocational Technical Schools

The traditional school system isn’t for everyone. Good schools and good teachers do everything they can to differentiate their instruction and meet the needs of all students, but it just isn’t always possible. This is where vocational technical (vo-tech) schools come in for many students.

What Are Vo-Tech Schools?

Rather than giving students a general knowledge base that they get at a traditional high school, vo-tech schools teach students skills for a trade or occupation, better preparing them for the workforce directly out of school. Often, vo-tech schools are also known as trade schools. Suzanne Fraser*, a former teacher at a vo-tech school in central Pennsylvania noted that “students are prepared for real world working experiences right out of school.”

The Perkins Act, which was signed into law in 1984, was designed to help students have more access to vocational education. The law has continually been revisited, with its most recent reauthorization happening in 2018. While many schools still call themselves vo-tech schools, one of the changes that took place with the 2018 re-authorization was a language change to career and technical education. This law supports vo-tech schools and helps them have funding to provide students with education that is geared toward success in a career field.

Some vo-tech schools operate completely independently as their own school. With this model, they often take students from many different area high schools and school districts and students then receive their high school diploma from the vo-tech school. Another popular model is for students to attend vo-tech part time. Often, they will attend their traditional assigned school in the morning where they take their core academic classes. Then in the afternoon, they go to vo-tech for their specialized classes. Sometimes the schooling is split up over the year as well, with students attending their traditional high school during half of the year and their vo-tech high school during the other half of the year.

One of the great benefits of going to a vo-tech school is that students often graduate with certification and experience in a trade and are ready to enter the workforce. In the past, the fields of study in vo-tech schools were limited, but today there are many more offerings for students. Just some of the offerings include:

  • Construction
  • Mechanics
  • Childcare/Education
  • Carpentry
  • Agriculture
  • Cosmetology
  • Drafting & Design
  • Welding
  • Food Preparation
  • Healthcare
  • Criminal Justice

Apart from the focus on trades and skills, one of the main things that sets vo-tech schools apart from traditional high schools is the fact that students get hands on experience in their field of study. Students get experience in the classroom setting learning about and practicing their trade. Depending on the school, they may also get to actually start internships, apprenticeships, or even paid jobs while they are still in school. Students also learn about all of the rules and safety regulations for their field, and may even earn some certifications while in school. When asked about the benefits of attending a vo-tech school, Lycoming Career & Technology Center (Lyco CTC) graduate Justin Allen stated that he was able to get OSHA certified through his coursework.

Vo-Tech High Schools vs. Vocational/Technical Colleges

Sometimes vo-tech high schools are mistaken for vocational or technical colleges. A vo-tech high school is a school for high school aged students to get both their high school diploma as well as training for a trade or occupation. Depending on how the school is set up, a student might graduate from a traditional high school as well as a vo-tech high school, or they might get all of their education at the vo-tech school.

A vocational or technical college is a school for students to learn a vocation or trade, but this takes place after high school. Students who go to a vocational or technical college may have attended either a traditional high school or a vo-tech high school. Many of these colleges also accept students who have their GED.

In an article for The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, Davison Mupinga and Kelly Livesay discuss the advantages of choosing a vocational/technical college in lieu of a traditional 4 year college. Some of the advantages they noted include: shorter and cheaper education, geographic accessibility, and transferable credits. They also found that vocational schools are a better option for students who are undecided about what to major in.

There is a very wide range of programs offered at vocational and technical colleges, but some of the common programs in vocational/technical schools are often similar to the programs offered at vo-tech high schools. Typically these schools are designed to help students move through programs and get into the workforce quickly, often offering programs students can complete in 2 years or less. Some vocational and technical colleges do also offer 4 year degrees.

Vocational and technical colleges may also offer more advanced training and certifications than students can get at a vo-tech high school. For example, some technical colleges may offer 4 year degrees in fields such as nursing and engineering.

How to Find a Vo-Tech School

Many school districts have a designated vo-tech school for their students to attend if they choose. Talk to the guidance counselor at your school for your options. Many schools also offer tours and information sessions so you can learn more about the programs offered.

Depending on how big your school district is, you may not have many options when it comes to choosing a vo-tech school; in fact, many districts only offer one option. Larger school districts may have more options to choose from. If there are different options to choose from, talking to your guidance counselor can really help you determine which vo-tech school is best for you. The biggest deciding factor on which school to attend should be if they offer fields of study that you are interested in. Another major component separating different vo-tech schools from each other is how they structure their day, so giving some thought to what you would prefer will help you make your decision as well if you have a choice.

Why Should I Consider a Vo-Tech School?

Students who graduated high school in the 90’s and early 2000’s were urged to go to college and often labeled as a failure or judged if they chose not to attend college. Today, the mindset surrounding college is shifting as more and more students are left with debt that negatively impacts their quality of life. Many people are realizing that they could attend a vo-tech or trade school for little to no money and come out with the skills needed to secure a high paying job. Not everybody is cut out to be a doctor or a lawyer and our society wouldn’t even work if that were the case.

Money obviously isn’t everything though; another component to quality of life is enjoying your career. Vo-tech schools offer an extremely low risk way for students to explore different careers and figure out what they do or don’t enjoy. By attending a vo-tech school you can simultaneously receive a high school diploma and gain valuable work and life experience. Continue reading to learn more about vo-tech schools and whether or not they are right for you.

What Are The Downsides of Attending a Vo-Tech School?

While there are very few downsides, there are some reasons you may not want to choose a vo-tech school. This type of learning might not match your learning style, so it’s best to really think about whether this type of education is right for you before enrolling in vo-tech.

A possible downside is the fact that many vo-tech schools do offer the half day option, which means you would be switching schools in the middle of the day. This could cause a disruption, but it also could be seen as a welcome break in the middle of the day. Another downside of switching schools in the middle of the day is that it might cause you to miss out on some of the culture at your traditional high school. Sometimes vo-tech students eat lunch on the go as they transfer schools, so they don’t get that time in the cafeteria with their friends. They also might miss out on special events like pep rallies and assemblies.

This switch can also prove difficult for students who participate in sports and have practice right after school. It could be a lot of shuffling around to go to the traditional high school in the morning, drive or take the bus to vo-tech for the afternoon, and then rush back to the traditional school for practice. Some vo-tech schools can be as far as an hour away from a student’s home school.

Although many people’s viewpoints are starting to change, some vo-tech schools often get a bad reputation as well. As Fraser put it, “they are sometimes stereotyped as a ‘dumping ground’ for students who are not academically inclined.” This stereotype has changed a lot over the years though, with many people finally recognizing the merits of a vocational education. In the past, many people thought that those who attended vo-tech couldn’t go on to college, but this is not at all the case.

Another potential con is that according to a study in The Journal of Human Resources, the benefits of a vo-tech education fade over time. The study found that while students who study a vocation tend to do better and find higher paying jobs than their traditionally educated peers initially, the traditionally educated students eventually make more money over time. One reason for this could be the continually changing workforce in today’s digital world. People who attended a vo-tech school can potentially reverse this effect by continuing their education and training throughout their career to help make themselves marketable and relevant. No matter what occupation you enter, your education and training in that field shouldn’t end when you start working.

Is a Vo-Tech School Right For You or Your Child?

A vo-tech school can be a great choice for any student, since it can help students learn a trade and enter the workforce, and it can also give students a great foundation before they enter college. Sometimes vo-tech schools get the reputation that they are only for students who don’t do well in traditional academic classrooms, but that is not the case. In fact, according to Allen, vo-tech schools work the best for students who are ambitious and willing to work hard.

Fraser also noted that vo-tech schools are great because they often have a more positive atmosphere than traditional schools. Students choose to attend vo-tech and they choose the field they want to study, so they actually want to be there and learn their trade.

Vo-tech schools also work well for kinesthetic learners. Students spend much of their time learning by doing rather than by sitting at a desk as they would in a traditional classroom. This hands on experience appeals to students who learn best by doing.

Victoria Stetts, a graduate of Central Westmoreland Area Vocational Technical School, which is now called Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, attended for Commercial Arts and discussed the types of people vo-tech schools work well for. It can be surprising to learn just how diverse vo-tech schools are. When talking about her experience, she said:

Vo-tech is a good fit for anyone. College isn’t for everyone. Everyone has their own skills, talents and interests. Vo-tech can help point some undecided students into the right direction and help them discover a trade or career. Of my friends and acquaintances from CWAVTS, they turned out to be….an art teacher (me), a freelance artist, a teacher’s aide, a cafeteria lady, a chiropractor, a gas station owner, a factory worker, and a non-profit executive. There were many more that became…auto repairmen, hairdressers, carpenters, masons, welders, etc.

If you’re thinking about attending a vo-tech school but are hesitant because you don’t want to go into a traditional trade field for your career, don’t let that stop you. A vo-tech education will teach you skills you can use in any career field. It can also be a great way for you to test out different careers and trades before completely diving in and realizing after years on the job that you don’t like the career you chose.

Vo-tech schools can also be very beneficial for students with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans). These students can benefit from getting extra help and training for their desired occupation while still in the school setting. Often, students who have IEPs find that their way of learning is a good match for the type of education provided in a vo-tech school. There are many great resources for navigating a vo-tech education if you have an IEP or any disability.

Almost any student could benefit from a vo-tech education, but there are definitely some who would enjoy this type of education more than others. Students who have a reading/writing learning style might get frustrated with a vo-tech education, just as students with a kinesthetic learning style often get frustrated with traditional education. Students who really prefer to stay at their desk and who don’t like to be hands on might not be the best fit for vo-tech.

How to Get in to a Vo-Tech School

Some vo-tech schools are pretty easy to get into, while others are much more competitive. About the vo-tech school Stetts attended, she said

Spots were competitive… When students at my high school were awarded spots for the different shops at vo-tech, the guidance counselors stressed that we could NOT quit. If anyone quit, the spot would remain unfilled for the rest of the duration, which was a waste and a shame.

Other vo-tech schools accept any student from their participating school districts, given they maintain passing grades. In addition, some programs may be more competitive than others as there are only a certain number of spots for each trade available.

Even though there are some vo-tech schools that are more competitive than others, one of the major benefits is that these schools are designed for students who are more vocationally inclined and who may not do as well in a traditional classroom. If you don’t have the best grades, don’t let that stop you from learning more about the admissions process for the vo-tech schools in your area.

What Can I Expect to Learn at a Vo-Tech School?

Depending on how the school is set up, you will either receive all of your instruction, including your core courses such as math and English at vo-tech, or you might only learn your chosen specialty at vo-tech. One benefit of attending a vo-tech school that teaches all of the curriculum in house is that the core academic classes are often tailored toward the specific trade you are learning.

Teacher Suzanne Fraser noted “I had to make lessons that appealed to the students’ interests/ their shops… At times my lessons had to connect with what they were learning in the shop.” This can be really helpful for students, especially those who tend to respond poorly to a traditional classroom. Fraser taught at an in house vo-tech school, so students got all of their education at vo-tech. You would not find this type of instruction at a vo-tech school that is half the day or year because students would still receive their core academic instruction at their traditional high school.

Students also leave vo-tech schools with a lot of practical knowledge for their trade and also for everyday life. Allen talked about some of the things he personally learned as a student at a vo-tech school. In addition to learning about his chosen trade, construction, he also said “I learned something that I could apply to everyday life like fixing my apartment/house, [I also] learned work ethic.”

How Do I Choose My Trade?

Many students choose to attend vo-tech because they already have a trade they are interested in. Many other students are also completely undecided and choose vo-tech because they want to explore different ideas and/or they would prefer the hands on learning to the traditional classroom learning.

If you are undecided on your trade, your guidance counselors and teachers will likely have resources available to you to help you choose your trade, but it is also helpful to do some research on your own to figure out what trade you might be interested in.

You can find many questionnaires online to help you figure out your interests. This one will help you find job clusters that match your interests and abilities. This one is designed to help you figure out what jobs are a good fit for your skills.

Another important factor to consider is where you will end up long-term if you stay with your chosen vocation. Take time to examine the careers you would be qualified to pursue when you are done with your education and think about what life would be like with that occupation. Job shadowing is a great way to get a feel for the job and the trade as a whole.

What Happens After Graduating Vo-Tech?

For many students, the logical next step is to enter the workforce, and many vo-tech schools offer assistance to students to help them find jobs. Fraser expressed that one of the main pros of a vo-tech school is that “students can use their preparation to go right into the workforce making decent money.” Allen noted that he chose not to pursue the trade that he studied (construction) but that Lyco CTC would have helped him get a job if he did decide to pursue a career in that field. Entering the workforce isn’t the only option for vo-tech students, however.

There is a misconception about vo-tech high schools that students who go to a vo-tech school don’t or can’t go to college. Fraser stated that one of the pros of vo-tech schools is that students can go to college to further their education or gain experience and knowledge in a new area. Stetts also talked about her experience as a vo-tech student. Although she didn’t pursue a career in commercial arts, she did use the training from her vo-tech school to ultimately get into college and pursue her career as an art teacher. In her words,

I was able to create a portfolio that I submitted to the Governor’s School for the Arts. I was selected as a semi-finalist which enabled me to attend Summer Happening at IUP [Indiana University of Pennsylvania]. That was my first and only experience at a college. No one in my family had ever gone to college. IUP was the only college that I applied to so I am lucky that I was accepted! I subbed for three months then received my job in Montoursville. The rest is history.

For her, it was her experience in vo-tech that actually helped her get to college. For students unsure of what career they want to pursue, this can be a great way to test the waters and get some experience. Allen remarked that getting an education at a vo-tech school is a great way to get a head start on a college major while also gaining valuable work and life experience.

A Final Word

No matter what type of student you are or what your future holds in terms of further education and/or joining the workforce, you can benefit from a vocational/technical education. If you have a passion for a trade, simply want to learn more and experiment with a new type of learning, or want to get a leg up on the competition in the job market, vo-tech can be the perfect answer. If nothing else, it’s worth looking into and considering how vo-tech can benefit you or your child. When asked about his overall thoughts on receiving a vo-tech education and whether other students should consider this type of education as well, Allen said “I would recommend 100% of students to attend because it can give you a lot of knowledge and help you learn work ethic and leadership.”

*Pseudonym; teacher wished to remain anonymous.

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