Complete Guide to Online Vocational Schools & Programs
Vocational studies, or trade school programs, prepare students for practical professions in automotive repair, construction, home inspection, and HVAC maintenance. Online vocational programs are available at the certificate and associate degree level in a variety of specializations. Trade jobs prove that you don’t have to complete 4 to 10 years of postsecondary education for a well-paying career. For example, HVAC mechanics and installers have a median annual salary of $48,730.
Students should investigate and understand the accreditation agencies associated with the particular trade program they are considering. In addition to information about accreditation, read on for popular vocational majors and answers to frequently asked questions about vocational studies.
Most Popular Accredited Online Schools for Vocational Degrees
Online Vocational Degree Overview & Career Information
In some cases, trade school programs are the only academic requirement needed for employment in that field. Many online vocational programs have open admissions, meaning that all applicants are welcome to apply. Some programs may require a high school diploma or GED, or evidence of technical or mechanical aptitude. Other degrees may require a working foundational knowledge of the particular subject area.
Most online vocational programs are actually hybrid degrees, which combine aspects of online courses with on-campus requirements. These online programs can still provide the necessary manual and hands-on skills, while also providing more flexibility than a traditional degree. Some online trade school programs may require that students submit videos or multimedia to show that they have mastered a hands-on skill.
Online certificate programs can provide students with an introduction to a variety of skilled trades and the necessary abilities to land a job. Students with an interest in how mechanical and electronic components work and a love of tinkering may find a good match in electrician, marine mechanic, locksmithing, diesel mechanic, or plumbing technology programs. Students in these online programs learn the theory of the trade, as well as hands-on skills and customer service.
Online associate degrees in vocational areas provide students with more time to study general college-level coursework than a certificate program allows for. Because they typically involve more courses, two-year degree programs may also offer students the chance to develop greater mastery of the skills of their field.
Online Associate Degrees in Vocational
Vocational associate degree programs prepare graduates for specific trade opportunities related to their training, such as becoming a computer maintenance professional, medical assistant, or veterinary technician. Some other associate-level trade school majors include aviation operations, meeting and event planning, medical records management, or industrial electronics. Even though vocational associate programs are designed to teach students the skills necessary for a particular trade, most programs will also require general education courses such as math, English, communications, biology, and computer applications for a well-rounded education.
After the general education courses have been completed, the core coursework for vocational associate programs will depend on the area of study a student chooses to pursue. For example, an associate degree in landscape design will teach students how to read blueprints; draw plans; and select and install trees, shrubs, and flowers. The specific courses required for a degree in HVAC will include topics such as HVACR electronics, thermodynamics of refrigeration, fundamentals of heating & mechanical systems, air conditioning applications, residential gas heating, and hydronic residential oil heating. Culinary studies programs will introduce students to culinary basics through courses in cooking and baking, management, and business.
Applicants to vocational associate degree programs must be high school graduates or have a GED. Most vocational or trade schools will require official high school transcripts as part of the application package; some also require SAT/ACT scores. Most online associate trade programs can be completed in two years.
Online Bachelor's Degrees in Vocational
Online vocational bachelor's degrees typically require students to complete an average of 120 semester credit hours for completion in four years and are usually offered by public community colleges or private technical colleges. In recent years many of these programs have gone online, allowing parents and working adults to obtain them on flexible, off-hours, schedules. Admission will usually require a high school diploma or GED, as well as acceptable SAT or ACT test scores.
Students can expect to primarily take skill-building classes. Graduates with bachelor's degrees often go into careers such as human resource management, mediation, advisory roles, teaching and career consultation. Graduates from an online vocational bachelor's degree program tend to utilize hands-on, 'hard' skills and are required to work in the field more than they do working at computers in office environments. The vocational sector is broad and covers many different subjects, including construction management, plumbing, aviation maintenance, HVAC, and carpentry.
Online Doctoral Degrees in Vocational
Vocational programs are designed for students who wish to develop job-specific training in a variety of trade specializations. These programs allow students to earn licenses or certifications in medical assisting, auto repair, administrative skills, food and beverage industry management, and more. Online doctoral degrees in vocational education are offered by four-year institutions for people who wish to work in technical schools or workforce education.
Prospective students should have experience in career or technical education, career resources and support services, or workforce education. Sample core courses include Educational Policy and Leadership and Social and Economic Foundations of CTE. The curriculum may also include Career Development in Vocational Technical and Adult Ed and Statistical Analysis for Educational Research. In addition to the required classes, students might be required to take a doctoral qualifying exam and complete a dissertation.
Online Certificates in Vocational
Trade school certification programs are ideal for those who know what trade they would like to pursue. Online vocational certificate programs are available in a broad range of subject areas such as massage therapy, wedding planning, graphic arts, hospitality, automotive repair, home inspection, construction, and many more. The certificate programs are designed to provide students with the basic skills necessary for a particular trade so that upon graduation, they can immediately enter the workforce.
Generally speaking, there aren't prerequisites for trade schools; however, some may require students to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Due to the varying types of trade schools, programs can last anywhere from six months to two years. The number of credit hours also varies, but in general, certificates don't require more than 60 units.
Because vocational certificate programs are designed for a wide range of professions, the coursework will largely depend on the subject a student chooses to study. Generally, all students should expect to take introductory-level courses on the topic they're learning about, such as introductory communications or math. It's also common for online certificate programs to include professional-level courses to help prepare you for real-world experience and hands-on courses at training centers near the location where you are enrolled.
Accreditation is a voluntary process that higher education and vocational programs and institutions go through to convey to the public that they meet high academic standards. Accrediting agencies are independent, objective organizations that carefully evaluate the curriculum, faculty, and general favorability of these schools and programs.
Vocational schools that choose not to become accredited may still offer students a fine education, but attending an unaccredited school may make it difficult to apply for financial aid or transfer any earned credits to other institutions. The Federal Trade Commission provides helpful information about selecting a reputable trade school degree program, and the US Department of Education provides a current list of accredited schools and programs.
There are more differences than similarities between some of the popular trade school programs available online; massage therapy, bridal consulting, locksmithing, welding, and HVAC repair are just some of the available program options. Many online vocational programs combine online courses with hands-on work at a campus in the student’s local area. The work environment, salary, and required skills can vary immensely between vocational programs. Some trade areas, such as electrician work and welding, traditionally require an apprenticeship before tradespeople can work independently.
Here is a list of just some of the popular trade school careers that are available:
Automotive technicians are trained to repair, study, improve, and manage different makes and styles of automobiles. Technicians are employed by dealerships, manufacturers, and technical institutes to manipulate and enhance the performance of automotive vehicles. They typically work on commission through their employer, and their commission is dependent on the type of work they do. Technicians can work within repair, adjustment, or management capacities, and certification programs encompass all of these aspects within their training.
The programs offered by technical institutes are the best option for students planning on a long-term trade with opportunities for advancement in automotive technology. Trade schools, technical institutes, and vocational programs each offer different levels of training. The initial training for an automotive technician, which includes topics such as standard repair, manufacturing details, and specifications of different automobiles, takes approximately six months to two years, depending on the intensity of the curriculum and the student’s course load.
Associate degrees last two years and often require students to gain hands-on work experience in an internship or apprenticeship program. Together with a degree or certificate, this type of experience can give technicians more opportunities to enter higher-level positions in the field. Students entering the automotive industry may have the option to take courses in marine or motorcycle technology during their programs, but this extends the duration in the program. Vocational training programs often provide opportunities for certification through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.
Automotive Technology Career Specializations:
- Automotive Repair Technician: Repair technicians work specifically in the repair of all forms of automobiles from both large companies and private clientele.
- Marine Vehicle Mechanic: Marine mechanics perform the same duties as repair and maintenance as automotive technicians, but they work specifically with marine vehicles like motorboats, jet skis, and commercial vehicles such as ferries or cruise ships.
- Motorcycle Technician: Motorcycle technicians repair and manipulate motorcycles of varying makes and are experienced with their construction as well as operation.
Bridal consultants work with clients to help plan wedding details such as choosing a wedding gown, attendants' dresses, colors, themes, and wedding ceremony and reception details. Bridal consultants must be well versed in fashion, interior decor, and service industry topics such as food, beverages, and meal planning. Money management and budgeting is also a critical part of bridal consulting work, as they help clients make important decisions regarding the size, style, and cost of a wedding.
Bridal consultants must also be very skilled with customer service because they work with engaged couples to plan what is generally considered to be one of life’s most significant events. Consultants must know how to manage stressful situations and communicate clearly with clients, especially in cases where last-minute changes occur.
Time management and financial budgeting courses are essential to any bridal consulting diploma. Students learn how to outline and execute event schedules and assist couples in arranging a budget that works for everyone involved. Wedding decoration and design courses focus on how to select floral arrangements, bridal bouquets, linens, wedding favors, and lighting that reflect couples' desired themes or designs. Wedding etiquette courses school students in the formal traditions and expectations associated with wedding events. Students learn about wedding invitations, building guests lists, creating gift registries, offering guests information about travel and lodging for the wedding, and, most importantly, the traditional roles that couples and their family or friends will have in the wedding itself.
Bridal Consulting Career Specializations:
- Bridal Fashion Designer: This is a specialized consulting and design job that focuses on the production of wedding gowns, tuxedos, and formal wear for wedding attendants.
- Destination Wedding Planner: These are wedding consultants who specialize in planning destination weddings in vacation areas. They will work with clients to make plans for travel, special venues, and arrangements for guests. Some consultants offer services in a variety of special wedding destinations, while others focus on one or two locations they know very well.
Culinary artists combine their love of good food, drink, and hospitality to excel as professionals in settings such as restaurants, catering businesses, and resorts. A career in culinary arts could lead you to be a chef, general manager, hotel manager, caterer, or baker. To begin a culinary arts career, students are encouraged to complete an associate degree or bachelor's degree in culinary arts. Most people think that a career in culinary arts only consists of being a chef, but being a chef is just one of the career options available to people with a degree in culinary arts; culinary arts degrees can vary widely based on your specialization.
It often takes many years to become an executive chef at a restaurant, but graduates may qualify for entry-level positions as line cooks, sous chefs, chef de cuisines, and waiters. People that become chefs are typically creative, love food, and love being in the kitchen. Restaurant managers often start as servers and then move their way up into management. Both positions require attention to detail, people skills, and business expertise. Working in the restaurant industry can be challenging, as it often includes long hours and erratic schedules -- but it can also be fun, dynamic, and rewarding. People who thrive in culinary arts careers usually have a lot of energy, passion for food and drinks, and a desire to manage and work with all kinds of people.
Online culinary arts programs can vary in length and time. Students who are interested in pursuing an advanced or managerial culinary career may be interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree, which takes approximately four years. Students take courses in different cuisines, knife skills, baking, management, business and professional skills.
Culinary Arts Career Specializations:
- Chefs: A degree in culinary arts can lead to being a chef in a restaurant. From running the kitchen yourself to working on the line, there is plenty of room for growth as a chef.
- Pastry Chefs: Being a pastry chef, you will create all the desserts and sweets within a restaurant or bakery. A pastry chef typically works in the early mornings and late evenings, and they collaborate with executive chefs to create stunning desserts for restaurant menus.
- Restaurant Managers: As a restaurant manager, you will manage the front of the house, wait staff and bartenders. You can also become a back-of-the-house manager and work directly with the executive chef and restaurant owners while managing the kitchen staff and line cooks.
Electricians are the skilled professionals who install, maintain, and troubleshoot electrical systems in residential and commercial building projects. They apply their knowledge of electrical theory, hands-on skills, and physical dexterity to repair wiring, circuits, and other electrical components. They install the electrical wires in houses, office buildings, and factories, to bring the electricity from its source to the many different outlets and breakers. They read blueprints, then use their mechanical equipment to install different electrical components. Some electricians work solely on maintenance, to update or repair electrical equipment that is past its prime. Many electricians are trained through four-year apprenticeship programs run by electrical unions, which combine classroom instruction with practical on-the-job training.
Some people choose to attend electrician classes at community colleges or trade schools before they begin their hands-on work, while others choose to begin an apprenticeship after taking pertinent vocational courses. These classes discuss reading blueprints, safety procedures, and the electrical engineering theory needed to do electrical installation. During apprenticeships, novice electricians attend classes on electrical theory and procedures and shadow trained professionals in the field. They usually begin by doing simple mechanical work, such as drilling holes, and work up to more skilled tasks, such as installing wiring and switches. After an apprenticeship, electricians are prepared to earn the state and local licenses they need to legally begin working.
All states require some sort of licensure for electricians, although the details for attaining this license vary from state to state. Usually, the requirement is a passing score on the state’s exam, which tests the student’s mastery of electrical theory and building codes. Electricians who offer their services directly to the public must usually have a master electrician license. The general requirement for this certification is seven years of electrical experience or a relevant bachelor’s degree.
Electrical Technology Career Specializations:
- Installation: Electricians involved in installation work with construction companies to install the wiring and electrical equipment involved in a building project. They must be able to read blueprints and assess the tools needed for the job.
- Maintenance: These electricians focus on repairing or upgrading electrical equipment in residential or commercial settings. They may do work as simple as repairing a blown fuse, or work as complicated as repairing industrial motors or appliances.
The idea of a locksmith brings to mind an image of someone who comes to help people who accidentally locked themselves out of a car, home, or business; however, there is much more to being a locksmith than acting as an on-call assistant. Professional locksmiths might own their own business or work in industries such as security services, higher education, government, facilities support services, and more. The majority of locksmiths begin their career with on-the-job training. Locksmiths build critical-thinking and complex problem-solving skills by learning basics, such as how mechanical and electronic locking devices work.
Career and certification programs offer general training for locksmiths, but students can go beyond the basic job training of mechanical hardware locks and gain experience installing alarms, electronic access systems, and electrical locking devices as well. Another option would be to gain experience as a safe-and-vault service mechanic. Educational institutions offering career diplomas may also include certification in the program. Prospective locksmiths should also check with appropriate local and state government agencies for additional requirements for becoming a locksmith, as these can vary by area.
Locksmiths are not required to be certified, but certification can provide a competitive edge in a tough job market. Certification lets future employers know how serious and dedicated a locksmith is. Associated Locksmiths of America offers a number of certification options for professionals looking to advance their career. Some of the certifications range from registered locksmith to certified master locksmith, with others focusing on automotive locksmiths and safe technicians.
Plumbing technology encompasses a number of skilled workers, including plumbers, pipefitters, pipelayers, steamfitters, and sprinklerfitters. These professionals install the pipes and plumbing systems that take care of the water, waste disposal, and gas needs of commercial and residential buildings. Most students learn this trade through an exhaustive four- to five-year apprenticeship program, which combines full-time hands-on training with classroom instruction.
Plumbing technology apprenticeship programs are commonly administrated by unions, such as the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada, or through government agencies like the US Department of Labor. Formal apprenticeships are comprised of classroom learning, as well as hands-on training under an experienced professional. Most apprenticeships require students to take 144 hours worth of related coursework each year in subjects like applied science and math, blueprints, and tool use. Over the course of the program, apprentices gradually learn all of the practical skills involved in plumbing, pipefitting, or whichever trade they are studying.
The licensing requirements for those in the plumbing technologies vary by state. Most states require plumbers who offer their services directly to the public to have a local or state license. Applicants for this license are required to have anywhere from two to five years of plumbing experience and a passing score on an exam.
Plumbing Technology Career Specializations:
- Pipefitters: The large pipe lines inside of buildings are the domain of these plumbing technicians. They repair and maintain the pipes used in electricity and gas lines and other indoor systems.
- Pipelayers: Pipelayers are responsible for the installation of large underground pipes. They dig the necessary hole, prepare it for the pipe, lay the pipe, and cement or weld the pipe parts together.
- Plumbers: These technicians keep the various drain and waste disposal systems functioning in residential and commercial buildings.
- Sprinklerfitters: Sprinklerfitters design, install, and maintain the sprinkler systems that protect residential and commercial buildings from fires.
- Steamfitters: These professionals share many responsibilities with pipefitters, except that they work with pipe lines that carry pressurized gas and steam.
Frequently Asked Questions About Vocational Degrees
How quickly can I get a certificate or degree from a vocational school?
Vocational or trade schools are designed to get students out into the workplace as quickly as possible while still learning all the skills they need to succeed. Depending on the vocation, trade school certificate programs can take as little as six months to complete, while others can take up to two years. Vocational associate degrees are generally two-year programs.
How much can I expect to earn after completing a vocational program?
Annual salaries vary widely depending on the chosen vocation. ONET Online reports the median annual salaries for some of the more common vocations as: $55,160 for plumbers, $56,180 for electricians, $51,530 for chefs, $42,820 for massage therapists, $50,600 for wedding and event planners, $42,090 for automotive repair technicians, and $48,330 for carpenters.
Which trades offer the best job opportunities for the future?
- Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/automotive-service-technicians-and-mechanics.htm.
- Food Preparation and Serving Occupations. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/home.htm.
- Meeting, Convention, and Event Planners. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/meeting-convention-and-event-planners.htm.
- Professional Development. National Electrical Contractors Association. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.necanet.org/professional-development/careers-in-electrical-contracting.
- Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/plumbers-pipefitters-and-steamfitters.htm.