Trade School vs. College: The Keyboard vs. The Hammer

by Coach Rob Balfanz

Like many of us do when traveling between meetings in any big city, I scheduled an Uber. The driver showed up and I got in the car, my head instantly buried in my phone, e-mail, and text messages. As we were off to my next destination, the driver said, “Sir, can I trouble you to ask what you do for a living?” I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, how rude am I?” Here I was getting into this driver’s car and I immediately started working. I am not sure if I even said hello, which for those of you who know me, is not like me at all. So, I stopped, put down my phone, and paid close attention to what would end up turning into a very eye-opening conversation.

I had the opportunity of talking with an Uber driver who is originally from the Philippines, is a United States Marine, has lived in multiple countries, is a graduate of a four year college, has an interest in the skilled trades, and wants to eventually own their own contracting business. Last but not least, he wanted me to help guide him on his dream career path. To think I almost screwed this opportunity up by burying my head in my work just because I was in a hurry (which I am sure most of you fellow busy readers can appreciate). As we talked, the driver also shared with me a recent event that almost caused them to give up on the skilled trades altogether.  At a hiring event/job fair hosted by a group advocating for the skilled trades, this Uber driver was set up to meet with several construction employers in an effort to meet and greet and hopefully walk out with a new job in the skilled trades.

The Uber driver proceeded to review their resume with the interviewer. He explained his life experience dating back to high school, what got him interested in the trades, things like metals class, small engine repair, wood shop, automotive tech, Future Farmers of America, and graphic arts. After graduation, he went into the Marine Corps where he learned how to be a mechanic on some pretty impressive pieces of equipment, led teams of other soldiers, managed their processes, motivated them before then going off to college, and later graduating with a four year degree. His story was amazing.

Then the Uber driver hit me with a bombshell I was not expecting. The interviewer quickly closed their portfolio and said, “Thank you for your time today, but I do not think you are what we are looking for.” I asked the driver, “You’re kidding me, right?” By this time, I was almost sitting in the front seat of the car as I was in such amazement, completely confused by this. In the rearview mirror, I could see it in the driver’s eyes, a glossy-eyed proud young person, who was saddened by this unfortunate encounter, and on the verge of giving up on the skilled trades altogether.

This is when Coach Rob kicked into high gear. I said, “Ok, so here is how I would handle this, so it never happens again.” I then paused, because there were a million things, I could say that could be wrong in that moment. Then I said, “Let’s take this opportunity to learn from this poor interviewer who didn’t have a clue who they were talking to. You may have been perceived to be overqualified for the position you were interviewing for, so next time, I would ask more questions about the role on the front end of the interview and the company you are interviewing with. Once you have done that due diligence, I would tailor your interview to cater to that audience. Sometimes, you have to expect the unexpected.”

This all brought up an important current conundrum—looking at the value of trade school vs. college. We will discuss some of the benefits of trade school in this month’s blog, as these are conversations we need to have to continue to grow our workforce in this industry. We want to equip you to go forward and educate more people to get involved in the skilled trades so you can have a capable, motivated, and trained crew. We also recommend you utilize all the resources we have at VSI and find out how we can help make that happen.



The benefits of receiving an education from a trade school are numerous.  Some of these benefits can be measured in dollars and overall income. The average student debt is about the same as the entire tuition for the trade school degree! Trade schools provide a lower cost education which helps reduce the overall student debt for the average student. Another benefit of a career in the skilled trades is the consistent demand for trained workers to fill job openings. The demand for skilled trades people is expected to continue to remain above the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. As the demand continues to increase, the opportunity to see an increase in average wages will increase as well.



There are trade schools that specialize in a wide array of skilled trades and other technical training. Many resources exist to help you gain skills and knowledge in the specific skilled trade that interests you most. Training resources and trade schools are available for many of the skilled trades that are in high demand. These skilled trades include the below, just to name a few:

  • Electrician
  • Carpenter
  • Mason
  • Plumber
  • Roofer

It is important to remember that there are resources available to anyone looking for a career in the construction and the skilled trades. There are resources provided by product manufacturers relating to product installation. Online trade schools such as Construct-Ed provide free and paid courses and career training to help guide students through getting started in their careers. There are also brick and mortar trade schools where students can attend classes and earn a degree. Each of these options comes with a different cost. Each option can offer training and education for a wide range of skilled trades.  There are also options for single certifications, which can be earned through organizations such as VSI. You can refer and encourage people to take our online or in-person classes. Find out more about getting certified through VSI.



This really depends on who you are asking. In the whole discussion of trade school vs college, or the Keyboard vs. the Hammer as I like to refer to it, you may be wondering – “Are they that different?” Both colleges and trade schools are considered educational institutions. Both offer training, certificates, and degrees on many different areas and subjects. The goal of both trade schools and traditional colleges is to equip young people with the skills and knowledge they will need to join the workforce, contribute to society, earn a living, raise your family, and live the American Dream. Trade schools offer opportunities that colleges may not offer. People require buildings to work in and homes to live in. Without skilled trades professionals, these critical elements of our lives are not sustainable. Trade schools are colleges for the professional skilled trades person.



It has been drilled into students' heads for ages, whether from parents, teachers or grandparents, that traditional college is an absolute must. Make the family proud: go to a four-year university. But is a bachelor’s degree the end-all in education? Sure, everyone needs a skill to support themselves and their families, but do those skills need to come from training at expensive four-year universities? Not to mention, not everyone is interested in four more years of school after high school. Trade and vocational schools have been underrated and frowned upon for so long. But that undeserved stigma is rapidly changing. More and more students are starting to look for a different path to a career, especially now that the cost of advanced education is leaving people with sticker shock and massive amounts of debt. It’s no secret that those with bachelor’s degrees or higher have larger earning potential than those who stopped at a high school diploma. However, you also have to weigh in the heavy-duty loan that has to be paid off once a job is secured. There is another option; trade schools make sense practically and financially. Entering the workforce more quickly with a qualified, certified skill is probably the top reason to choose trade school over college.



So, why else should anyone consider vocational training over traditional college?

One massive argument to check off in the pro-column for trade school is the cost. According to Forbes, the college graduate class of 2016 was sent out into the world with not only their degrees but also the largest student loan debt of any graduating class in U.S. history. More than 70 percent were carrying a student loan debt over $37,000. The burden of college costs has shifted from the government over to "we the people," and it’s quite financially devastating. Let’s not even get started on master’s degrees and beyond, because the amount those cost plus the amount of debt students leave with is, well, staggering. And that number will only rise through the years. Not to mention that having a bachelor's degree doesn't always guarantee a high-paying job. But because there is such a need for those skilled in the trades, vocational school grads are often immediately placed into jobs in their niche upon obtaining their diplomas or certificates, enabling them to start earning a salary right away.

As mentioned earlier, another benefit of trade school is the time it takes to achieve a diploma or degree. Traditional colleges and universities generally take four years to complete, although it can take longer depending on the student’s course load. Sometimes, college can take five to six years to finally earn that bachelor’s degree. Trade school programs can be completed in six weeks to two years, depending on which trade and whether a student is attending full or part time.

When it comes to salaries, trade school graduates aren’t making much less than their traditional college counterparts. Also, keep in mind that someone coming out of trade school, will be in the workforce an average of two years longer than traditional college students. So, on average, a trade school graduate have made more even before the person with the bachelor’s degree pounds the pavement in search of a job. More and more job positions are being filled offshore to keep company costs down. However, trade school positions, ones that need a physical body present, are not easily filled by going elsewhere. Trade skill workers such as plumbers, mechanics, and electricians need to be available to work onsite; this type of work cannot be done via the internet. There is a great need for more skilled workers, since the present workforce is beginning to age. Even more jobs will open once the older men and women start retiring, calling for the younger set to jump into their shoes and hit the ground running.



As stated in a recent article by The Washington Post,  40% of the student body will drop out of a four-year college. FORTY PERCENT. That’s a massive number of students and they will still have to pay back the money borrowed. Choosing to go to trade school over college is a viable option for so many reasons. The cost for trade school is significantly lower than traditional college. The amount of time spent in a classroom is reduced because the courses are subject-specific and relevant to your chosen profession. And salaries for those coming out of trade school are pretty competitive with their bachelor’s degree-bearing counterparts, especially when you weigh in the fact that most students come out of universities burdened in debt that takes forever to pay back.

Now, back to the conversation with the Uber driver that first sparked this exploration. He is a skilled tradesman who should have been hired in a New York minute. To the interviewer he spoke with, the driver sounded like they wanted a desk job, and had the qualifications to back that up. However, the driver truly wanted a job in the skilled trades, and in this case, both lost out on a real opportunity. We, as a country, can’t afford to lose another skilled tradesperson. This unfortunately, is the world we live in. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

It is important to remember that each conversation you have out in the world to get people involved in this dynamic growth industry is another great opportunity to get more people interested in the trades and ready to take the next step. 2020 is right around the corner and VSI is here to help guide you.


To your success,

Coach Rob

Topics: training   labor   employment