Over the last few years the rising cost of college education and student debt has generated a lot of heated discussion.  In this climate of anxiety, trade schools or vocational/technical (vo-tech) schools have emerged as alternatives to traditional colleges.

 At the same time, however, traditional college programs in the fields of business, engineering, medicine and healthcare are growing rapidly due to acute demand in the market. 

The purpose of this piece is two-fold: first, to make sense of this confusing array of options for the high school graduate or an individual looking to retool in preparation for a career change, and second, to dispel the myth that choosing between a vocationally-based career and a career in business are mutually exclusive options. 

Until recently, going to a four-year college was an automatic choice for high school graduates. The reason is obvious – higher income. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a bachelor’s degree accounted for an average of $16,900 in additional income per year compared to a high school diploma ($30,000 versus $46,900).  Over a 30-year career in the workforce, that’s more than a $500,000 difference in earnings. However, the increasingly high costs associated with a college education, low or stagnant salaries for some college graduates in the liberal arts, and healthy salaries in certain trade occupations, has made the trade school a legitimate education alternative.

Business & Trade Schools – Similarities

Specialization is a feature that is common to curricula in business and trade schools.  Specializations in business are based on functional disciplines such as accounting, finance, productions & operations, information systems, marketing, management, etc.  Trade schools on the other hand, are focused on specific occupations such electricians, carpenters, welders, automotive technicians and others.

Employment/Career Orientation is yet another feature shared by business and trade schools.  Both produce graduates who are trained and developed to have an application mindset--to apply their special skills and knowledge to specific types of work. Therefore, the skills and knowledge taught in these programs are aligned with high-demand employment/career opportunities that exist in the market.  Success in these schools is measured by the number of employed graduates.

Credentialing using Majors, Certificates, and Badges is commonly utilized in business and trade schools as a demonstrable measure of competence and quality.  Credentials endorsed by external professional bodies such as the CPA, CFA, CPM, SHRM and others in the business world, are highly sought after and lead to lucrative careers.

Business & Trade Schools – Differences

Program length:  Vocational programs, as mentioned earlier, usually take two years to complete.  Business programs because they include general education component, typically take four years to complete.

Breadth of Perspective:  Business graduates develop a wide perspective of the global, national and local economy.  Even within the confines of their work roles, they are trained to view business problems within the larger context of the enterprise and its extended network of partners.  Vocationally trained graduates are trained to address problems within the narrow confines of their work by applying their trade skills.  They are not naturally inclined to have a business or enterprise-wide perspective.

Range of Applicability: Business graduates can be employed across a wide range of industries and professions because their specializations such as finance, accounting and marketing are relevant in all industries.  This is not the case with vocationally trained graduates who may ply their trade only in a narrow subset of industries.

Scope of Impact:  The wide breadth of perspective and applicability of their specializations gives business professionals the ability to have wide-ranging and significant impact across departments, divisions, enterprises and even across entire industries.  Thus, the impact of business professionals on local and regional economies is more significant than their vocationally trained counterparts.

Business & Trade Schools – Complementarity

To think of trade schools and business schools as diametrically opposed competitors is a fallacy.  While one may choose a trade school for financial reasons (low tuition, short time to graduation), it does not rule out the business school as an option.  The value propositions offered by each are, in fact, complementary in nature.  

Trade schools are focused on making students employable relatively quickly compared to business school students.  However, the specialized skills needed for the occupation usually limit prospects for growth over the work-lifetime of the individual.  For example, an automotive technician can only go so far in their technical occupation before hitting a ceiling.  Further progress requires entering the ranks of management professionals.  At this stage in their careers business schools offer vocationally credentialed professionals, a path to continued growth and professional development.  Thus, trade schools and business schools play complementary roles in the growth life-cycle of industry professionals.


by Dr. Ashok Subramanian

Dr. Ashok Subramanian is the Dean and Joel R. Stubblefield Endowed Chair in the College of Business at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. He has both a PhD in Information Systems and an MBA from the University of Houston, as well as a BSc in Chemistry and Physics from the University of Bombay, India. He has extensive experience as a consultant and entrepreneur in the IT sector. Prior to his current position at UAFS, Dr. Subramanian’s leadership career includes being Dean of the Harold Walter Siebens School of Business at Buena Vista University, Iowa.

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