The fastest-growing occupation in the country doesn't require a four-year degree. Instead, it requires some technical training, and workers in the field earned a median income of $51,050 in 2015 (BLS). What's the career? It's that of wind turbine technicians -- a vocational occupation that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see explosive 108 percent growth from 2014-2024.
Stephen Aldersley, the associate vice president for academic affairs at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, says his technical education programs are focused on ensuring their graduates are employable. "Typically, we are able to report a [first-year employment] rate of 93-95 percent which includes students who go on to further education," he says. "In order to assure that this success rate continues, we have a unit called NTID Center on Employment which…works with students to find co-op appointments, post-graduation jobs and generally work with them in such areas as resume-writing and interview skills."
(Note: The NTID, which is a part of the Rochester Institute of Technology, offers specialized education for students who are hard-of-hearing or deaf, but its technical education programs are representative of the type of career-focused education designed to move students quickly from the classroom to the workplace.)
Online Degrees in Vocational or Technical Subjects
Vocational and technical training share a common goal of providing industry-specific skills and education. While the terms may be used interchangeably by some, vocational programs are usually in non-technical trades such as welding, mechanics and cosmetology. Meanwhile, technical education typically refers to programs in the realm of business and technology.
Depending on your expected career path, vocational and technical training may result in one of the following, many of which can be earned through online vocational programs.
- Diploma: Diploma programs can be completed in anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the subject matter. Diplomas cover a wide range of fields including electrician training, floral design and veterinary assisting, among others.
- Certificate: Most certificates can be completed in less than a year although some make take up to two years and a few could require even a longer course of study. Although both undergraduate and graduate certificate programs are available, vocational and technical programs typically award undergraduate certificates. Graduates with a certificate may go on to become pharmacy technicians, medical transcriptionists or bookkeepers, among other occupations.
- Associate degree: Several associate degrees are conferred by institutions today. Usually the associate of arts and sciences (AAS) and the associate of occupational studies (AOS) are awarded through vocational and technical schools. These degrees may lead to a number of jobs such as paralegals, medical assisting and graphic design.
Since vocational and technical schools are focused on getting graduates into jobs, their programs are often dictated by the job market.
"Employment statistics and national areas of job growth also impact directly on decisions about the programs that we offer," Aldersley says. He notes NTID previously offered diplomas and certificates but later upgraded those programs to associate degrees. "However, we are now beginning to re-think that and we may introduce new certificate programs in the near future, geared to specific employment niches or as add-ons to associate degrees."
For those who want to study from the comfort of their home, online vocational schools are available. Subjects such as business and technology may lend themselves well to online learning while other fields, such mechanics and plumbing, understandably need hands-on instruction.
What is the Career Outlook for Vocational and Technical Careers?
The chart below highlights some of the careers the BLS expects to see grow in the next few years, as well as the education needed, average annual income and expected job growth.
|Occupation||Level of Education||Median Annual Income (2015)||Expected Job Growth (2014-2024)|
|Wind Turbine Service Technicians||Associate Degree||$51,050||108%|
|Occupational Therapy Assistants||Associate Degree||$57,870||43%|
|Physical Therapy Assistants||Associate Degree||$55,170||40%|
|Web Developer||Associate Degree||$64,970||27%|
|Solar Photovoltaic Installer||Technical Training||$37,830||24%|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Choosing the Right Vocational or Technical School
As with any other higher education program, students must be prepared to apply themselves if they want to be successful in a vocational or technical program.
"Graduation rates at most community colleges are in the range of 20-30 percent nationally. NTID is close to 40 percent across all our associate programs, but still more than half of the students we accept into those programs do not graduate," Aldersley says. "Why? In almost every case, not because the course content is too difficult but because they are not able to apply themselves sufficiently to engaging that content."
To ensure you are among the graduates, Aldersley suggests students carefully compare programs to find one that meet their needs. Once enrolled, students should take advantage of any counseling or support services offered.
Online vocational programs can be convenient, but students need to be self-disciplined to log-in to the virtual classroom regularly and complete assignments in a timely manner. However, as with traditional programs, online vocational schools may have support services available to ensure students are successful.
"College will likely be quite difficult to get used to," Aldersley says, "but the college itself has every interest in your success and will do everything it can to help you."
To get started, you can browse the online vocational programs on this page and complete the simple form to be connected with a school representative who can answer all your questions.
- Aldersley, Stephen, interview conducted on December 24, 2015
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2015