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What is a Trade School?

December 4, 2023Back to Learning Centre

If you want to hone your skills and gain hands-on experience in a particular field, attending a trade school might be an excellent choice. Below, we outline what trade schools are, how they differ from other types of post-secondary schools in Canada, and the advantages and disadvantages of attending one.

Trade Schools in Canada

Trade schools, also called vocational schools, are a type of post-secondary institution that offers hands-on, career-focused training in a field of your choice. Trade school programs in Canada, offer practical training for a wide variety of careers. For example, trade schools may offer programs relating to construction, manufacturing, healthcare, technology, culinary arts, beauty, business, media arts, design and much more.

One of the main benefits of trade schools is the tangible experience they offer by combining practical and classroom learning. This contrasts with the more general, theoretic approach offered by Canadian universities. Trade school graduates are prepared to enter the workforce immediately after graduating, with co-op placements and in-field experience typically required for graduation. Once a trade school degree is earned, there are not usually additional programs, courses, or degrees that must be earned in order to work in their field of study.

Lastly, while distinct from colleges, trade school students who complete their programs graduate with diplomas or certificates, similar to those received by college students.

Trade Schools vs. Universities in Canada

Many people don’t understand how the various types of post-secondary institutions differ from one another in Canada. In order to make the best decision for yourself and your future, it’s important to know what each type of institution offers. While universities and trade schools both provide invaluable education, there are several differences to consider, which we outline below.

Admissions process

First, the admissions process for trade schools is far simpler than the university admissions process. To enroll in a trade school in Canada, you may only need to provide your high school diploma or transcript, and the application will be relatively straightforward. In contrast, universities may have rigorous and varying admissions standards that must be met, which makes the application process lengthy and complicated. For example, you will likely need to provide your high school transcript, along with a personal statement or essay, test scores (if applicable), proof of extracurricular activities, and volunteer work.

Programs offered

University programs include both undergraduate and graduate programs, allowing students to earn bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and even doctorate degrees. Meanwhile, trade school students come away with diplomas or certificates. Since the diploma or certificate earned is in a particular field, trade programs might give students an advantage when it comes time to finding a job after graduation. Plus, most trade school programs include apprenticeships or co-ops where students can gain real-life experience in the workplace while studying.

University students may have a wide range of career paths available to them upon completion of their degrees, including more specialized positions. However, they likely do not have the same hands-on training as trade school students. Another difference in the types of programs offered by universities and trade schools is the length of the program. Trade school programs can usually be completed in one to two years, whereas university programs take a minimum of three years and are often longer.


Trade schools typically cost significantly less money than university programs, so if cost is a prohibiting factor, trade school or college may be worth considering over university. You will need to research the trade schools and universities near you to adequately compare tuition fees, as they vary between institutions. Keep in mind that universities offer better funding than trade schools, which means your chances of receiving a scholarship or bursary to attend university may be higher.

Career paths

The career opportunities that stem from trade schools and universities can differ considerably. Vocational schools can set up students to earn high-paying jobs, especially given that those in trade fields may earn higher salaries. That said, there may be more discrepancies between vocational fields. For example, a trade school can equip you with the skills you need to be everything from a dental hygienist to an air traffic controller or electrician, but not all of these jobs earn the same salary. While some vocational career paths can be extremely lucrative, studies show that those who complete four-year university programs may earn more money on average than those who went to trade schools. That said, salaries for university graduates can also range significantly, depending on what field of study you completed. For example, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and sales professionals may all earn vastly different rates. Lastly, those who graduate from university programs may have a wider range of career options, since they likely learned broader knowledge about a subject versus highly specialized knowledge. While someone who graduates from a trade school may be pigeon-holed into a certain program, university graduates may have an abundance of opportunities. On the flip upside, with less specialized knowledge, getting a job in a field of interest may be more difficult for a university graduate than it is for a trade school graduate who has detailed skills and experience in a certain field.

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The Advantages of Attending a Trade School

What are the benefits of attending a trade school, you may be wondering? We break them down below.

Trade schools can be completed quickly

Compared to other post-secondary programs in Canada, students can enroll in and graduate from a vocational school program in a relatively short period of time. In fact, many trade schools offer one-year programs, which means you could receive a diploma after just twelve months of study. Longer trade school programs still usually take a maximum of two or three years, which is still shorter than a typical undergraduate program at a university. The main benefit of this is that it allows you to progress in your career faster. Since you aren’t stuck in school year after year, you will be able to enter the workforce earlier. In turn, this allows you to earn full-time wages sooner so that you can pay off any loans or debt you accumulated. If you don’t have any debt, then it simply means more money in your pocket at a younger age.

Trade schools offer hands-on learning

A second advantage of vocational schools is that they offer hands-on learning that prepares students for extremely specific jobs. This is because trade school programs are narrow in scope. For instance, you can enroll in programs specifically geared towards plumbers, carpenters, community service workers, nail technicians, pastry chefs, creative writers, and more. With this kind of hands-on experience, it will make it easier for you to get a job when you graduate. Since many trade school programs feature co-op programs or apprenticeships, you will be able to gain valuable connections in your industry in addition to skills. Comparatively, when you graduate from a university, you typically come out with more general knowledge, which can make it more difficult to get a job. For example, if you graduate with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy or political science, you might find it more challenging to land a job in a related field.

The Disadvantages of Attending a Trade School

Although there are many benefits and advantages of attending vocational school in Canada, there are a few drawbacks to be aware of.

Trade school graduates may earn lower salaries

Although trade schools can set up students for incredibly lucrative and high-paying jobs, studies show that university graduates still earn higher salaries on average. Even when you account for the additional years spent in school or the loans that you took out to pay for university, your earnings are still likely to be greater if you graduate from a four-year university program.

Trade schools offer little campus culture

Another disadvantage of trade schools is that they do not offer traditional university experience. What we mean by this is that they offer little in the way of campus culture. Where universities have tons of activities, clubs, sports games, campus parties, Greek life, and more, trade schools usually have much smaller campuses and limited events throughout the year. In addition, since most students who attend trade schools live at home or off-campus, the opportunities for socializing are smaller than they are at university. If making memories and life-long friendships is one of the main reasons you wish to attend post-secondary school, then a vocational school may not be the best choice for you.

Trade schools provide a less well-rounded education

Next, trade schools tend to provide a less well-rounded education than universities. University programs are generally broader in scope, giving students a chance to gain knowledge about a wide variety of topics. For example, even if you decide to major in History at a university, you may still be able to take courses offered by the departments of philosophy, geography, sociology, religion, political science, and more. In contrast, the education that trade schools offer is very narrow in scope. While it will prepare you for a very specific job, you won’t learn other skills or knowledge unrelated to your chosen field.

Trade schools offer less flexibility

If you know for certain what you want your future to look like and what career you want to have, then attending a trade school can offer a huge advantage. Doing so would allow you to gain the necessary skills and qualifications so that you can begin your career as quickly as possible. However, for those who don’t know what field they want to work in or what profession they hope to have, the narrow scope of trade school can be extremely restrictive. As mentioned, vocational schools offer hands-on training in a certain field, with very little opportunity to gain knowledge on subjects outside of this field. This means that when you graduate from a trade school program, you likely won’t have the skills or knowledge required to do many jobs other than the one you were given instruction in. If you completed a dental hygienist program at a trade school, and later on you decide that you don’t want to pursue a job as a dental hygienist, your degree would likely hold little value. On the other hand, university students who graduate with less specialized degrees may have an easier time applying their skills to a broader range of jobs, allowing them to have an easier time switching career paths.

Trade school credits cannot be transferred

Finally, trade school credits cannot be easily transferred, which means if you start at a trade school but later decide that you want to switch paths and enroll at a university, it is unlikely that you will be able to transfer any of your trade school credits. This will make it more difficult to complete your education and could translate to wasted years and money of your life if none of the credits you earned apply. Thus, if you decide to attend trade school, you should try your best to be certain about this being the type of post-secondary education that makes the most sense to you. On the other hand, university credits are typically transferable, whether you wish to transfer them to another university or even a college.

Written by Embark

Embark is Canada’s education savings and planning company. The organization aims to help families and students along their post-secondary journeys, giving them innovative tools and advice to take hold of their bright futures and succeed.