Trade School & University Comparison
Modern-day universities have more in common with trade schools than most would believe. I'll argue that Universities, to some extent, have become trade schools.

Trade school and university comparison

I have given this topic much thought over the past decade and can offer valuable insight on both trade school and university education based on my post-secondary education path.  

I have given this topic much thought over the past decade. Based on having attended both a trade school and university, I have developed insights into my individual experiences.  Further, I explore the cost/value proposition for students attending high-cost universities as well as the unfortunate demise of trade schools. I can offer valuable insight and will keep my input high-level. I welcome opinions and comments.

It is great to see some local high schools putting what I would consider vital trade programs (as they apply to my company) back in their curriculum. Penta County Career Center in Perrysburg, OH is offering a Precision Machining Program while Four County Career Center in Archbold, OH is offering a Mechatronics and Robotics Technology Program which explores programming, machining, and robotics.

My Background

I began my career at a trade school in upstate New York where I spent three hours each day for three years in a technical machinist training program. By the time I reached my junior year, I had landed a part-time job at Michaels Tool & Die running a lathe and drill press for a summer. By my senior year, I was able to work the 2nd half of my senior year with co-op work instead of attending class. Like most careers, mine began with low pay and grunt work. I spent the next fourteen years honing my craft as a Machinist and Mold Maker, progressing in pay and experience along the way. By 1994 I earned a promotion as a supervisor for a major corporation, and it was shortly after I was in my new position, I realized I knew very little about business and managing people. I gained great technical machining experience and know-how, but truly lacked the formal training and education needed to take on the world of business. It was at that point that I decided to pursue a higher education and began undergraduate work in 1995 while raising a family and working full-time. After completing my undergraduate studies majoring in Operations Management and minoring in Finance, I continued my formal education and received an MBA from The University of Toledo. In short, I have many years of practical shop experience from first attending trade school, while pursuing a formal college education and post-education shop management and ownership. The broad scope of my education and experience provides a unique perspective on this topic.

What is the difference between a trade school and a 4-year university?

Modern-day universities have more in common with trade schools than most would believe. In fact, I’ll argue that universities, to some extent, have become “trade” schools. For example: at the trade high school I attended, I had to choose a specific type of shop or trade to take for three years. Some choices were Automotive; Auto-Body; Printing; Welding; Technical Machine Shop; Industrial Machine Shop; and Electrical. The reason we chose a specific shop class was to learn as much as possible about that specific trade and would subsequently come out of high school ready to work in a trade.

Universities have specific “majors” that must be chosen. Like shop classes, you choose a very specific trade you want to work in – Accounting; Engineering; Finance; Education; Nursing; and so on. The idea is after years of study in a specific field, you are ready to go into the work force. In both cases you, will likely still start at the bottom and work your way up.

In my opinion, course work in universities focuses on trade-specific education and training much like a trade school. In both cases sub-specialties have developed over time and more specialized fields have evolved within a trade. Like nursing, other trades have seen the same type of fragmentation. I went to school to become a machinist; little did I realize that the skills required to do stamping dies vary greatly from mold making to machine building to gage making. All revolve around the machining trades, but all require subsets of knowledge within that industry.

Our modern universities spend most of their time teaching us a specific trade while throwing in what is deemed the core curriculum which includes your continued education of reading, writing, and math along with some electives that interest you for diversity. That said, what’s the difference between a trade school and a university? In my opinion, the answer is course availability, cost, and perception.

“I’ll argue that Universities, to some extent, have become trade schools.”

– Kevin Febrey

Advantages of a trade over a 4 year-university

The main reason my parents pushed me into a trade was job security. If eventually I evolved into other career choices from the skilled trade, I always had my trade to fall back on to earn an income, if needed. Skilled trades will always be needed. With the skills gap our nation has faced the last decade or so, there is even more job security to be had in a skilled trade. It is harder and harder to attract young adults into the trades. For those that like working with their hands a trade is a great way to earn a living while having great job security.

A trade school has a lower cost than that of a 4-year university. Entry into the work force is much quicker so you are earning money faster and incur much less debt if you need to finance your education.

Unfortunately, many of the high schools discontinued a variety of shop classes although some do still exist. In most cases, you need to attend a local community college to get the education required for a specific trade. On average, a public community college has an annual tuition rate of $4864 whereas a 4-year university education will run you an annual cost of $25,290 in a state public school to $50,900 for a private school.

The Fastest Growing Trades in Ohio (Projections through 2028)

Top trade school growth in ohio infographic
Illustration by Napoleon Machine – Statistics provided by the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services.

The perception and reality of a trade

I once heard a story about a local millionaire who would drive to work in an old beat-up truck. Now, if I saw that man pull up in that little old rust bucket, my first thought wouldn’t be, “he must be a millionaire.” This story, among countless others, proves that perception doesn’t always mirror reality. Perhaps when it comes to guiding our children down a career path, we should carefully separate perception from reality. Moreover, a false perception of skilled trades could hurt the very manufacturing sector that supports every other industry. Since becoming a business owner, I’ve been an ambassador for our skilled trades schools.
As such, I have had the opportunity to speak to many young people about post-secondary planning. I’m troubled to learn what some of our youth and parents think about manufacturing and skilled trades.

Specifically in machining, our trade has evolved immensely from when I started in 1979. As with all industries throughout the world, technology and pursuit of automation is driving constant change. All the equipment we run at Napoleon Machine requires programming and machine operating skills. In most cases, our machinists are really process engineers. It is a blend of needing software skills and machining skills and knowledge of all accessories utilized to cut metal.

Many parents picture a machine shop as a dirty, oil-filled, smoky atmosphere when in reality we have computer stations at every work center, high-end sophisticated CNC equipment, state of the art tooling and accessories that go into the machine, and the latest in measurement technology to ensure we are making parts correct to the blueprint. Our trade is no longer a dirty, grimy business. Our top machinists are highly skilled, and I would put them as among the top-rated engineers in the world given the types of machines we have, the size parts we run, and the tolerances we are required to hold per the blueprint.

USA GDP by Sector
Source BEA |

Parents, your opinion weighs heavily on your young adult

As parents, it’s our responsibility to teach our children financial responsibility. Therefore, we should all be having in-depth conversations with our children about the financial requirements of post-secondary education.

Let’s not simply teach our children to follow the cultural narrative, instead, let’s exemplify in-depth research and strong critical thinking. For example, research according to Zenger News tells us that the average cost of attending a 4-year college or university has increased by 497% between 1987 and 2019. This is more than twice the rate of inflation. The question is, has the value increased by the same amount? We can partially answer that question by looking at the average college graduate’s first-year income between 1987 and 2019.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics the average annual salary of a person with a bachelor degree in 1987 would be $20,400 compared to $53,889 in 2019. That is a 164% increase in starting salary. That’s on par with the inflation as the dollar had an average inflation rate of 2.57% per year between 1987 and 2019, producing a cumulative price increase of 125.05%. Clearly, the value of a 4-year degree is being eclipsed by its cost. However, this doesn’t make a 4-year degree a “bad buy.” The average college graduate still makes more money than a secondary school graduate. But we as parents should present our children with every viable option. One of those options should be trade schools and early work experience.

“Let’s not simply teach our children to follow the cultural narrative”

– Kevin Febrey

My encouragement to parents

If your child is a hands-on kind of kid, I would strongly encourage looking at community colleges for the first two years of education, possibly even part time while entering the workforce to earn money, then determine whether they want to continue to a 4-year university or get into the work force full time. Saddling our children with debt as they start out their life can be stressful for them and you. Begin exploration into what your children might be interested in early in their life…not their senior year in high school.

My belief is the faster a young adult can earn money, the better off they are. Spending $100,000 plus for a 4-year degree only to find out what you majored in isn’t what you want to do is an expensive proposition. In an article written in May, 2013 by the Washington Post posting data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that only 27% of college students attained a job relative to their major.

It is better to earn and learn with practical job experience, so experiments incur zero expense versus learn and not earn where experimenting is expensive. The parents I talk to that have children interested in the trade, I promote working as many hours as possible and attending night school. This offers a lower tuition bill and maybe college can be paid in cash vs. debt or potentially an employer will pay for the education. If you or your child would like to have a discussion with me about work/school opportunities at Napoleon Machine, contact me by filling out our companies “Contact Us” form.

Closing Thoughts

Why do so many graduating high school students feel the need to attend college right away? There is not one thing wrong with not knowing what you want to do with your life at such an early age, yet there are so many pressures for kids to determine where they are attending college and what they are majoring in. This can lead to stress and anxiety for your young adult and possibly choosing the wrong path. At this stage of their life, they are still trying to figure it all out having very little insight into the vast amount of career choices available to them.

I am in no way discouraging a college education. What I am discouraging is promoting that it is the ONLY option for your graduating high schooler. You know them best. Recognize their interests, passions, influencers, and potential skill set. Set them up for success.