DEFINITION of 'Vocational Degree'

A vocational degree is an educational certificate that specifically prepares an individual to work in a chosen field. By contrast, a college undergraduate degree focuses on developing an individual's all-around intelligence and critical-thinking skills, but may not prepare an individual for a specific job, depending on the major that is chosen. Vocational degrees offer training for careers such as medical coding and billing, auto mechanics, cosmetology, electrical work and legal secretary work, among many others.

BREAKING DOWN 'Vocational Degree'

Sometimes it is possible to get a bachelor's (college undergraduate) degree in a program that is also offered as a vocational degree, but not all vocational degrees can be obtained through a traditional four-year college. For example, it is possible to become a paralegal by completing law school or by completing a paralegal vocational degree, but few, if any, colleges offer bachelor's degrees in cosmetology.

How Vocational Degrees Apply in the Workforce

The parameters for what qualifies as a vocational degree may vary by state. Two years of nursing education in California, for instance, is quantified as a technical degree but in other states that same curriculum might be recorded as non-vocational. The length of curriculum for vocational degrees can vary drastically from a couple of months to two years to complete.

The value of vocational degrees can vary with some estimates showing that shorter term programs can offer higher career returns on the investment into the curriculum. The range of salaries for jobs open to those with vocational degrees can vary widely.

Vocational degrees are sometimes sought by individuals who have already established a career in one field but are looking to be trained in supplemental areas. This sort of activity may be common in industries that have undergone tangible evolutions where new required skill sets have come into play to remain employed in a particular role. For instance, many careers now require an understanding and use of information technology and computer programming skills as a part of daily work.  

Vocational degrees may also be used for job-changers who are seeking a fresh, more competitive position in the job market on an entirely different career path. They might even have college degrees in specialized fields. A vocational degree is an opportunity to pursue work that might not otherwise be available to them. This can be especially true if certain industry positions see a sudden rise in immediate demand with few professionals available to fill the roles. Pursuing a vocational degree that offers such skills may be an opportunity to achieve a higher salary in a short amount of time.

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