What Is a Vocational Degree?

A vocational degree is an academic certificate awarded to students who have completed the degree requirements for a specific trade or career. Vocational degrees are popular because they typically require less time to complete than a traditional degree program (e.g., associate or bachelor's degree), and upon completion, the student is often ready to begin working the trade. 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. However, vocational degrees offer training for careers, such as medical coding and billing, auto mechanics, cosmetology, electrical work, and legal secretary work.

Understanding a Vocational Degree

Sometimes it is possible to get a bachelor's 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 after obtaining a law degree at a university or after completing a paralegal vocational degree; however, few, if any, colleges offer bachelor's degrees in cosmetology.

Key Takeaways

  • Vocational degrees are academic certificates awarded to students who have completed degree requirements for a specific trade or career.
  • Completing a vocational degree program typically takes less time than a traditional undergraduate program.
  • The time to complete a vocational program and what constitutes a vocational degree varies per state.
  • Because careers and business needs evolve, some workers seek to complete a vocational degree to remain marketable.

Requirements for a Vocational Degree

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 vocational or technical degree, but in other states, that same curriculum might be recorded as non-vocational. The length of the curriculum for vocational degrees can vary drastically from a couple of months to two years.

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.

Special Considerations

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 evolutionary periods when new required skill sets are needed 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 seek 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.