The role of trade schools and boot camps in last-mile education

Wes Wagner
Intask to Education
6 min readApr 6, 2018

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This post is a part of the Intask to Education series where I’m exploring the changing relationship between education and work. You can read the first post here.

Students in the United States have a range of last-mile education experiences. Some students choose to finish their education after high school, while others pursue 2-year Associate’s or 4-year Bachelor’s degrees.

On average, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that pursuing higher levels of education leads to lower unemployment and higher wage earnings, but to get a holistic picture of the financial relationship between education and work, it’s also important to consider the cost of tuition.

More than 70% of graduates of a 4-year Bachelor’s programs graduate with debt. On average, those students owe between $30,000 and $40,000 in debt after graduation. Thought that’s a significant amount of debt, academics claim it’s worth it in the long term.

However, there is another form of education some students pursue that requires far less debt: trade schools.

What are trade schools?

Trade schools, or vocational schools, are education institutions typically enrolled in by high school graduates to quickly learn specific skills, or trades, to acquire jobs in particular industries.

Trade school prepares students for professions in a range of hands-on industries, such as construction, computer networking, nursing, and culinary arts. Students can get trade school diplomas, certificates, and sometimes Associate degrees for a lot cheaper than their 4-year counterparts; on average, it costs $33,000 for a trade school degree compared to $127,000 for the average Bachelor’s degree.

Trade school professions can be relatively lucrative. Starting salaries can be $50,000 or $60,000. Trade school graduates also have more job security; some trade school programs boast job placement rates at almost 100%, which makes sense with our country’s current shortage of trade workers.

Middle-skill jobs and digital trades

Physical, hands-on labor has been the backbone of “middle-skill” jobs — jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but not necessarily a Bachelor’s degree.

Currently, middle-skill jobs represent 39% of US jobs. As society continues to go through a digital transformation, the skills necessary to fill these jobs are broadening from solely physical, hands-on work to include a breadth of digital trades.

Just like traditional trades, many digital trades don’t require a 4-year degree. Instead, they only require knowing specific skills, or trades, to acquire jobs in particular sectors of the technology industry.

Currently, 78% of middle-skill jobs require some digital trade skills such as familiarity with spreadsheets and word processing software, and that number is likely to increase. Additionally, digitally intensive middle-skill jobs are growing 2.5 times faster than their non-digitally intensive counterparts, and they pay 18% more too.

According to a Burning Glass report of nearly 27 million online job postings, middle-skill digital trades can be grouped into three broad categories: productivity software skills, advanced digital skills, and occupationally specific digital skills.

The majority of open digital trade positions are for entry-level candidates, and they only require productivity software skills, such as familiarity with word processing and spreadsheet software. These jobs represent 36% of the middle-skill jobs analyzed by Burning Glass, and they often afford opportunities to pursue more advanced, higher paying digital trades later on that involve more complex digital tools, such as CRM software. Some of the most in-demand jobs in this category involve sales, customer service, administrative tasks.

Advanced digital skill jobs require more technical knowledge as they involve programming, computer and network support, customer relationship management, digital media, design, and social media. Typically, these jobs are among the top 25% of all middle-skill job earners.

Occupationally specific digital skill jobs occupy a smaller niche of digital trades and involve healthcare and machining technology. In these jobs, individuals would have to be familiarity with operating industry-specific machinery, such as an X-ray or CT imaging machine in healthcare.

Digital Trade Schools

Some trade schools have adapted to offer programs in digital trades. However, new “digital trade schools”, or bootcamps as they’re typically called, are also sprouting up to help fill the most in-demand and highest-paid digital skills — but they’re not necessarily targeting the same group of middle-skill workers without a degree.

Bootcamps and traditional trade schools present two different value propositions. Trade schools offer high school graduates an opportunity to jump-start a career in a physical trade. Bootcamps, on the other hand, provide anyone the chance to accelerate their digital careers by augmenting their knowledge with digital skills.

Demographic data shows a significant difference between trade school and bootcamps. Unlike trade school students, most “bootcampers” have earned a Bachelor’s degree and have already worked in an unrelated industry for six years according to a demographics report by Course Report.

A typical bootcamp: General Assembly

Founded in 2011, General Assembly’s bootcamps have played a significant role in “pioneering experiential education in today’s most in-demand skills such as web development, data, design, and business.”

General Assembly is one of the largest bootcamps in the market. They offer full and part-time programs online and at their more than 20 campuses, and they boast 10,000 hiring partners and 40,000 graduates to date. They are also a for-profit startup and have raised a total of $119.5 million.

General Assembly is both student and business facing. Similar to traditional trade schools, General Assembly works closely with employers to shape programs specific to their needs. In fact, General Assembly claims half of their part-time students are funded by employers, some of which include Adobe, Visa, IBM, Nestle, and General Electric, among others.

Shaping curriculum to businesses’ needs has partly shaped the education provider into a recruiting tool. General Assembly provides a portal for hiring managers to view student profiles which include their classes, projects they’re working on, and experience. Rob Lin, the co-founder and CTO of Card.com, praised General Assembly’s approach, commenting, “Hiring over resumes is flawed, impersonal and often replete with jargon. Hiring events and student profiles give candidates (and companies) an efficient way to interact where the job candidate really gets an opportunity to shine. Having a portfolio at the ready is an indispensable way for a hiring manager to see first-hand what capabilities a candidate has.”

The Rise of Bootcamps

According to Course Report’s Market Sizing Report of bootcamps across the United States and Canada, the sector is exploding — the number of bootcamps has increased tenfold since 2012 , generating gross tuition revenues over $260 million in 2017.

General Assembly and other bootcamps typically offer much shorter education programs than traditional trade schools. Instead of a 1 or 2 year program, bootcamps usually only run for 3 to 4 months and charge around $11,000 per program.

Bootcamps offer a clear return-on-investment for students. In Course Report’s most recent survey on bootcamp outcomes, 80% of graduates reported employment in a job requiring skills learned at the bootcamp for an average salary increase of 51%, or $24,000.

Bootcamps and digital trade schools: a cornerstone of continuous education

With the average bootcamper being a 29-year-old Bachelor’s degree holder who already has six years of work experience, bootcamps don’t seem to be taking off as alternatives to 4-year colleges. Instead, the majority of individuals and companies treat bootcamps as supplements to 4-year education.

However, that seems to be changing. Course Report’s demographic study shows a small increase of the number of participants that don’t hold Bachelor’s degrees; in 2017, 30% of bootcamps participants didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree, which is above the historical average of 26% of participants.

One thing is clear — in general, more individuals will enroll in bootcamps and digital trade schools. More college graduates will leave their job to pivot their career through bootcamps, and more businesses will sponsor their employees to participate in them too. And as tuition continues to rise, I believe the average age of bootcampers will decrease as high school graduates forgo 2-year and 4-year degrees for these 21st-century trade schools because of their better average financial outcomes.

In summary, bootcamps and other digital trade schools aren’t necessarily rising just because they present an attractive alternative to traditional trade schools and higher education in last-mile education. Rather, they are growing in popularity because that “mile” has to be revisited more and more by individuals already in the workforce.

Wes Wagner is a startup and Spanish enthusiast, future-of-work fanatic, Midwest and Latin American startup ecosystem advocate, and student. He currently helps SaaS companies better monetize at Cheddar.

This publication is part of Wes’s undergraduate honors thesis at the Kelley School of Business.

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Wes Wagner
Intask to Education

Social capital, global + remote startups, scrappy growth, coffee, intentionality, MDE & IND. Currently: exploring Past: growth @microverseinc (YC S19)