As the needs of our workforce change and the level of skill required for jobs increases, demand for vocational and technical education continues to rise. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points to these types of programs as a saving grace for our society, crediting them in 2011 with an "enormous, if not overlooked, impact on our students." However, the distinction between vocational and technical education can be sometimes hard to see at times.
Nature of Curriculum
According to the U.S. Department of Education, "technical schools teach the science behind the occupation, while vocational schools focus on hands-on application of skills needed to do the job." Those interested in the inner workings of a profession would likely appreciate technical education; those concerned with how a job gets done would excel in vocational programs. Technical programs employ more theory in their teaching than vocational programs, which emphasize practice and on-the-job understanding. Consider your own learning style and methods of understanding as you explore each type of program.
Types of Professions
When thinking about technical education, the most commonly cited professions are technology-based. Jobs in computing are mentioned because they require both theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience for success. Comparatively, employment in vocationally educated areas like beauty, health-care and automotive mechanics are taught through "a combination of classroom instruction–hands-on laboratory work and on-the-job training." Different tasks, as Harvard University's Howard Gardner points out, engage different "intelligences" in individuals -- technical education engages logical and mathematical intelligence; vocational education engages the bodily or kinesthetic (movement-based) style. No one intelligence is better than any other, simply different.
Perception in Society
In recent years, vocational and technical education have been combined into a single category (called career and technical education) made up of most practically based learning opportunities. As the number of these occupational preparation programs increases, differences between the two types of education are mentioned less often. However, programs that focus on skills-based education are viewed by many as a fallback plan for those who fail academically. As such, vocational education tends to have a poorer reputation for academic challenge and legitimacy than technical education, with more visible academic components. However, both are receiving boosts to their reputations as the need for highly trained workers continues to climb.
Other Points to Consider
The hybrid field of career and technical education is truly experiencing a renaissance right now. Those in search of a path to an in-demand career in a short period of time (many programs can be completed in two years) could thrive in the environment of a vocational or technical classroom. As you weigh the merits of one type of program over another, consider the way you prefer to learn, your talents and interests, and where you feel you'll fit best in the working world. Both vocational and technical learning provide practical and tangible ways to help you tie these considerations together into one rewarding learning experience.
Amma Marfo is a Boston-area higher education professional and writer. She also writes for The Niche Movement, Talking Points Memo, and her personal site, The Dedicated Amateur.