Education and training have often been thought of as naturally falling into one of two categories: general or specialized. General education includes the study of a range of topics, and its emphasis tends to be on promoting a wide span of knowledge or encouraging habits of thought or behavior. A general education is usually obtained in a college or university. Specialized education focuses on specific tasks that are appropriate for accomplishing a particular career. A specialized education is generally found at a vocational or trade school that offers courses for a particular career, such as cosmetology, finish carpentry, or medical assisting. Each of these two types of education has a variety of advantages and disadvantages, with much of the preference between the two depending on a student's goals and talents.
Specialized education is typically more geared toward the specific tasks a person must perform in a chosen target career. Training that goes along with the specialized education offers focused, intensive instruction that is most often delivered by experienced professionals who work in the target career. This training provides real-world examples and directly prepares students for the job they will be doing. Specialized training can often lead directly to internships or job placement. While it is often more closely associated with blue-collar trades and technical labor, the term specialized education can also be applied to the professional preparation of engineers and accountants. Even doctors and lawyers undergo specialized education.
General education often provides students with valuable “soft skills,” such as critical thinking, effective communication, or conceptual frameworks. By contrast, specialized education or training instructs students in how to perform specific tasks or the individual steps in a certain process. As a result of these differences, general education can take much longer to achieve because its goals are more open ended and its steps less strictly defined. Specialized training can often be accomplished in a much shorter time frame depending on the level of expertise required for a person to begin work in the specific field. Specialized training is often accompanied with on-the-job training or with continuing education to keep students informed of new developments in their field.
Likewise, the idea of specialized education dates back hundreds of years to when one person would teach his or her trade to another. In the preindustrial era (before the mid-1700s), skilled craftsmen trained the next generation through apprenticeship programs. Innovators in colonial America established laws about the type of training apprentices had to receive from master craftsmen. Using federal land grants, trade schools were established in the years after the American Civil War (1861–65) as the country shifted from a society based on farming to one that needed industrialized labor. In the early decades of the twentieth century, trade schools gave way to vocational and technical schools governed by vocational boards with specific training and licensing requirements.
General and specialized educational approaches have a certain amount of overlap. When deciding which path may be right for you, consider the skill sets required and the goals met by each type. On the one hand, general education involves a longer and less direct path to knowledge and so demands a more patient disposition and intellectual skills better suited to conceptual learning, abstract thinking, critical analysis, and overall theoretical application of broad principles. Specialized education, on the other hand, suits a more practical, hands-on approach, where new skills can be put to use immediately and any new abstract knowledge can be clearly applied to specific tasks.
Specialized education is rewarding if you already know what career you would like to pursue and are motivated to enter the workforce sooner rather than later. If you have a specialized education, you will most likely continue to work in narrowly defined job positions throughout your career. Specialized education usually allows you to enter the workforce with relatively high pay for starting positions, but in the longer term these wages can lag behind those of people with general education degrees.
Career aptitude tests can often be helpful in making the choice between general and specialized education. By assessing your personal interests and skills, these tests suggest careers that you may want to consider. Guidance and career counselors can also help with accessing these tests and interpreting the results to chart an education plan tailored to your individual needs and preferences. Many of these tests are available online, either for free or with a nominal charge, although you should be wary of advertisers trying to sell you expensive programs based on these tests.
General education can provide you with a diversity of knowledge and experiences not available in more specialized programs. General education tends to include many subjects studied in the humanities and social sciences. As reported by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the humanities “foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds.” Along with the social sciences, which study human behavior and organizational patterns, these types of study “help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.”
One major disadvantage of general education is that it can seem overly theoretical and as such not directly applicable to any specific career or job. If you are goal oriented and eager to enter the workforce, you may feel frustrated at being required to take a wide variety of courses, many of which may seem needlessly abstract or unrelated to your personal life or career plans. General education degrees often take longer and cost more to complete than specialized education programs.
Specialized education focuses on concepts and skills that remain directly applicable to your intended career. Vocational and trade schools can provide a more direct and affordable route to well-paying careers. Usually taught by experienced professionals, specialized training programs provide you with job-specific skills and often offer hands-on experience that can lead directly to job placement. Because many skilled trades such as plumbing or electrical work require licensing and apprenticeship, these schools prepare you to pass certification tests and help you to secure a route into the workforce.
Because it is so narrowly focused on specific knowledge and skill sets, however, specialized education can limit your career choices upon completion of a program by keeping you entirely dependent upon a limited number of jobs for a limited number of employers seeking your particular skill set. This narrow focus makes those possessing specialized education much more susceptible to fluctuations in the economy and the job market.
Because of its practical nature, specialized training is also much more prone to becoming dated. To counteract this, two important aspects of specialized training are continuing education and professional development. For example, the licensing requirements for virtually all medical professions require the regular completion of additional education units to ensure that doctors, nurses, and medical technicians keep themselves updated with the latest developments in their fields.
Many resources are available to help you find out more about educational opportunities. Public libraries offer books and magazines covering the topics of general and specialized education. They will also have information on specific colleges and universities and their programs and well as on specialized schools and other trade programs. If you are a high school or community college student, you can talk to your instructors or visit the career counseling office to sign up for career aptitude tests or to learn more about which course of study will lead to a desired career. School fairs and job fairs also offer information on various careers and educational opportunities.
Many programs offer financial assistance to students through loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. Once you decide where to attend, you can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify for aid. If you are a veteran and are interested in learning more about education and training opportunities and benefits, you can visit the local Veterans Affairs office or contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by telephone or online.