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Don't Dodge Drafting: CAD Schools Can Be a Great Investment

Architecture firms today look markedly different than they looked 100 years ago. Until the latter part of the 20th century, architects and drafters would typically labor in large drafting rooms, hunched over tables covered with architectural drawings.

While drafting tables are still vital to an architect's work today, much of the space formerly taken up by large rows of tables is now occupied by sophisticated computer work stations. The reason for this shift is computer-aided design, or CAD. CAD, sometimes known as CADD (computer-aided design and drafting), has transformed the fields of engineering, architecture, electronics, interior design, and more.

CAD Spelled Out

CAD plays a role in nearly every field that involves designing and technical drawing. Its application extends to mechanics, electronics, architecture, and industrial and civil engineering, as well as automotive, interior, landscape, and fashion design.

A mechanical engineer might use a CAD program to design a building's HVAC system. A civil engineer could use CAD to calculate the load-bearing capacity of a bridge. Interior designers use CAD to create 3-dimensional designs for homes.

In fact, if you have ever used a computer program that has enabled you to perform some kind of design, whether to remodel your kitchen, see what your house would look like with different paint colors, or build a virtual city, you've used CAD software.

Of course, this doesn't mean that CAD is a simple technology. As one CAD blogger puts it, CAD programs can be easy to learn but difficult to master. Mastery is generally achieved through CAD classes and a lot of practice.

Designing a Career through CAD Schools

Because CAD refers to a wide range of computer software with an even wider range of applications, CAD schools are diverse in their programs. Many CAD school courses train students in specific software, such as AutoCAD, Solid Works, ProE, Cadence, Mentor, Cad Key, and Civil 3D. Others focus on a particular application, such as architecture or electronics, and train students in the programs most commonly used in those fields.

CAD schools also offer a variety of degrees, including certificates, diplomas, associate's degrees, and even bachelor's degrees. Two-year degrees are most common for entering the field and are usually offered through technical schools and community colleges.

Online CAD Schools: A Good Choice for the Busy Professional

Numerous online schools also offer degrees and certificates in CAD programs. Because CAD has become an industry standard, some professionals find that online CAD schools can enable them to develop proficiency in the technology while remaining employed. Students can study at their own pace from home, using convenient Web-based technology to participate in CAD school courses and learn the technology.

CAD School Programs: What's Important

Developing technical skills through CAD school is, of course, paramount. But CAD professionals also need to be able to communicate effectively with in-house architects or engineers or with clients, so written and oral communication are useful skills to develop through CAD school.

Typical courses offered through a two-year CAD school program may include:

  • Introduction to drafting
  • Dimensioning and tolerancing
  • Descriptive geometry
  • Production drawings
  • Manufacturing processes
  • Electrical and electronic diagrams

Real-World Applications

Students graduating from CAD schools usually enter the field as drafters, who may report to an engineer, architect, designer, or senior drafter. Some find employment through CAD firms that sell their services to clients. CAD professionals can work for:

  • Architectural firms
  • Civil engineering firms
  • Clothing and textile designers
  • Environmental engineering firms
  • Interior designers
  • Manufacturing companies

Not all of these industries are created equal, however--at least when it comes to career opportunities. Jobs for CAD drafters working in architectural and civil engineering are projected to increase 9 percent from 2008 to 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports. Although job growth is projected to be slow for mechanical, electronic, and electrical drafters in that time frame, those are also the fields with higher salaries--especially electronics.

Return on Investment: Is CAD School Worth It?

Most technical and community colleges offer tuition rates that are significantly lower than those at a four-year institution. Mean annual salaries, on the other hand, can be reasonably high, given the level of education required. According to the BLS, as of 2009, mean annual salaries for drafters were as follows:

  • Architectural and civil: $47,710
  • Electrical and electronics: $54,800
  • Mechanical: $49,790
  • Other: $48,210

While some drafters love their jobs and choose to stay in their occupations, others go on to become engineers, architects, or designers. Whichever path you choose, your career options are versatile, making CAD school a great investment in your future.