CAD Drafting Degrees: Associate, Diploma & Online Course Info

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What kind of jobs can you get with a diploma or associate degree in computer-aided design (CAD)? Find out program requirements, online options and info on courses for CAD diplomas and degrees.
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Studying CAD: Diplomas and Associate Degrees at a Glance

CAD programs are for computer-savvy students who'd like to put their math skills to use as drafters. Also known as computer-aided drafting and design operators, these professionals use their knowledge of vendor software, such as AutoCAD and SolidWorks, to render engineers' or architects' design and materials specifications or assembly instructions.

While both CAD drafting diploma and associate degree programs can prepare you for entry-level positions in this field, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that employers typically prefer applicants with an associate degree. However, if you'd like to complete career training in less than two years, a diploma program might be a better fit.

Before selecting a program, please remember that the BLS projected a 6% job growth for drafters overall during the 2010-2020 decade. Mechanical drafters might fare slightly better over the same time period, with an 11% increase in employment forecasted for these professionals.

Diploma Associate Degree
Who is this program for? Individuals interested in entry-level drafting careers in a variety of industries Individuals who want to prepare for entry-level drafting careers or transfer to 4-year degree programs upon graduation
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Civil drafter ($50,000)*
- Electrical and electronics drafter ($57,000)*
- Mechanical drafter ($52,000)*
Same as graduates of diploma programs
Time to Completion Anywhere from several semesters to 2 years, full-time 2+ years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - 31-58 credit hours of technical courses
- 8-12 credit hours of general education courses
- 38-56 credit hours of technical courses
- 16-26 credit hours of general education courses
Internship
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED Same as diploma program
Online Availability Yes, but online programs are uncommon Online and hybrid programs available but rare

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011).

Diploma in CAD

Most diploma programs begin with introductory coursework in mechanical drawing to help you develop your manual drafting abilities, including how to complete detailed maps and drawings. You'll also brush up on your communication and math skills. During the remainder of the program, you'll divide your time between classroom lectures and lab work, which includes working hands-on with CAD equipment and software.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Program duration is relatively short
  • Can qualify you for entry-level employment in a variety of fields (manufacturing, construction, engineering)
  • Some programs can be completed from home

Cons

  • You'll be competing against associate degree program graduates in the job market
  • Most programs don't offer internship opportunities
  • Jobs in the architectural drafting field might require additional training

Courses and Requirements

CAD diploma programs combine topics in technical math or algebra with special instruction in the use of vendor-specific drafting software. You can also learn about materials specifications and product testing. Other program requirements could include the completion of a design project, where you'll produce assembly and component drawings, design alternatives and other documentation for a finished product. Courses you might take include the following:

  • Technical drafting
  • Manufacturing materials and processes
  • Dimensioning and tolerancing
  • AutoCAD

Online Program Options

Online diploma programs are fairly uncommon. Those that do offer curricula to distance learners deliver course content through a combination of print materials and online learning modules. In some programs, you'll progress though a series of asynchronous instructional units as you pass online exams. These schools might also provide you with access to the AutoCAD software you'll need to complete program coursework.

Stand Out with This Diploma

You might want to consider enrolling in elective courses to build the technical skills needed for a particular design field. For example, some programs offer courses that cover topics in robotics or production automation. Others allow you to create product prototypes based on an original product design.

Additionally, the BLS explains that the use of product data management (PDM) software in this field could require drafters to oversee central databases. To get an edge on the competition, you might consider taking on additional database fundamentals coursework while enrolled in your diploma program.

If you'd like to earn professional certification before graduating, the American Design Drafting Association offers several credentials. Because there are no education or experience requirements, you can sit for the agency's architectural, mechanical or digital imaging certification exams whenever you feel you're ready.

Associate Degree in CAD

Perhaps the most significant difference between CAD diploma and associate degree programs is the inclusion of extra general education requirements. Technical coursework is the same for both program types, though some schools require you to complete an internship before earning your degree. You may also have the opportunity to develop a professional portfolio by completing individual or group CAD projects.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Employers might prefer graduates who've completed associate degree programs
  • Internship experiences could lead to job offers after graduation
  • Transfer opportunities are available to students who want to advance in the field

Cons

  • Additional training doesn't necessarily translate to more entry-level career options
  • Requires more coursework than a diploma program
  • Job growth for this field is expected to be slow*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

In addition to technical training, associate degree programs typically include courses in the social sciences and humanities. You might also have to take a couple of business or physics courses if you're interested in transferring to a 4-year program. Other requirements include co-op or internship experiences, which might be coupled with weekly, 1-hour lectures.

Online Degree Options

Some schools offer associate degree curricula entirely online via video lectures and chat sessions, though these programs are extremely rare. There are also schools offering online introductory and advanced CAD courses that can be applied towards on-campus degree programs. However, these courses are uncommon as well.

Stand Out with This Degree

As with diploma programs, you might want to consider selecting coursework that can introduce you to database technologies or allow you to focus on a particular drafting specialty. When choosing course options to fulfill general education requirements, you could also consider taking on an extra math class or two to bolster your technical skills. Certification through the ADDA is an option available to you as well.

Other Degrees to Consider

If you're a little wary of entering a job field with such slow employment projections, you might want to consider earning an associate degree in geographic information systems (GIS) or surveying and mapping. In these programs, you can learn how to use both CAD and GPS software to create or update maps. An average job growth of 16% was projected for surveying and mapping technicians through the 2010-2020 decade.

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