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All Contents © 2016The Kiplinger Washington Editors
A bachelor's degree is often thought to be the key to financial success. After all, a typical college graduate earns 68% more than a worker with just a high school diploma. "Going to college has long been, since the end of World War II, the preferable path to the middle class," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "Now it's not just preferable; it is very rapidly becoming the dominant pathway because the entry-level skill requirement for a lot of jobs has gone up." No wonder many young people feel compelled to dig themselves deep into debt for a shot at a brighter future. Among the 60% of 2013 college grads who borrowed money to pay for school, the average amount owed in federal and private student loans was $27,300.
Making an expensive investment in your education isn't the only way to get ahead professionally. After analyzing data for 784 occupations, we pinpointed 10 high-paying jobs in expanding fields that don't require a college degree. All of these jobs call for some additional training, certification or work experience to get started—and in truth having a college degree could boost your competitive advantage and earnings potential—but none requires a bachelor's to ensure career success.
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| Originally Published July 2015
Total number of jobs: 741,993
Job growth, 2004-2014: 17.5% (All jobs: 5.2%)
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 20.0% (All jobs: 11.1%)
Median annual salary: $41,974 (All jobs: $41,683)
Typical education: Postsecondary non-degree award
Health care professionals are in high demand, and you don't necessarily have to spend the better part of a decade training to become one. Licensed practical and vocational nurses, for example, get certified through a program that typically takes just seven to 24 months to complete. The smaller investment of time and education costs results in lower earnings than registered nurses (who make a median $66,060) and nurse practitioners ($92,768), both of which are among our best jobs for the future. But as in those jobs, you reap the benefits of increasing opportunities brought on by an aging population and advancing technology. You still get to provide patients with basic care, too.
Training programs can be found around the country at vocational schools, community colleges and some high schools and hospitals. You just need a high school diploma or the equivalent to get into such programs; some may also require you to pass an entrance exam.
Total number of jobs: 101,504
Job growth, 2004-2014: 24.7%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 23.5%
Median annual salary: $42,786
Becoming a surgical technologist is another way to benefit from the country's growing health care demands without investing four or more years for a degree. "The technician-level occupations are the big secret in the American economy," says Carnevale. "You can get a certificate in about a year and earn more than someone with a BA in an area where people are hiring." Also known as operating-room technicians, these professionals typically earn their certification in 12 to 24 months. You can find an accredited program, which requires a high school diploma or the equivalent to get started, through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.
On the job, these workers help prep the room and the patient before surgery. They also assist surgeons throughout the operation by passing them the sterile instruments and other supplies. Surgical first assistants, who require additional training either through formal education or work experience, can more actively assist during a procedure—for example, by helping to suction the incision site or suture a wound.
Total number of jobs: 623,886
Job growth, 2004-2014: 17.0%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 19.8%
Median annual salary: $46,592
Typical education: Some college
Techies who are not academically inclined don't necessarily have to count themselves out of the sizzling IT job market. Although applicants with college degrees are still preferred, "it's pretty common that people who end up in IT careers took non-traditional paths there," says John Reed, of specialized staffing firm Robert Half Technology. "Professional skills might outweigh having a degree."
Computer user support specialists, who help coworkers and clients fix their PC and Mac problems from setup to shutdown, can often land jobs without a college degree. Instead, many employers look to hire help-desk technicians, as they're also called, who have HDI certifications proving their skills, says Reed. You can take one of the various certification exams off the bat for $145. Or prep for the exam with in-person or online courses that can take as little as five hours to complete.
Jobs such as mobile app developer (one of our best jobs for the future) might also be attainable without a college degree, says Reed. With demand currently so high for such roles, filling them might be a challenge, and employers may be willing to loosen educational requirements if candidates have the desired skills and knowledge.
Total number of jobs: 40,980
Job growth, 2004-2014: 3.8%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 15.0%
Median annual salary: $73,528
Typical education: High school diploma or equivalent
While their airline-employed counterparts typically need a bachelor's degree to get started, commercial pilots' careers can take off with just a high school diploma. But the necessary flight training is both extensive and expensive. First, you need to get a private pilot's license, which requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time (although 70 hours is the reported average) with a certified flight instructor; it can cost $3,000 to $9,000. Then you have to log at least another 250 hours to get a commercial pilot's license. Plus, you need to get additional licenses for instrument, multi-engine and other ratings, depending on the types of aircrafts you plan to fly. You must also pass periodic medical exams and renew your licenses throughout your career.
The investment can pay off. Commercial pilots' median annual earnings soar 76.4% above the median for all jobs. You likely won't earn quite as much as you could with the airlines (where pilots and flight engineers earn a median $114,827 per year), but you also won't have to face the expected cuts as the turbulent industry continues to scale back flights. On the contrary, commercial pilots—who fly for charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, crop dusting and other reasons—ought to experience higher demand in the coming decade.
Total number of jobs: 115,770
Job growth, 2004-2014: 8.9%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 13.7%
Median annual salary: $64,168
Typical education: High school diploma or equivalent
A growing population and expanding cities really charge the demand for power-line installers. New housing developments and office parks require new power grids, as well as more people to install and maintain them. But be warned: Working with electrical currents at great heights means this job is as risky as you'd expect it to be.
An apprenticeship, typically lasting up to five years, is the common starting point for electrical power-line installers and repairers. In general, apprenticeships are another path to a lucrative career. Not only do they help you skip the cost of college, these training positions actually pay an average starting salary of $50,000 a year, according to the Department of Labor. You can find apprenticeship opportunities in this field and a variety of other industries through the U.S. Department of Labor.
Total number of jobs: 332,094
Job growth, 2004-2014: 9.9%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 19.5%
Median annual salary: $47,507
Reports of the U.S. manufacturing industry's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, some low-skill factory positions are among our worst jobs for the future. But other highly skilled occupations with manufacturers have much better prospects. Industrial machinery mechanics are one class of beneficiaries. As a greater number of advanced machines are used in manufacturing, the people that keep them in good working order should stay in high demand.
To get this job, you can start as a helper or other factory worker to learn the necessary skills, which include working with hydraulics, electronics and computer programming. Employers may also offer courses in these areas onsite or through local technical schools. Alternatively, you may have to complete a two-year associate's degree program in industrial maintenance.
Total number of jobs: 1.4 million
Job growth, 2004-2014: 5.7%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 12.4%
Median annual salary: $50,211
Secretaries and administrative assistants provide the kind of personal touches that are hard to replace with a machine. For this reason, many businesses should continue to need their support. Businesses will also need the support of qualified office supervisors to coordinate the activities of the millions of clerical and administrative workers in the workforce.
You can get started in entry-level clerical and administrative positions straight out of high school if you have basic office and computer skills. Many workers can pick up needed skills in a few weeks of on-the-job training. Otherwise, take some relevant classes at a technical school or community college to beef up your application. To advance to a supervisor position, you typically need a few years of related work experience, plus evidence of leadership and organizational abilities.
Total number of jobs: 749,193
Job growth, 2004-2014: 26.6%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 9.8%
Median annual salary: $47,632
Everybody needs insurance. So the agents selling it—whether for property and casualty, life, health or long-term care—should continue to find work. Those selling health and long-term-care insurance should be in particularly high demand to meet the needs of the newly insured (thanks, Obama) and the aging population. Even as more people can turn to the Internet to research policies, agents are still needed to close the deal, process paperwork and advise on more complicated situations.
The entry-level education requirement is just a high school diploma, but a bachelor's degree can give you a leg up on the competition. Coursework and knowledge of business, finance and economics, as well as public speaking, can also boost your career prospects. You need to get a license to sell insurance in the state where you work, which may require you to complete certain courses, pass an exam and continue taking classes that focus on insurance laws, consumer protection and other aspects of the business.
Total number of jobs: 428,705
Job growth, 2004-2014: 0.9%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 17.6%
Median annual salary: $48,194
New buildings come with plenty of new pipes, and all those drains lead to an ocean of opportunities for plumbers. Pipefitters and steamfitters, who are lumped in with plumbers, specialize in systems that carry acids, chemicals and gases. The already-large pool of workers is expected to add more than 75,000 new positions over the next decade. Regular maintenance needs and remodeling projects, including those necessary to meet stricter water-efficiency standards, also give plumbers a steady flow of business.
You can dive into the work straight out of high school with a four- or five-year paid apprenticeship, in which you'll typically earn 30% to 50% of what fully trained plumbers make. As your vocational training advances, your wages will grow, too. Once your apprenticeship is complete, you'll be considered a journey worker and be able to do some tasks on your own. After you gain more experience, you can become a master plumber and work independently, which requires a license in most states.
Total number of jobs: 35,884
Job growth, 2004-2014: 12.5%
Projected job growth, 2014-2024: 11.7%
Median annual salary: $45,698
Paranoia is a boon for the gumshoe business. Not that it's not warranted—technological advances and all things going digital have spurred cybercrimes, including identity theft, and increased the need for investigative services.
Most detective work requires just a high school education, but for some jobs, you may need a two- or four-year degree. For example, if you specialize in certain fields, say insurance fraud or computer forensics, a related bachelor's degree might be necessary. Or you can opt to work for yourself, as about 23% of private eyes do. In any case, the ability to learn on the job is a must, and previous related work experience is a plus. You'll also need a license in most states; requirements vary.
Health Information Technician
Computer User Support Specialist
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is last year's list of 10 best jobs you can get without a college degree. Keep in mind that ranking methodologies can change from year to year based on data available at the time of publishing, differences in how the data was gathered, changes in data providers and tweaks to the formulas used to narrow the pool of candidates.
Manufacturing Sales Representative
Telecommunications Equipment Installer
Insurance Sales Agent
Construction and Building Inspector
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is our 2012 list of 10 best jobs you can get without a college degree. We did not publish a 2013 set of rankings. Keep in mind that ranking methodologies can change from year to year based on data available at the time of publishing, differences in how the data was gathered, changes in data providers and tweaks to the formulas used to narrow the pool of candidates.
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