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All Contents © 2016The Kiplinger Washington Editors
A college education is often thought to be the key to financial success. After all, a typical full-time worker with a bachelor's degree earns about two-thirds more than a worker with just a high school diploma. No wonder many young people feel compelled to dig themselves deep into student-loan debt for a shot at a brighter future. Among the 69% of 2014 college grads who borrowed money to pay for school, the average amount owed was $28,950.
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 professions 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.
Unless otherwise noted, all employment data was provided by Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), a labor market research firm owned by CareerBuilder. EMSI collects data from more than 90 federal, state and private sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total number of jobs listed for each occupation is for 2015. Ten-year job growth figures, both historical and projected, represent the percentage change in the total number of jobs in an occupation between the start of the period and the end of the period. Annual earnings were calculated by multiplying median hourly earnings by 2,080, the standard number of hours worked in a year by a full-time employee. Jobs are listed in order of median annual salary, starting with the highest.
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| Updated for 2016
Total number of jobs: 41,382
Job growth, 2005-2015: 3.1% (All jobs: 5.3%)
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 13.6% (All jobs: 11.0%)
Median annual salary: $75,183 (All jobs: $43,430)
Typical education: High school diploma or equivalent
Flying for an airline typically requires a bachelor's degree to get started, but commercial pilots who fly for charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, crop dusting and other reasons can take off with just a high school diploma. There’s just one catch: You need the proper flight training, which is both extensive and expensive.
First, you must get a private pilot's license, for which you have to fly with a certified flight instructor for a minimum of 35 or 40 hours of flight time, depending on which federal aviation regulations your school follows. (Most people need far more time to master the necessary skills; schools report the average time to be anywhere from 50 hours to 70 hours.) The total cost: $5,000 to $9,000. Then you have to log at least another 250 hours to get a commercial pilot's license. Plus, you have to get additional licenses for instrument, multi-engine and other ratings, depending on the types of aircraft you plan to fly. You must also pass periodic medical exams and flight reviews throughout your career.
Total number of jobs: 120,059
Job growth, 2005-2015: 11.4%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 12.7%
Median annual salary: $66,279
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 three years, is the common starting point for electrical power-line installers and repairers. It combines on-the-job training with technical instruction. You may also be able to get a one-year certificate from a community college or a two-year associate's degree to get a deeper understanding of the technology used in electrical utilities.
Total number of jobs: 951,019
Job growth, 2005-2015: 2.6%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 15.5%
Median annual salary: $51,971
Whatever service you're providing, you need someone who can sell it. So good sales representatives should seldom lack for opportunities. The service industries with the most sales rep jobs are computer systems design, wired telecommunications carriers, and management, scientific and technical consulting.
The entry-level education requirement is typically just a high school diploma, but a bachelor's degree can give you a leg up on the competition. The specific skills and knowledge that would help you snag this kind of job depends on the industry. But generally, coursework and an understanding of business, finance and economics, as well as public speaking and communications, can also boost your career prospects.
Total number of jobs: 455,459
Job growth, 2005-2015: 0.3%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 16.7%
Median annual salary: $51,228
Buildings both old and new come with plenty of 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 76,000 new positions over the next decade. Beyond opportunities in new construction, plumbers get a steady flow of business from regular maintenance needs and remodeling projects, including those necessary to meet stricter water-efficiency standards.
You can dive into the work straight out of high school with a four- or five-year paid apprenticeship, during 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: 40,582
Job growth, 2005-2015: 26.9%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 15.8%
Median annual salary: $49,762
These workers put together airplanes, space vehicles and missiles. While many aspects of the manufacturing process can be automated and done by machines, the complicated process of working with these kinds of parts and systems is better done by hand. So demand for these assemblers should remain high.
You can get started as an aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging and systems assembler, as the occupation is more formally known, with technical school training or an apprenticeship program. The really tricky part of landing an aircraft assembler job is your location. You have to live or move near an existing factory to do it. The majority of aircraft assemblers live in California, Texas, Georgia and Florida, but you might also look in Connecticut and Alabama.
Total number of jobs: 336,616
Job growth, 2005-2015: 9.9%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 19.0%
Median annual salary: $49,150
Because a greater number of advanced machines are used in manufacturing, the people who keep them in good working order are in high demand. Industrial machinery mechanics, also known as maintenance machinists, detect, diagnose and correct any problems ailing factory machines such as robotic welding arms, assembly line conveyor belts and hydraulic lifts—hopefully before any high-cost damage has been done.
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 on-site 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: 25,737
Job growth, 2005-2015: 12.4%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 24.2%
Median annual salary: $49,013
More formally known as computer numerically controlled machine tool programming, this is another high-tech manufacturing occupation that's on the rise. These workers develop computer programs for machine tools, equipment and systems that are used in the processing of metal or plastic parts.
You can learn about basic machine operations with a year or less of on-the-job training. A knowledge base of high school level math and computer programming would also be helpful. You can also get additional training through community colleges and vocational schools. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills offers certifications in a number of metalworking specialties.
Total number of jobs: 654,008
Job growth, 2005-2015: 18.0%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 19.2%
Median annual salary: $48,437
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, what matters most is that you have the desired skills—no matter how you attained them.
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 certifications proving their skills. For example, right off the bat you can take one of the various HDI certification exams for $145. Or prep for the exam with in-person, one-day classes or online courses that can take as little as five hours to complete.
Total number of jobs: 32,039
Job growth, 2005-2015: 13.5%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 32.6%
Median annual salary: $47,807
In this role, it's your job to insulate a building's equipment, pipes or ductwork—and boost their energy efficiency, which businesses are increasingly looking to do to save on production costs. To do so, you need to be able to read blueprints and determine the scope and specifications of the project, as well as follow all necessary safety guidelines. You can also expect to work with a variety of tools, including knives, power saws and welders.
Most mechanical insulators get started with a four- or five-year apprenticeship, offered by unions and individual contractors. (You can find one through the Department of Labor's Apprenticeship site.) Each year as an apprentice, you need to clock at least 1,700 hours of paid training on the job and 144 hours of technical instruction, including lessons on installation techniques, basic math and first aid. You may also want to boost your credentials by getting certified as an insulation energy appraiser, which takes two days and costs $1,075 (or $815 if you're a member of the National Insulation Association).
Total number of jobs: 104,199
Job growth, 2005-2015: 25.7%
Projected job growth, 2015-2025: 22.7%
Median annual salary: $45,750
Typical education: Postsecondary non-degree award
Becoming a surgical technologist is one way to benefit from the country's growing health care demands without investing four or more years in a degree. Also known as operating-room technicians, these professionals typically earn their certification within a couple of years. You can find an accredited program, which usually 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.
Licensed Practical Nurse
Computer User Support Specialist
Electrical Power Line Installer
Industrial Machinery Mechanic
Office Support Supervisor
Insurance Sales Agent
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is last year's list of the 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.
Health Information Technician
Computer User Support Specialist
Manufacturing Sales Representative
Telecommunications Equipment Installer
Insurance Sales Agent
Construction and Building Inspector
Kiplinger did not publish rankings of the best jobs you can get without a college degree in 2013.
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