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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| June 27, 2017
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 68% of 2015 college grads who borrowed money to pay for school, the average amount owed was $30,100, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
But making an expensive investment in your education isn't the only way to get ahead professionally. Indeed, says Josh Wright of labor market research firm Economic Modeling Specialists International, "we're seeing a lot of job opportunities come up for folks across the educational spectrum."
After analyzing data for 785 occupations, we pinpointed 11 mostly well-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 2016. Projected ten-year job growth figures represent the percentage change in the total number of jobs in an occupation between 2016 and 2026. 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 pay, starting with the highest.
Total number of jobs: 21,869
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 16.7% (All jobs: 8.6%)
Median annual salary: $80,870 (All jobs: $43,233)
Typical education: High school diploma or equivalent
Going up? Job prospects for elevator installers and repairers certainly are. Construction of new office buildings, stores and other nonresidential projects has gradually risen as the economy has improved and lifted demand for elevators and the people who work on them. The aging population may also add to the need for stair lifts and elevators in both homes and nonresidential buildings.
People might be deterred by the job's level of danger and physical demands, as well as its high-stress nature. But the happy few who brave this work enjoy high median pay. If you want to join their ranks, you can start learning the trade right after high school through a five-year paid apprenticeship, offered by unions and individual contractors. You may also need to be licensed, depending on your state.
Total number of jobs: 43,715
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 14.8%
Median annual salary: $75,744
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 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: 117,239
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 16.1%
Median annual salary: $66,213
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: 1.5 million
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 11.7%
Median annual salary: $52,602
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: 334,394
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 19.2%
Median annual salary: $49,537
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: 670,401
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 16.4%
Median annual salary: $48,685
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, you can take one of the various HDI certification exams right off the bat for $145. Or you can 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: 105,440
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 16.2%
Median annual salary: $45,064
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 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: 735,280
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 17.6%
Median annual salary: $43,201
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 $67,418) and nurse practitioners ($98,288), both of which are among the 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.
LPN training programs can be found across 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: 391,624
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 18.4%
Median annual salary: $36,872
You can be a lifelong learner—and teacher—without ever getting a college degree. Indeed, demand for courses that people can take for the sheer purpose of self-improvement or (gasp) just plain fun is on the rise. This more casual approach to education is especially popular among the growing number of retirees who wish to remain active.
So, instructors of such classes can find plenty of opportunities to work. You might even opt to create your own: 26.7% of self-enrichment education teachers are self-employed, compared with 6.5% of all workers. The subject matter you teach can really be anything from music and dance to yoga and spirituality to cooking and personal finance to foreign languages and computer programming. (Fitness and aerobics trainers, as well as flight instructors, however, are not included in this occupation category.) And while some formal training or certification in your area of choice might be helpful, you really just need to know the material well enough to pass on your knowledge and expertise to others.
Total number of jobs: 338,261
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 19.6%
Median annual salary: $36,788
Typical education: High school diploma or equivalent
Smiles all around for jobs in dentistry. With studies showing the close relationship between oral health and general health, people are taking better care of their pearly whites and providing more business for those working in the industry. Aging boomers are also adding to the high demand for professional dental care. To meet those growing needs, the number of dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants is expected to increase rapidly—making dental health a good bet in terms of job security .
The quickest way into the field is to become an assistant, which doesn't require a professional degree (which you’d need to be a dentist) or an associate's degree (required for hygienists). Some states require dental assistants, who perform routine tasks such as updating patient records and sterilizing equipment, to pass an exam and get certified, which can take a year through programs offered by community colleges. Otherwise, you can get to work straight out of high school. (Check the Dental Assisting National Board's site for your state's requirements.)
Total number of jobs: 970,135
Projected job growth, 2016-2026: 35.4%
Median annual salary: $21,895
Our country's growing elderly population is boosting demand for these caregivers, who assist people with daily personal tasks—such as bathing, light housekeeping and running errands—as well as basic medical needs including checking vital signs and administering medications. On top of shifting demographics, "it's also that personal touch that's important," says EMSI's Wright. "There isn't a whole lot of technology impacting it in a negative way." For similar reasons, personal care aides, who provide similar services as home health aides but cannot assist with any medical care, are also expected to experience a big boom in demand. Already boasting 1.9 million workers, they’re projected to grow by another 29.2% over the next decade.
Unfortunately, the high need for such helpers is not reflected in compensation. Personal care aides are typically paid even less than home health aides, with a median salary of just $20,936 a year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals tend to offer the highest pay to home health aides; state-run facilities and programs are most generous to personal care aides.
Electrical Power Line Installer
Sales Services Representative
Industrial Machinery Mechanic
Machine Tool Programmer
Computer User Support Specialist
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is last year's list of the 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.