Best-Paying Jobs Without a College Degree
In a world where it costs $101,000 in all-in costs (room and board, books and supplies, fees) to attain a bachelor's degree at a public university, getting a four-year diploma is understandably less tantalizing than it used to be. Especially when it takes an average of 20 years to pay off.
It's no surprise that young people might be questioning the need for college. While degree holders do earn more than non-degree holders, making a good living without a degree is absolutely possible. These jobs pay at least $55,000 per year, and all of them are attainable without needing a traditional college degree.
That doesn't mean you'll be able to get them right away — although many of these careers are well within reach. Most of these jobs require on-the-job training, classes or certifications. But they all have one thing in common: The jobs are much cheaper to get than those that require a bachelor's.
Food Service Managers
Median annual salary: $55,320
Salary numbers are taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What they do: Restaurant managers manage the day-to-day operations of a restaurant, dealing with unhappy customers and making sure the establishment is running smoothly.
While restaurant managers do make a bit more than $55,000 per year on average, it's obviously not a good time to get into the food service industry due to COVID-19.
Job outlook as of 2019, pre-pandemic, was only at 1 percent over the next decade. We've yet to see how the pandemic will affect this industry's growth in the coming years.
Rail Car Repairers
Median annual salary: $56,390
What they do: A rail car repairer's job is pretty self-explanatory. They are pretty much car mechanics for trains.
These repairers inspect rail cars when they venture into the yard and look for signs of wear and tear, test units where needed, and check that all the gaskets, wheels, ball bearings and seals are in good condition.
Railroad Brake, Signal and Switch Operators
Median annual salary: $57,260
What they do: Each of these types of railroad workers has a different kind of duty.
Signal operators maintain signals along the track and the railyard, sometimes using hand signals when needed. Brake operators couple and uncouple trains.
And switch operators control the track switches, setting the train on different paths. This job requires several months of on-the-job training.
Pile Driver Operators
Median annual salary: $57,650
What they do: Pile driver operators control heavy machines that hammer very long piles into the ground.
It's a job that makes a lot of noise, and the continual stress on the body brought on by constant hammering can take a toll on anyone.
No formal education is needed, but training — like enrolling in a heavy equipment apprenticeship program — is required.
Property, Real Estate and Community Association Managers
Median annual salary: $58,760
What they do: All of these workers have jobs related to managing property. These jobs often mean working within housing communities that have homeowner associations (HOAs) or condominium associations.
They are the people who know the community's bylaws and make sure everyone in the neighborhood is conforming to whatever specific rules are in place. The managers also coordinate meetings and handle daily operations
Property managers take care of properties — typically rentals — and perform duties like collecting the rent, light handyman work and making sure tenants aren't destroying the place.
Requirements for this job vary by state (you might need a real estate license) and what type of building is being managed.
Median annual salary: $59,300
What they do: Makeup artists work in the entertainment, television and theater industry. They might be putting on theatrical makeup for Hollywood actors or Broadway performers, or doing makeup for news anchors.
No traditional education is required, but training in something like cosmetology school or completing makeup artistry programs is practically required.
This career path is a commitment. On average, cosmetology schools can run from $6,500 to $20,000, depending on the school and its location.
Postal Service Mail Sorters, Processers and processing Machine Operators
Median annual salary: $60,140
What they do: These post office workers operate inside United States Postal Service facilities, routing, sorting and examining mail. Operators work on sorting machines and may need to repair them as necessary. This job category also includes UPS contractors, but excludes clerks and mail carriers.
Unfortunately, this is a career path that is very difficult to enter because the United States Post Office is being starved of funding from the federal government and at risk of completely going under and becoming privatized.
The current job outlook for all postal service workers for the next 10 years is at negative 14 percent, with an expected loss of 72,000 jobs.
Median annual salary: $60,230
What they do: Fire inspectors inspect buildings to make sure that all local and federal fire codes are in order. They are also trained to determine the origin of fires when one occurs.
While there is no college degree needed, fire inspectors typically have previous experience as being a firefighter.
Firefighters make a median salary of $50,850 per year, so becoming a fire inspector is a pretty significant raise.
Construction and Building Inspectors
Median annual salary: $60,710
What they do: Construction and building inspectors make sure structures meet all federal and municipal building codes, ordinances and zoning regulations.
These workers will go on-site when buildings are being constructed, taking note of the building process and making sure all rules are being followed. If something isn't up to code, they'll issue violation notices or even a stop-work order until everything is in good shape.
Off-site, building inspectors spend time reviewing blueprints, compiling reports and reviewing any changes in local or federal building codes. This job requires a high school diploma or equivalent, on-the-job training and usually a license or certification, depending on the state.
Executive Secretaries and Executive Administrative Assistants
Median annual salary: $60,890
What they do: Executive administrative assistants manage schedules, send memos, review reports and do other clerical tasks for C-level business people.
While there's no degree required, getting this position will almost certainly require a proven track record of administrative assistant roles and a work ethic that can match the demands of their bosses.
Chemical Plant and System Operators
Median annual salary: $62,060
What they do: Chemical plant and system operators don't need a bachelor's degree, but an associate's degree in process technology can help here.
This job requires manual labor tasks, like washing reactors and repairing damaged equipment, as well as switchboard operation, sample analysis, chemical storage and keeping track of instrument readings.
Auto Insurance Damage Appraisers
Median annual salary: $62,520
What they do: Auto damage appraisers are the men and women who inspect cars that have been damaged — usually due to car accidents — and assess the monetary damage done for a settlement claim.
No degree is required, but those who have worked in auto repair shops might have an advantage here.
Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers
Median annual salary: $63,150
What they do: Police and sheriff's patrol officers are assigned to a specific area and patrol them, looking for people who are violating the law.
This job, and its salary, also applies to cops working in schools.
Median annual salary: $63,820
What they do: Another, more aptly descriptive name for a locomotive firer is assistant engineer. These engineers monitor train instruments and look for dragging equipment or upcoming obstacles.
They look for traffic signals from yard workers when pulling into the railyard. On-site training is required and may last for up to two years.
Good vision is essential, as is good night vision, since this job can require work in pitch-black conditions.
Median annual salary: $64,880
What they do: Wood patternmakers plan, lay out, and construct wooden unit or sectional patterns used in forming sand molds for castings.
Wood patternmakers read blueprints and use woodworking machines throughout the day.
They also use hand tools to smooth and carve wood to the desired specifications.
Power Line Installers and Repairers
Median annual salary: $65,700
What they do: Installing and repairing powerlines is hard, dangerous work. These technicians need to be around lines with several hundred thousand volts of electricity coursing through them.
Everyone relies on powerline workers after a bad storm or a fallen tree. To be sure, it's an important job.
It's also one of the most dangerous jobs in America. There were 19.3 work-related deaths for every 100,000 powerline workers in 2018.
Gas Compressor and Gas Pumping Station Operators
Median annual salary: $66,160
What they do: Gas compressor and pumping station operators monitor and control the release of gas at companies which require that kind of thing, like petroleum plants.
This job can require working in hazardous conditions, such as in harsh weather or at great heights, and the gas can be hazardous as well.
First-Line Supervisors of Construction Trades and Extraction Workers
Median annual salary: $66,210
What they do: Extraction worker is a general phrase that refers to any worker involved in extracting resources from the earth, be it miners or oil workers.
Similarly, construction trades is a general term for all types of construction workers, from carpet installers to boilermakers and roofers.
This job is a managerial position over those kinds of workers. It doesn't require a degree, but experience in the field, and supervisory experience will be needed.
Subway and Streetcar Operators
Median annual salary: $67,880
What they do: Subway and streetcar operators drive subway or above-ground trains for private companies, the state or local municipality.
On-the-job training is required, but only a high school diploma or equivalent is required for this position.
Those with experience driving large vehicles, like busses, will have a leg up.
Transit and Railroad Police
Median annual salary: $71,820
What they do: Transit and railroad police can be employed by either the state or private organizations.
Job duties include monitoring railroad yards and rail systems, combating trespassing, checking credentials, crime prevention and enforcing safety measures.
Median annual salary: $74,610
What they do: Ship engineers maintain and operate everything about a ship's propulsion system. That means taking logs, fuel calculations, regulating speed and general maintenance.
Ship engineers typically need on-the-job training for six months to a year, depending on the size and complexity of the ship.
Median annual salary: $74,700
What they do: Casino managers are also known as pit bosses in the gambling world.
They're on the floor, keeping an eye on the entire operation to see if anyone is cheating (or any dealers are on the take), answer questions customers may have and address their concerns.
Only a high school diploma or equivalent is typically required. Each casino will have their own training classes to get the casino manager ready for the job.
Postmasters and Mail Superintendents
Median annual salary: $75,970
What they do: A postmaster, or mail superintendent, is the head of a single, individual post office. While no degree is required, it's all but certain that postmasters will need previous postal work experience.
Likewise, postmaster positions are often filled from within. It's a job you work up to, but it pays $20,000 more than a regular post office job.
First-Line Supervisors of Firefighting and Prevention Workers
Median annual salary: $77,800
What they do: A better name for this type of job would be fire captain or fire management officer. These are higher-level firefighters that oversee other firefighters.
No degree is required, but you're not going to start at the top. These jobs will require experience as a firefighter. Expect a slow climb of the ladder.
Electrical and Electronics Repairers, Powerhouse, Substation and Relay
Median annual salary: $78,410
What they do: These workers inspect, maintain and repair electrical equipment used on generator stations, substations and in-service relays. This type of work often requires the use of power tools and working in cramped or uncomfortable positions.
A degree isn't required, although having an associate's degree is beneficial. For those with only a high school diploma or equivalent, new hires will be paired up with experienced workers for on-the-job training.
Elevator and Escalator Installers and Repairers
Median annual salary: $84,990
What they do: These workers install and repair elevators and escalators. That means going into huge elevator shafts to fix a broken elevator or install a new one.
This is a dangerous job and one of the most deadly jobs in the construction field.
That's probably why it pays so well.
First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives
Median annual salary: $89,030
What they do: Since police officers make $63,000 a year, it's no surprise that their superiors make a good amount more.
But getting to this job will take around five years of experience on the force, especially in lieu of a four-year degree.
Transportation, Storage, and Distribution Managers
Median annual salary: $94,560
What they do: Transportation, storage and distribution managers oversee the transport of goods from one site to another.
That includes warehouse operations, managing shipments, figuring out which items to stock or ship, reviewing purchase orders and general logistics.
Generally speaking, five years of experience in the field is a requirement along with supervisory experience.
Nuclear Power Reactor Operators
Median annual salary: $100,530
What they do: Nuclear power reactor operators have a complex job monitoring and adjusting the power generated by a nuclear reactor, as well as the various cooling systems and other safety features these power plants require to maintain stability.
While these operators don't need a college degree, these jobs do extensive on-the-job experience and training courses.
They also take a license exam from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which must be maintained.
Commercial Airline Pilot
Median annual salary: $121,430
What they do: You don't need bachelor's degree to be a commercial pilot, but you will need to complete some training. And it's not cheap.
Commercial pilots require a CPL and at least 25 hours of flight training. It costs about $30,000 to become a commercial pilot.
Job types for this career path include transporting cargo, aerial photography, crop dusting and piloting planes for skydivers.
Related: Coolest Dream Jobs in the World
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