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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| December 20, 2018
The highest-paying jobs typically require a big investment in education. But you can still follow plenty of good career paths straight out of high school, saving yourself the time and money you’d spend on college and getting yourself paid starting young. Indeed, according to a 2018 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), there are about 13 million good jobs available for people treading the high school pathway to work, which equates to 20% of all good jobs in the U.S. (Georgetown’s CEW defines a "good job" as paying a minimum median of $35,000 a year for workers between ages 25 and 44 and $45,000 for those age 45 to 64.)
To help you pinpoint all those good job opportunities, we got to work on crunching the numbers for you. Focusing on fields that are collecting generous paychecks now and are projected to expand greatly over the next decade, we ranked 773 popular occupations to see which ones offer the most promising futures. These 15 are the top jobs in our rankings that you can score without a college degree.
Unless otherwise noted, all employment data was provided by Emsi, a labor-market research firm owned by Strada Education. Emsi collects data from dozens of federal, state and private sources, including reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau. The total number of jobs listed for each occupation is for 2017. Projected 10-year job growth figures represent the percentage change in the total number of jobs in an occupation between 2017 and 2027. 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 ordered, based on our scoring methodology, from first to 15th.
Total number of jobs: 1.1 million
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 12.5% (All jobs: 9.7%)
Median annual salary: $51,437 (All jobs: $43,992)
Typical education: High school diploma or equivalent
Everybody’s selling something—and businesses in a range of industries continue to need closers. Indeed, employers seeking sales representatives of services that do not fit neatly into Labor Department definitions include such varied names as Fiserv, Lowe’s, IBM and JPMorgan Chase. And though online sales may dampen demand for these workers, they remain necessary in building and maintaining a solid customer base.
Though you typically need just a high school diploma to get started, you can expect to learn plenty on the job. A familiarity with the company and its services and products is sure to help you land the job, too.
*Bolded data at top refer specifically to sales representative in services other than retail, advertising, insurance, financial services and travel.
Total number of jobs: 704,431
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 14.4%
Median annual salary: $50,258
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: 117,960
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 16.7%
Median annual salary: $69,040
The American population is growing, and cities are expanding. That means new housing developments and office parks, which require new power grids, which require 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.
Many electrical power-line installers and repairers get started with an apprenticeship after high school, which typically lasts up to three years. 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: 132,987
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 22.5%
Median annual salary: $42,308
Typical education: Postsecondary nondegree award
You can get in on the hot health care job market without investing the better part of a decade on medical school. Becoming a health technologist or technician typically requires just a postsecondary nondegree award, which you can earn in two years or less through accredited programs offered by many community colleges and vocational schools, as well as some universities and hospitals. (Note: Certain technologist or technician positions, such as those focusing on clinical laboratory work, nuclear medicine, cardiovascular and other specialties, may require an associate’s degree.)
These workers—including neurodiagnostic technologists, opthalmic medical technologists, radiologic technicians and surgical assistants—perform tests and procedures ordered by physicians and other healthcare personnel. They may also assist in surgery, monitor patients, maintain and oversee use of certain specialized equipment and perform many other important tasks, depending on their specialty.
*Bolded data at top refer specifically to health technologists and technicians whose specialties are not included in detail by the Department of Labor. It does not include, for example, pharmacy technicians, surgical technologists, veterinary technicians or health information technicians.
Total number of jobs: 42,567
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 19.6%
Median annual salary: $48,358
Typical education: No formal education required
The outlook for working in energy runs hot and cold. For one thing, location is especially important when it comes to job hunting in this sector, as opportunities are limited to where pipelines, mining sites and other facilities are situated. For example, service unit operators can find thousands of positions in Texas, Oklahoma and California—but zero in many states including Maine, South Carolina and Washington, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plus, oil and gas prices are huge factors in determining the growth or contraction of this field.
That said, the outlook for these workers, who operate equipment to assist the efficiency of both producing and drilling wells or in mining operations, is currently looking good, with their relatively small numbers expected to grow rapidly. And you don’t need any formal education or related work experience to get started; just expect a moderate amount of on-the-job training.
Total number of jobs: 133,710
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 9.0%
Median annual salary: $91,782
These managers play an integral role in the operations of many businesses across the country. They plan, direct and coordinate the transportation, storage and distribution needs of their companies, maximizing efficiency and ensuring that they adhere to relevant rules and regulations.
And all that hard work pays well: This occupation offers one of the highest median salaries of all jobs that do not require a college degree, second only to nuclear power reactor operators. You likely need five or more years of related work experience to reach managerial ranks, but considering you may only need a high school diploma to get started in this field, your return on investment is still stellar. Note, however, that some companies may prefer an applicant with a bachelor’s degree for this position.
Total number of jobs: 496,031
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 16.8%
Median annual salary: $49,347
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 for data collection purposes) specialize in systems that carry acids, chemicals and gases. The already-large pool of workers is expected to add more than 83,500 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: 599,378
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 23.9%
Median annual salary: $34,586
Another good entrypoint into the burgeoning health care job market, fueled by the growing medical needs of our aging populations, is by becoming a medical secretary. In this profession, you would assist physicians or medical scientists by providing administrative support, including preparing reports or articles and taking dictation. You might also collect patients’ medical histories, arrange for hospitalization and process insurance payments.
You can break into this field with just a high school diploma, but you can expect to need several months of on-the-job training, too. That will help you learn the industry-specific terminology, codes and practices necessary for your work. To get a jump on this track—and an edge over competing applicants—you might consider taking courses on this subject at a local community college or technical school.
Total number of jobs: 395,916
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 18.2%
Median annual salary: $38,149
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: about 26% of self-enrichment education teachers are self-employed, compared with 6.4% 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: 122,346
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 13.8%
Median annual salary: $50,500
These workers do much more than serve in-flight drinks and snacks. Flight attendants are responsible for conducting pre-flight inspections of emergency equipment, working with pilots to discuss cabin conditions and flight details and caring for passengers, especially those with special needs, including providing and coordinating emergency medical care when necessary.
To become one, you must have at least a high school diploma or the equivalent, but some college or a bachelor’s degree can give you a leg up on the competition. You also need one or two years of experience working in customer service. Once you land a job, your airline provides three to six weeks of initial training, after which you must pass an exam to become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. You must also get recurrent training every year to maintain your certification and get new training for each type of aircraft you work on.
Total number of jobs: 677,598
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 28.9%
Median annual salary: $32,495
Medical assistants may be expected to perform administrative tasks in doctors’ offices, hospitals and other healthcare facilities like medical secretaries (a profession noted earlier on this list). But they also are called on to complete clinical tasks, such as measuring patients’ vital signs, preparing blood samples and giving patients injections or medications, as permitted by state law.
You may be able to nab this job with a high school diploma and learn on the job. But the more typical path is to complete a postsecondary education program, available through community colleges, vocational and technical schools and universities and take about a year. Learning to work with electronic health records too can give you a competitive edge.
Total number of jobs: 489,048
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 9.2%
Median annual salary: $64,593
These workers directly supervise and manage mechanics, installers and repairers in a range of industries across the country. The majority work is in the automotive industry, but they can also find opportunities for higher earnings in natural gas distribution, electric power generation and petroleum manufacturing, where average wages for this occupation top $90,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On top of a high school diploma, you typically need a couple of years of work experience to reach supervisor ranks. And to get started in certain fields, you may benefit from doing a postsecondary education program first. For example, automotive service technicians and mechanics typically complete a vocational or other postsecondary education program in automotive service technology, which usually takes six months to a year.
Total number of jobs: 353,586
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 15.2%
Median annual salary: $44,704
The need for people to stay warm in winter and cool in summer drives demand for these workers all year round, regardless of the state of the economy. (New construction of both commercial and residential buildings can also boost employment growth for HVACR technicians—or dampen it, depending on the real estate market.) And the technological advances of climate-control systems, as well as a growing focus on energy efficiency, also helps increase the need for qualified professionals who know how to keep them working.
To get started, many HVACR techs complete six-month postsecondary programs in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration at technical and trade schools or community colleges. Some two-year programs even lead to an associate’s degree. New technicians likely learn on the job while working with more experienced pros. They might also get their training through apprenticeship programs, which usually last three to five years and are sponsored by unions and contractor associations. Apprentices typically earn about half what experienced workers make, and their pay increases with their knowledge and skill. You may also need certain certifications to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules, as well as your state and locality regulations.
Total number of jobs: 25,847
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 15.1%
Median annual salary: $79,477
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 four-year paid apprenticeship, sponsored by unions, industry associations and individual contractors. Also, 35 states currently require elevator installers and repairers to be licensed; you can find out more through the National Association of Elevator Contractors.
Total number of jobs: 350,290
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 21.5%
Median annual salary: $37,730
Typical education: Postsecondary nondegree award
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 . (Dentists and dental hygienists both rank among our 30 Best Jobs for the Future.)
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.)