Pursuing a four-year degree or higher isn’t for everyone. If you fall into that group, it doesn’t mean you can’t get a high-paying job. There are a surprising number of trade jobs that pay salaries at or above careers that require a four-year degree. They pay well because they’re in demand and are expected to grow for the foreseeable future.
To earn that kind of money, you’ll need to land one of the best trade jobs. And while they may not require a four-year degree, most do require some type of specialized education, typically an associate’s degree (which you can often get from an online college). That has a lot of advantages by itself, because a two-year education is a lot less expensive than a full four-year program.
I’m covering some of the best trade jobs in this guide. Choose one that interests you – and fits within your income expectations – then read the description for it. I’ve given you the requirements to enter the trade, the income, working conditions, employment projections and any required education. After reading this guide, you’ll already be on your way to your new career!
Benefits of Pursuing Trade Jobs
For a lot of young people, going to a four-year college is the default choice. But when you see how well the trade jobs pay, and how much less education they require, I think you’ll be interested.
Apart from income, here are other benefits to the best trade jobs:
- You’ll need only a two-year degree or less, so you’ll save tens of thousands of dollars on your education.
- You’ll graduate and begin earning money in half as much time as it will take you to complete a four-year degree.
- Since trade jobs are highly specialized, you’ll mainly be taking courses related to the job, and less of the general courses that are required with a four-year degree.
- Some schools provide job placement assistance to help you land that first position.
- Since most of these jobs are in strong demand, the likelihood of finding a job quickly after graduation is very high.
Still another major benefit is geographic mobility, if that’s important to you. Since the best trade jobs are in demand virtually everywhere in the country, you’ll be able to choose where you want to live. Or if life takes one of those strange turns – that it tends to do – you’ll be able to make a move easily without needing to worry about finding a job. There’s an excellent chance one will be waiting for you wherever you go.
The Best Paying Trade Jobs
The table below shows some of the highest paying trades you can enter without a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, most do require at least an associate’s degree (AA) or equivalent education. Not surprisingly, occupations in the medical field are the most common.
The salary indicated is the median for the entire country. But there are large differences from one area of the country to another. Salary information is taken from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook.
|Trade||Median Salary||Education Requirement|
|Air traffic controllers||$122,990||AA or BS from Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program|
|Radiation therapists||$85,560||AA degree|
|Nuclear technicians (nuclear research and energy)||$82,080||AA degree|
|Nuclear medicine technologists||$77,950||AA degree|
|Dental hygienists||$76,220||AA degree|
|Web developers||$73,760||AA degree|
|Diagnostic medical sonographers||$68,750||AA degree|
|MRI technologists||$62,280||AA degree|
|Licensed practical nurses||$47,480||AA degree or state approved educational program|
The table doesn’t list other common trades, like electricians, plumbers, elevator repair techs, welders or mechanics. To enter those fields you’ll usually need to participate in an apprentice program sponsored by an employer, though there may be certain courses you’ll need to complete.
The Best Trade Jobs in Detail
The table above summarized the best trade jobs, as well as the median salary and the basic educational requirements. Below is additional information specific to each job – and more important – why it’s a career worth considering.
Air Traffic Controller
Air traffic controllers coordinate aircraft both on the ground and in the air around airports. They work in control towers, approach control facilities or route centers. The pay is nearly $123,000 per year, and the job outlook is stable.
Education/training: You’ll need at least an associate’s degree, and sometimes a bachelor’s degree, that must be issued by the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program. There are only 29 colleges across the country that offer the program. Some of the more recognizable names include Arizona State University, Kent State University, Purdue University, Southern New Hampshire University (SHNU), and the University of Oklahoma.
Challenges: The limited number of colleges offering the program may be inconvenient for you. The job also requires complete concentration, which can be difficult to maintain over a full shift. You’ll also be required to work nights, weekends, and even rotating shifts. And since the pay is high and demand for air traffic controllers expected to be flat over the next few years, there’s a lot of competition for the positions.
Why you may want to become an air traffic controller:
- The pay is an obvious factor – it’s much higher than most jobs that require a bachelor’s degree.
- You have a love for aviation and want to be in the middle of where the action is.
- Jobs are available at small private and commercial airports, as well as major metropolitan airports.
Radiation therapists are critical in the treatment of cancer and other diseases that require radiation treatments. The work is performed mostly in hospitals and outpatient centers, but can also be in physician offices. Income is well over $85,000 per year, and the field is expected to grow by 9% over the next decade, which is faster than average for the job market at large.
Education/training: You’ll need either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy, and licensing is required in most states. That usually involves passing a national certification exam.
Challenges: You’ll be working largely with cancer patients, so you’ll need a keen sensitivity to the patient’s you’re working with. You’ll need to be able to explain the treatment process and answer questions patients might have. There may also be the need to provide some degree of emotional support. Also, if you’re working in a hospital, the position may involve working nights and weekends.
Why you may want to become a radiation therapist:
- You have a genuine desire to help in the fight against cancer.
- The medical field offers a high degree of career and job stability.
- The position pays well and typically comes with a strong benefits package.
Nuclear technicians work in nuclear research and energy. They provide assistance to physicists, engineers, and other professionals in the field. Work will be performed in offices and control rooms of nuclear power plants, using computers and other equipment to monitor and operate nuclear reactors. The pay level is about $82,000 per year, and job growth is expected to be slightly negative.
Education/training: You’ll need an associate’s degree in nuclear science or a nuclear related technology. But you’ll also need to complete extensive on-the-job training once you enter the field.
Challenges: There is some risk of exposure to radiation, though all possible precautions are taken to keep that from happening. And because nuclear power plants run continuously, you should expect to do shift work that may also include a variable schedule. The biggest challenge may be that the field is expected to decline slightly over the next 10 years. But that may be affected by public attitudes toward nuclear energy, especially as alternative energy sources are developed.
Why you may want to become a nuclear technician:
- You get to be on the cutting edge of nuclear research.
- Compensation is consistent with the better paying college jobs, even though it requires only half as much education.
- There may be opportunities to work in other fields where nuclear technician experience is a job requirement.
- It’s the perfect career if you prefer not dealing with the general public.
Nuclear Medicine Technologists
Nuclear medicine technologists prepare radioactive drugs that are administered to patients for imaging or therapeutic procedures. You’ll typically be working in a hospital, but other possibilities are imaging clinics, diagnostic laboratories, and physician’s offices. The position pays an average of $78,000 per year, and demand is expected to increase by 7% over the next decade.
Education/training: You’ll need an Associates degree from an accredited nuclear medicine technology program. In most states, you’ll also be required to become certified.
Challenges: Similar to radiation therapists, you’ll need to be sensitive to patient needs, and be able to explain procedures and therapies. If you’re working in a hospital, you may be required to work shifts, including nights, weekends, and holidays.
Why you may want to become a nuclear medicine technologist:
- You have a strong desire to work in the healthcare field, participating in the healing process.
- Nuclear medicine technologists are in demand across the country, so you can choose your location.
- The field has an unusual level of job stability, as well as generous compensation and benefits.
Dental hygienists provide dental preventative care and examine patients for various types of oral disease. They work almost entirely in dentists offices, and can be either full-time or part-time. The annual income is over $76,000, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a healthy 11% growth rate over the next decade.
Education/training: An associate’s degree in dental hygiene, though it usually takes three years to complete rather than the usual two. Virtually all states require dental hygienists to be licensed, though requirements vary by state.
Challenges: You’ll need to be comfortable working in people’s mouths, some of whom may have extensive gum disease or poor dental hygiene. But you also need to have a warm bedside manner. Many people are not comfortable going to the dentist, let alone having their teeth cleaned, and you’ll need to be able to keep them calm during the process.
Why you may want to become a dental hygienist:
- Dental hygienists have relatively regular hours. Though some offices may offer early evening hours and limited Saturday hours, you’ll typically be working during regular business hours only.
- You can work either full-time or part-time. Part-time is very common, as well as rewarding with an average hourly pay of $36.65.
- Dental hygienists can work anywhere there’s a dental office, which is pretty much everywhere in the Western world.
Web developers design and create websites, making the work a nice mix of technical and creative. They work in all types of environments, including large and small companies, government agencies, small businesses, and advertising agencies. Some are even self-employed. With an average annual income of nearly $74,000, jobs in the field are expected to grow by 13% over the next decade. That means web developers have a promising future.
Education/training: Typically an associates degree, but that’s not hard and fast. Large companies may require a bachelor’s degree, but it’s also possible to enter the field with a high school diploma and plenty of experience designing websites. It requires a knowledge of both programming and graphic design.
Challenges: You’ll need the ability to concentrate for long stretches, as well as to follow through with both editing and troubleshooting of the web platforms you develop. Good customer service skills and a lot of patience are required, since employers and clients are given to change direction, often with little notice.
Why you may want to become a web developer:
- It’s an excellent field for anyone who enjoys working with computers, and has a strong creative streak.
- Web designers are needed in just about every area of the economy, giving you a wide choice of jobs and industries, as well as geographic locations.
- This is one occupation that can lead to self-employment. It can be done as a full-time business, but it can also make the perfect side hustle.
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
Diagnostic medical sonographers operate special imaging equipment designed to create images for aid in patient diagnoses. Most work in hospitals where the greatest need is, but some also work in diagnostic labs and physician’s offices. The pay is nearly $69,000 per year, and the field is expected to expand by 14%, which is much faster than the rest of the job market.
Education/training: Most typically only an associate’s degree in the field, or at least a postsecondary certificate from a school specializing in diagnostic medical sonography.
Challenges: Similar to other health related fields, you’ll need to have a calm disposition at all times. Many of the people you’ll be working with have serious health issues, and you may need to be a source of comfort while you’re doing your job. You’ll need to develop a genuine compassion for the patients you’ll be working with.
Why you may want to become a diagnostic medical sonographer
- The field has an exceptionally high growth rate, promising career stability.
- As a diagnostic medical sonographer, you’ll be able to find work in just about any community you choose to live in.
- It’s an opportunity to earn a college level income with just a two-year degree.
As an MRI technologist, you’ll be performing diagnostic imaging exams and operating magnetic resonance imaging scanners. About half of all positions are in hospitals, with the rest employed in other healthcare facilities, including outpatient clinics, diagnostic labs, and physician’s offices. The average pay is over $62,000 per year, and the field is expected to grow by 9% over the next 10 years.
Education/training: You’ll need an associate’s degree in MRI technology, and even though very few states require licensing, employers often prefer candidates who are. MRI technologists often start out as radiologic technologists, eventually transitioning into MRI technologists.
Challenges: Similar to other healthcare occupations, you’ll need to have both patience and compassion in working with patients. You’ll also need to be comfortable working in windowless offices and labs during the workday.
Why you may want to become an MRI technologist:
- With more than 250,000 jobs across the country, you’re pretty much guaranteed of finding work on your own terms.
- You’ll typically be working regular business hours, though you may do shift work and weekends and holidays if you work at a hospital.
- Solid job growth means you can look forward to career stability and generous benefits.
Paralegals assist lawyers, mostly by doing research and preparing legal documents. Client contact can range between frequent and nonexistent, depending on the law office you’re working in. But while most paralegals do work for law firms, many are also employed in corporate legal departments and government agencies. The position averages nearly $52,000 per year and is expected to grow by 12% over the next 10 years.
Education/training: Technically speaking there are no specific education requirements for a paralegal. But most employers won’t hire you unless you have at least an associate’s degree, as well as a paralegal certification.
Challenges: You’ll need to have a willingness to perform deep research. And since you’ll often be involved in preparing legal documents, you’ll need a serious eye for detail. You’ll also need to be comfortable with the reality that much of what takes place in a law office involves conflict between parties. You may find yourself in the peacemaker role more than occasionally. There’s also a strong variation in pay between states and even cities. For example, while average pay in Washington DC is over $70,000 per year, it’s only about $48,000 in Tampa.
Why you may want to become a paralegal:
- There are plenty of jobs in the field, with more than 325,000. That means you’ll probably be able to find a job anywhere in the country.
- You’ll have a choice of work environments, whether it’s a law office, large company, or government agency.
- You can even choose the specialization since many law firms work in specific niches. For example, one firm may specialize in real estate, another in family law, and still another in disability cases.
Licensed Practical Nurses
Licensed practical nurses provide basic nursing care, often assisting registered nurses. There are more than 700,000 positions nationwide, and jobs are available in hospitals, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, extended care facilities, and even private homes. With an average pay level of over $47,000 per year, the field is expected to grow by 11% over the next decade.
Education/training: At a minimum, you’ll need to complete a state approved LPN education program, which will take a year to complete. But many employers prefer candidates to have an associate’s degree, and will likely pay more if you do. As medical caregivers, LPNs must also be licensed in all states.
Challenges: As an LPN, just as is the case with registered nurses, you’ll be on the front line of the healthcare industry. That means constant contact with patients and family members. You’ll need to be able to provide both care and comfort to all. If you’re working in a hospital, nursing home, or extended care facility, you’ll be doing shift work, including nights and weekends.
Why you may want to become a licensed practical nurse:
- With jobs available at hospitals and care facilities across the country, you’ll have complete geographic mobility as well as a choice of facilities.
- You may be able to parlay your position into registered nursing by completing the additional education requirements while working as an LPN.
- Though most positions are full-time, it may be possible to get a part-time situation if that’s your preference.
How to Enroll in a Trade School
If you want to enter any of the trades above, or one of the many others that also have above average pay and opportunity, you’ll need to enroll in a trade school. However, in many cases it will be better to get the necessary education – especially an associate’s degree – at a local community college. Not only are they usually the least expensive places to get higher education, but there’s probably one close to your home.
Whether you go to a community college, a trade school, or enroll in a certificate program, use the following strategy:
- Develop a short list of the schools you want to attend to give yourself some choices.
Make sure any school you’re considering is accredited.
- Do some digging and make sure the school you want to attend has a job placement office with a solid record of success.
- Complete an application form with the school, but be sure to do it well in advance of the beginning of the semester or school year.
- Apply for any financial aid that may be available. You can use the tool below to get started.
- Consider whether you want to attend on a full-time or part-time basis. Full-time will be quicker, but part-time will enable you to earn money while you’re getting your certificate or degree, as well as spread the cost of your schooling over several years.
Tax credits to the Rescue!
Even if you don’t qualify for financial aid, the government may still be able to help by providing tax credits. Tax credits can be even better than tax deductions, because they provide a direct reduction of your tax liability.
For example, the American Opportunity Credit is available for students for qualified education expenses paid for the first four years of higher education. The credit is $2,500 per year, covering 100% of the first $2,000 in qualified education expenses, plus 25% of the next $2,000.
Another credit is the Lifetime Learning Credit. It’s a credit for tuition and other education expenses paid for courses taken to acquire or improve job skills, including formal degree programs. The credit is worth up to $2,000 per tax return, based on 20% of education expenses up to $10,000 paid.
What to watch out for when looking for trade schools
When choosing a trade school it pays not to be too trusting. While that shouldn’t be a problem with community colleges, since they’re publicly accredited, there are a large number of for-profit trade schools that are not only expensive, but they often don’t have the best reputations. That isn’t to say all for-profit schools are scam artists, but the possibility is real.
Make sure the school is accredited by your state.
Don’t rely on assurances by the school that they’re accredited by some poorly known and totally unrecognized industry trade group.
Check out the school with reliable third-party sources.
This can include your state Department of Education, the Better Business Bureau, and even reviews on Yelp or other social media sites. If the school has burned others, you could be a future victim.
Interview people already working in your chosen field.
They’re likely to know which schools are legitimate, and which have a less than savory reputation.
Don’t ignore cost!
Don’t pay $30,000 at a for-profit school when you can get the same education for half as much at a community college. This will be even more important if you will be using student loans to pay for your education. Overpaying for school means you’ll be overpaying on your student loan.
How We Found the Best Trade Jobs of 2020
Just so you know our list of the best trade jobs isn’t just our opinion, we used the following methodology in including the occupations we did:
- The occupations frequently appear on published lists of “the best jobs without a college degree”.
- We focused on those occupations that appeared frequently across several lists.
- We specifically chose fields that could best be considered semi-professional. That means that while they don’t require a four-year degree or higher, they do require at least some form of education, and in most cases, a certification. We consider this an important criteria, because career fields with a low entry bar can easily become saturated, forcing pay levels down.
- As the table at the beginning of this guide discloses, statistical information for each of these occupations was obtained from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Summary: The Best Trade Jobs
If you’re a high school student, a recent high school graduate, or you’re already in the workforce and looking to make a career change, take a close look at these trade jobs. They pay salaries comparable to jobs that require a four-year college degree, but you can enter with just a two-year degree or less.
That will not only cut the time, cost, and effort in getting your education in half, but it will also enable you to begin earning high pay in only one or two years.
Pick the field that’s right for you, choose a reputable trade school or community college, then get started in time for the next semester.