By Michael d’Estries and SkillPointe Editorial Team
Did you know you can qualify for many of the highest-paying jobs without a degree? It’s true! You may be surprised to discover there are numerous trades that pay well in a variety of industries, from healthcare to construction to real estate. Many trade jobs don’t require a college degree – meaning you can start gaining real-world experience and earning money faster.
It’s also important to know how we define skilled trade jobs. We include traditional trades, such as plumbing and HVAC, but also skills-based jobs in other realms, such as MRI technicians, IT support specialists and electrical engineering technicians.
Eager to make your next career move? Here, you’ll learn about two dozen of the best trades to learn and how to qualify for rewarding, well-paid jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.
Qualified Tradespeople Are in High Demand for High-Paying Jobs
For decades, earning a bachelor’s degree has been seen as the golden ticket to achieving the American Dream, a kind of cure-all checkbox that guarantees economic success.
The reality is far less rosy for many graduates. According to a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) salary survey, the average salary for college graduates is about $50,000 per year. The average student loan debt? A staggering $37,693.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to college degree programs for those looking to secure financial stability fast without incurring massive debt. Aspiring workers who want to qualify for good-paying jobs without degrees can consider the multitude of high-paying skilled trade jobs available.
Careers in plumbing, electrical, healthcare, IT and other skills-based jobs not only pay extremely well, but are also in high demand. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, there are at least 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay more than $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
“I’ve been doing this for going on 30 years now, and in those 30 years I’ve seen a constant need,” licensed plumber Mary Thompson, COO of home services platform Neighborly, told CNBC. “It’s a great place for people to earn a good living … [and] a skill that is recession and pandemic-resistant.”
Explore the Highest-Paying Trade School Jobs
There are so many jobs and industries to consider, but which ones make the most money? Below are just a few skilled jobs across the U.S. that are both in high demand and feature a median salary above $50,000. Learn more about how to enter each field and discover trade school programs that pay well once you qualify for entry-level work — no four-year college degree required!
Plumber (Salary: $56,117*)
Plumbers install, maintain and replace everything from gas and water lines to kitchen and bathroom fixtures. While the job may include unpredictable hours on both nights and weekends, it also comes with a high degree of independence, income stability and flexibility.
Electrician (Salary: $56,763)
Electricians plan electrical systems. They inspect and maintain circuit breakers and transformers, and install or repair wiring, fixtures and fuse boxes. This is one of the few career paths with paid on-the-job training. Electricians often learn their trade via apprenticeships lasting anywhere from four to five years.
Pipefitter or Steamfitter (Salary: $55,162)
Pipefitters and steamfitters take advanced blueprints for residential, commercial and industrial construction piping systems and turn them into reality. Skills utilized by established craftspeople include cutting, threading or hammering pipes to specifications, as well as assembling pipes by welding, soldering or threading joints.
- Learn how to become a pipefitter or steamfitter
- Find local pipefitter or steamfitter training options
Civil Engineering Technician (Salary: $53,887)
Employed by engineering firms and government agencies, civil engineering technicians assist with the design of commercial, industrial and residential infrastructure projects. Responsibilities include analyzing blueprints, estimating costs, evaluating site conditions and ensuring projects meet design specifications and building codes.
Heavy Equipment Mechanic (Salary: $55,452)
Heavy equipment mechanics are responsible for the inspection, maintenance and repair of excavators, cranes and other large vehicles used in construction, farming, mining and transportation. Often skilled in the use of computerized tools to diagnose problems, these mechanics are also extremely detail-oriented and knowledgeable in engine components and systems.
Dental Hygienist (Salary: $77,306)
If you’ve ever spent time in a dentist’s chair, it’s likely the majority of your visit was in the care of a dental hygienist. Skilled in preventative oral care and working under the supervision of a dentist, dental hygienists clean teeth, take X-rays, examine mouths for disease, and provide advice on good oral health. If you aspire to join the healthcare field, this is one of the best jobs without a degree to consider.
Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (Salary: $62,923)
Medical sonographers are trained in the application of specialized equipment that utilizes high-frequency sound waves to generate images of structures within a patient’s body. These sonograms (or ultrasounds) are used in everything from gauging the health of a fetus to assisting cardiovascular and vascular technologists as they examine specific areas of the body.
- Learn about becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer
- Find diagnostic medical sonographer training near you
MRI Tech (Salary: $74,655)
MRI technicians operate magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to create complex 3D scans of a specific part of a patient’s body. This job is perfect for those who communicate well and enjoy a fast-paced environment. The role is often based in hospitals, radiology centers or outpatient care centers.
Radiology Tech (Salary: $61,910)
Radiology technicians perform diagnostic imaging procedures, such as X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans, to look inside the human body. Working closely with physicians, they typically operate out of hospitals or doctors’ offices. This role is just one of the many fascinating healthcare jobs that don’t require a degree.
Cardiovascular Tech (Salary: $58,469)
Cardiovascular technicians operate special imaging equipment to diagnose heart and blood vessel problems. Working closely with doctors and surgeons, these detail-oriented techs manage everything from electrocardiograms (EKGs) to cardiovascular ultrasounds to help map a complete picture of a patient’s heart.
Respiratory Therapist (Salary: $62,844)
Using a variety of tests to measure both lung capacity and blood oxygen levels, respiratory therapists develop plans to help treat diseases of the lungs and airways. An excellent fit for those who enjoy helping others and communicate well, the position is often located in hospitals, pulmonary rehabilitation clinics, and diagnostic laboratories.
Electronics or Electrical Engineering Technician (Salary: $67,439)
Have a knack for designing, developing, testing and repairing electronic components? Electrical and electronics engineering techs, working under the supervision of an electrical engineer, help create everything from electrical control systems to basic circuitry and prototypes. This career is best suited for those who excel at math and science and have a keen eye for detail.
- Learn how to become an electronics or electrical engineering technician
- Find electronics or electrical engineering tech training programs
Industrial Engineering Technician (Salary: $57,497)
Industrial engineering technicians use observation and creative thinking to assist industrial engineers with improvements in efficiency and standard operating procedures for a variety of businesses. As the position makes heavy use of charts and diagrams to illustrate workflow, it’s ideal for candidates skilled in communication and problem-solving and who have good attention to detail.
- Learn more about being an industrial engineering technician
- Find industrial engineering tech training programs
Industrial Mechanic (Salary: $55,413)
Industrial mechanics, also called industrial maintenance mechanics, utilize their diverse skill sets to maintain and repair a variety of equipment in commercial and industrial facilities. In addition to being proficient with electronics, these specialized mechanics are also familiar with welding, cutting, and the use of manuals and diagnostic equipment to solve equipment failures.
- Learn more about becoming an industrial mechanic or industrial maintenance mechanic
- Find industrial mechanic trade schools
IT Support Specialist (Salary: $52,941)
If you’re someone who people repeatedly turn to for help when their technology fails, consider a career as an IT support specialist. These technical wizards offer personalized front-line support for everything from hardware issues to network repair. This is one of the highest-paying trade jobs for people who are patient, personable and not afraid to explore new technologies.
Graphic Designer (Salary: $53,572)
Graphic designers have a talent for expressing ideas visually through brochures, logos, packaging, magazines or other marketing materials. Graphic designers are skilled in a variety of creative software suites and advanced computer applications that help bring their visions to life. If you’re excited about producing creative work via the latest software tools, graphic design could be one of the best trades to learn.
Cable or Fiber Optics Technician (Salary: $61,363)
Cable and fiber optics technicians are critical frontline workers in the effort to improve the speed and reach of broadband communications. Also called cable installers, these technicians are responsible for the design, installation, operation, maintenance and repairs of telecommunication networks. This is an excellent career choice for those who both enjoy working outdoors and are not bothered by heights or confined spaces.
- Learn more about becoming a cable or fiber optics technician
- Find cable or fiber optic technician training
Aircraft Mechanic (Salary: $66,728)
Aircraft mechanics help keep aircraft flying safely and efficiently by performing a variety of scheduled maintenance and repairs. On-the-job responsibilities include diagnosing problems with mechanical and electrical systems, as well as inspecting all aircraft components from de-icing systems to landing gears.
Police Officer (Salary: $65,646)
One of the most in-demand professions in the nation, police officers prevent and investigate crimes, enforce laws and respond to emergencies. While writing detailed reports and testifying in court are part of the job description, you’ll also spend a large amount of time outside the office patrolling via foot, car or even horse.
Criminal Investigator (Salary: $85,762)
Criminal investigators, which include specializations in forensic science or a specific type of crime, gather facts and evidence to help solve cases. Depending on a criminal investigator’s role within a police department or federal agency, they may either rely upon computers to track down information or perform case work in the field.
Real Estate Appraiser (Salary: $58,582)
Real estate appraisers provide an unbiased, objective estimate of the value of a building and the land it resides on. This in-demand profession, ideal for those with great interpersonal skills and attention to detail, offers critical assistance to those who own or manage property or invest in real estate or land holdings.
Power Plant Operator (Salary: $84,287)
Power plant operators manage and maintain equipment required to generate electricity. A growing field thanks to advancements in power generation technology, opportunities now exist for operators to manage equipment fueled by coal, gas, nuclear energy, hydroelectric energy, wind or solar power.
Nuclear Technician (Salary: $84,482)
Nuclear technicians ensure that nuclear reactors and other equipment are operated safely and efficiently. In addition to monitoring radiation levels and performance of nuclear power plant systems, these technicians may also repair and maintain equipment at the facility.
Electric Lineman (Salary: $75,115)
If a job with a view sounds appealing, you might want to consider a career as an electric lineman. Also called power line technicians, these specialists install, maintain and repair electric power lines and other equipment critical to electrical distribution and transmission systems. As most of the work is done outdoors and in all conditions, it’s a career best-suited for those who enjoy working outside, pay close attention to detail and have little fear of heights.
RELATED: Download SkillPointe's Free Guide to Finding a Skilled Trade Career
*Median salary figures provided by Emsi (economicmodeling.com)
Michael d’Estries writes about innovation, arts, and culture for a variety of outlets. When he’s not online, Michael runs his large apple farm and honey business in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
This article was originally published in February 2021 and has been updated with new information.