College is often touted as the pathway to a brighter financial future. But this is not always the case. The cost of tuition, books, lodging, and more can be expensive, and it drives many into tens of thousands of dollars in debt. While college grads certainly earn higher wages on average, some make relatively little. These are the college majors that pay off the least.
On the other hand, there are jobs that require little to no secondary education yet pay very well. The median annual wage for all jobs in the United States is $38,640. There are a handful of jobs that require only a high school diploma or an equivalent education that pay more than double that.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the highest paying jobs you can get without a college degree.
While salary is always a major factor when choosing a job or career field, there are other considerations that need to be taken into account – like whether the job will still be in demand in the future. Some low-skill jobs are already being phased out by automation, but by 2026, employment is projected to decline for only three of the 20 highest paying jobs you can get without a college degree, according to the BLS. Only two of the 20 jobs listed here, however, are projected to have employment growth beyond the projected overall U.S. job growth rate of 7.4% by 2026.
There are many jobs that keep society running – by providing power, security, transportation, and many other valuable services. Such jobs can command higher pay without requiring a degree and account for many of the jobs on this list.
Though these jobs pay well, they certainly have drawbacks. Many of the careers on this list are in the transportation sector, which often requires employees to work long and irregular hours. Other jobs on this list can be dangerous, particularly those in law enforcement. These are the most dangerous jobs in America.
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20. Signal and track switch repairers
• Median annual wage: $70,490
• Total employment: 7,730
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +1.3%
About 5% of American workers commute using transit, according to CityLab estimates. This often means taking the train. Everyone who regularly travels by rail knows that tracks and switches malfunction often. Signal and track switch repairers are tasked with diagnosing and addressing the issues in these systems and fixing them to keep travelers safe and on time. Most signal repairers make more than $70,000 per year, nearly double the U.S. median annual wage of $38,640. This job typically requires just a high school diploma and no prior work experience for applicants.
19. Petroleum pump system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers
• Median annual wage: $70,860
• Total employment: 38,930
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +2.8%
Petroleum pump system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers help to set up oil wells and ensure that they continue pumping. As part of the generally higher-paying oil and natural gas industry, these workers are well compensated. Most earn over $70,000 per year. As renewable energy becomes more common, oil and gas industry jobs may be drying up. Total employment for pump system operators is only projected to grow by 2.8% by 2026 – well below the 7.4% growth projected across all jobs in the same time frame.
18. Electrical power-line installers and repairers
• Median annual wage: $70,910
• Total employment: 114,800
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +13.9%
With electricity powering cell phone chargers, TVs, and computers, our power grids are more important than ever. The power line installer field is expected to be one of the fastest growing in the country. There are projected to be 13.9% more installers and repairer jobs in 2026 than there were in 2016 – nearly double the projected overall U.S. job growth. As of May 2018, there are already over 100,000 power line installers and repairers.
17. Gas plant operators
• Median annual wage: $71,070
• Total employment: 14,620
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +0.0%
Gas plant operators ensure that natural gas plants safely store and distribute gas. Though this job does not require a college degree or work experience, it can take a long time to become familiar with all the equipment used in a gas plant so operators typically need long-term on-the-job training to become proficient. The BLS projects no growth in the profession from 2016 to 2026.
16. Ship engineers
• Median annual wage: $71,130
• Total employment: 8,740
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +6.5%
Though ship engineer jobs do not require a four-year college degree, running and maintaining all the engines, boilers, and machinery on board a ship is a difficult skill set to acquire. Licensing exams for engineers typically require several years of maritime experience in lieu of education. As with many jobs that require significant expertise, ship engineers are well paid. Most earn more than $71,000 annually.
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15. First-line supervisors of non-retail sales workers
• Median annual wage: $73,390
• Total employment: 247,570
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +4.9%
First-line supervisors of non-retail sales workers have one of the more common jobs in the country, with nearly a quarter-million Americans in this line of work. Also known as branch managers or sales managers, these people supervise sales workers and work with corporate officials to boost sales figures. These managers are typically expected to have some related work experience.
14. Transportation inspectors
• Median annual wage: $73,780
• Total employment: 29,990
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +5.9%
Transportation inspectors are tasked with monitoring the goods that travel, either by truck, rail, or other means, and ensure the loads comply with all local, state, and federal laws. Transportation inspectors earn a median annual wage of $73,780, more than $35,000 beyond the median annual wage of all jobs. Career prospects in this field appear stable, with a projected 5.9% total growth in employment expected by 2026.
13. Transit and railroad police
• Median annual wage: $74,030
• Total employment: 4,470
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +6.3%
Transit and railroad police is one of several police and law enforcement careers that pays over $70,000 per year without requiring a college degree in most cases. These law enforcement officers protect transit equipment as well as transit employees and passengers. This is one of just 13 jobs that do not require a college education in which most workers earn over $74,000.
12. Gaming managers
• Median annual wage: $74,700
• Total employment: 4,300
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +2.5%
Gaming managers, also known as pit bosses, monitor casinos and other areas where legal gambling takes place. These managers are tasked with ensuring that players and employees follow all of the casino rules, and that all payouts are correct. These employees often work irregular hours, and they have one of the highest hourly wages of any position at an average of $40.99, higher than all but four other jobs that do not require a college degree.
11. Postmasters and mail superintendents
• Median annual wage: $75,970
• Total employment: 13,770
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): -20.9%
Like other positions with managerial duties, postmasters and mail superintendents are well compensated. The median annual wage for this job is nearly $76,000. But with the advent of email and other online communications, physical letters are much less common than they used to be. By 2026, the BLS expects there will be 20.9% fewer postmasters than there were in 2016, one of the largest projected declines of any career field.
10. First-line supervisors of fire fighting and prevention workers
• Median annual wage: $76,330
• Total employment: 65,920
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +7.2%
Being a firefighter is a dangerous job, and firefighters’ first-line supervisors coordinate fire fighting activities, including putting out blazes as quickly and safely as possible. This high-stress position is relatively well paid, as most people in this field earn over $76,000 per year. Though no college degree is required, applicants are expected to have certifications, on-the-job training, and experience in the field.
9. Power plant operators
• Median annual wage: $79,610
• Total employment: 33,920
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +1.3%
Though power plant operators are not generally required to have a four-year college degree, anyone interested to work in this job is most likely expected to have years of training on the job in order to be competent. Employment growth in the field is projected to grow at a relatively slow pace of 1.3% from 2016 to 2026. Though people will continue to need electricity, advancements in technology would allow for more efficient and automated devices may stifle growth.
8. Elevator installers and repairers
• Median annual wage: $79,780
• Total employment: 26,830
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +12.1%
The U.S. population is growing, but the U.S. landmass is not. The solution is to build more tall buildings to house people and their places of business instead of single-family homes. Elevator installers are needed to ensure people can get up and down in tall buildings, while repairers are needed to maintain the elevators. Elevator jobs are projected to grow 12.1% from 2016 to 2026, far surpassing the 7.4% projected growth rate of the overall U.S. labor pool.
7. Electrical and electronics repairers, powerhouse, substation, and relay
• Median annual wage: $80,200
• Total employment: 22,980
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +3.7%
Electrical and electronics repair is one of seven jobs that do not require a four-year college degree but still pays over $80,000 in most cases. This job is of vital importance, as these workers monitor power generating stations to ensure they are running smoothly and fix any issues that arise. This field generally requires some on-the-job training and related work experience.
6. Detectives and criminal investigators
• Median annual wage: $81,920
• Total employment: 103,450
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +4.5%
Though a college education is not typically required for detectives and criminal investigators, they must first train at a police academy and work their way up through the ranks of their department. There are over 100,000 investigators and detectives in the United States, most of whom make more than $80,000 per year.
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5. Commercial pilots
• Median annual wage: $82,240
• Total employment: 37,870
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +3.8%
Flying a plane requires expertise and experience. Commercial pilots must be certified before they can take to the skies. Most commercial pilots make over $82,000 per year, but some earn much more. The position’s average (as opposed to median) annual wage is $96,530 – the second highest average among all jobs that do not require a college education.
4. Power distributors and dispatchers
• Median annual wage: $86,410
• Total employment: 11,620
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): -2.5%
Power distributors coordinate and regulate the energy generated from electricity or steam sources. Powering the country is an important job, and these workers are well compensated, with most pulling in over $86,000 a year. As power plants and devices both become more efficient, automated, and advanced, the number of distributors and dispatchers needed to manage and regulate power distribution will likely shrink. The BLS projects the number of total power distributors and dispatchers will decline 2.5% by 2026 from 2016.
3. First-line supervisors of police and detectives
• Median annual wage: $89,030
• Total employment: 116,660
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +6.6%
First-line supervisors of police and detectives are commonly known as sergeants or captains in the police department. Like the detectives they supervise, these law enforcement professionals do not need a college degree, but they have to complete the police academy training and gain experience solving crimes on the job. Most of these supervisors make over $89,000 annually, well more than double the median annual wage for all jobs.
2. Nuclear power reactor operators
• Median annual wage: $94,350
• Total employment: 6,280
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): -10.2%
Nuclear power reactor operators are not required to have an advanced physics or engineering degrees – or any degree for that matter. They are, however, required to obtain certification that they are competent. Most people in this career earn over $94,000 per year, but the jobs are becoming much less common. About half of Americans oppose nuclear power usage in the United States, and about 10% of reactor operator jobs that existed in 2016 are projected to be gone by 2026.
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1. Transportation, storage, and distribution managers
• Median annual wage: $94,730
• Total employment: 124,810
• Employment growth projection (2016-2026): +6.7%
Of all the jobs that one can reasonably expect to get without a college degree, transportation, storage, and distribution managers are generally paid the best. These managers, often employed by trucking companies, ensure their employer’s goods are shipped and stored in the fastest, cheapest, and most efficient way. The median annual wage for this job is $94,730, as compared to the $38,640 median wage for all jobs. Nearly 125,000 Americans work in this field, and the BLS projects a 6.7% job growth from 2016 to 2026 in this field, nearly in line with projected growth for all jobs of 7.4%.
To identify the highest paying jobs that do not require a college degree, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed annual median wage estimates for all occupations from the Occupational Employment Statistics Survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor. Wage data are from the May 2018 survey. The typical education needed to enter the 20 occupations listed – high school diploma or equivalent, no formal education credential, postsecondary non-degree award, and some college but no degree – came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projections program. Full- and part-time occupations are counted across all employment types, including federal, state, and local governments, as well as all private establishments. The Employment Projections program includes self-employed workers. The OES excludes self-employed workers.
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