Ask most high school guidance counselors, and they’ll tell you a college degree is your key to a decent paying job. But that’s not necessarily always the case. While many jobs like lawyer, doctor, and professor still require degrees, Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at Payscale.com, helped us pinpoint several jobs that don’t.
However, before you ditch your plans to earn a college diploma, we should note that these jobs do require specialized knowledge, whether it’s obtained through a vocational training program or an on-the-job education. Many people in these occupations also have a traditional degree, so that certainly can’t hurt.
“There’s no high-paying job that doesn’t require a high level skill,” says Lee. “You can learn it on the job, but you’re going to have to learn it.” With the rising cost of college tuition, it may make sense to pursue one of these career paths.
1. Freelance Photographer – $47,800
Lee says that non-degree jobs tend to fall into one of two categories: technical or entrepreneurial. Being a freelance photographer requires a high degree of business savvy in addition to photography skills. Depending on the type of work you do, you might take product shots, family portraits, corporate headshots, wedding pictures, or other images, then touch up the pictures digitally and send them to clients for review.
2. Private Detective or Investigator – $50,600
This is another area where a high degree of personal initiative is required. Private detectives or investigators might testify at hearings, analyze data, search databases, or question suspects. Knowledge of psychology and the law, critical thinking skills, and the ability to listen and read body language are also useful.
3. Elevator Mechanic – $61,500
“When [elevators] break, people are miserable,” Lee points out. “You might have travel that makes it pay more so you can get there and fix it before the morning rush hour.” Successful elevator mechanics generally have a knack for understanding complex mechanical systems, assembling and disassembling elevator parts, and following safety standards.
4. Nuclear Power Reactor Operator – $79,100
Since nuclear power reactor operators work with highly sensitive reactors, they need an understanding of physics and engineering, as well as active learning and troubleshooting skills. The higher pay correlates to the highly specialized skill set required.
5. Personal Trainer – $37,500
Knowledge of nutrition, anatomy, and first aid are helpful, so many personal trainers have a college degree or specialized certification. Since the independent personal trainer’s income is tied to the number of clients they train, time management skills, physical stamina, and customer service skills are assets in this field.
6. Director of Security – $62,400
Someone might start out as assistant to the director of security and work their way up. Tasks might include analyzing security data, investigating security breaches, and supervising others. Lee says jobs like this are “not a bad track for someone who is more physical or manual, where it’s about on-the-job training and less about formal programs.”
7. Air Traffic Controller – $60,200
Although the job doesn’t require a college degree, the FAA screens prospective air traffic controllers with a pre-employment test and other requirements, so it’s a competitive field. The job might entail monitoring aircraft, issuing take-off and landing instructions, and directing ground traffic.
Source: Salary data provided by online salary database PayScale.com. Salaries listed are median annual salaries for workers with 5-8 years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions, or profit sharing.
Boston-based freelance writer Susan Johnston has covered career and business topics for "The Boston Globe," "Hispanic Executive Quarterly," WomenEntrepreneur.com, and other publications.
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