High-Paying Jobs Without the College Degree
Certifications attest to employers that you’re capable
You don‘t need a four-year college diploma to land a high-paying job and jumpstart a career. A host of desirable occupations are open to people certified to have the skills needed to do the job, a credential they can earn in a fraction of the time and cost required for a bachelor’s degree.
These jobs come with median salaries of $70,000, $80,000, $90,000 or more. This may explain why the number of certifications earned between 2000-2001 and 2017-2018 climbed by 73%, to 955,000 from 553,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
“Some certificate holders earn as much as or even more than workers with college degrees,” concluded Georgetown University researchers in a study of the phenomenon. Among men, they found that 39% of certificate holders earned more than the median associate’s degree holder and 24% earned more than the median bachelor’s degree holder. The numbers were comparable for women.
If you are undecided about a career or overcome by the number of options, a Department of Labor website, CareerOneStop.org, may help. It describes many jobs that do not require a college degree and has a “certification finder” tool that lets you learn which certificates are required for specific jobs and which schools or government agencies are authorized to certify job seekers.
To find online databases of legitimate schools that meet industry standards and whose certifications are accepted widely, visit the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
It is important to make sure that any program you choose will result in a certification, not just a certificate, said Thomas Johnson, an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. To a hiring manager, a certificate may only mean that you completed a course, not that you did well in it; a certification tells a potential employer that you have mastered the skills required.
“You can take a class at the local community college and bumble through and at the end get a certificate you can put on your wall,” he said. “But employers may not give much weight to that if another person has a certification from a school accredited by an industry group.” Checking with a desired employer that the certification you’re seeking is what’s wanted is also a wise move.
Following are degree-optional jobs that pay substantially above the median personal income in the U.S., which was $35,977 in 2019. That figure, like the median wages and job openings below, are from the BLS, and were gathered in May 2019.
Information security analyst: annual median wage $99,730
The relentless threat posed by hackers has spurred demand for network security experts clever enough to keep bad guys at bay. While not all employers require potential employees to have a college degree, they do want credible credentials affirming applicants’ bona fides. Certification training is available widely, from local community colleges to extension programs at prestigious institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
Job outlook: Companies fill about 13,900 openings annually, and the BLS forecasts job openings will grow 31.2% between 2019 and 2029.
Electric system operator: $82,780
System operators manage the network of power plants and power lines in electricity grids and make sure generators produce enough electricity to meet demand minute-by-minute. To land a position, you need to be certified by the North American Electric Reliability Corp.; you can prepare for the NARC test by taking courses from the Electric Power Research Institute.
Job outlook: The industry hires about 1,500 grid operators annually, but the BLS says that is not enough to offset attrition, and the number of workers will decline 3.2% by 2029.
Web developer: $73,760
Web developers design and develop websites as independent contractors, workers at boutique firms, or employees of tech or marketing departments within large corporations. Programs to certify your web-development savvy are available online and in person, at institutions ranging from Cornell and Harvard universities to for-profit trade schools. Being trained in the right coding language is essential, so check with potential employers on that and other requirements before choosing a training institution.
Job outlook: The BLS forecasts above-average job growth of 8% annually from 2019 to 2029, which translates into about 13,000 new jobs each year.
Construction and building inspector: $60,710
Some construction and building inspectors pursue a two-year associate's degree to learn about building codes and how to enforce them, but a certification from a community college will suffice to secure a position in most jurisdictions.
Job outlook: Governments hire about 13,500 construction and building inspectors each year, and the BLS anticipates job growth of 3.2% between 2019 and 2029.