Although the common assumption is that you need at least an associate or a bachelor's degree to earn a decent wage, there are exceptions to the rule. Although a secondary degree is required in many fields of business, science, and health, there are also dozens of careers that you can begin straight out of high school or with minimal training, such as a certificate program at a vocational school or an on-the-job apprenticeship.
Although you can enter these fields with little training, most will still require you to learn as you go or work toward a degree while you work. You might wonder where the value is in that route. Many businesses will pay for their employees to continue their education in a related field, so if you plan on earning a degree you may be able to earn and get some of your college paid for while you work!
ROI means "return on investment" and refers to how long it will take for your college degree to pay for itself. While highly technical degrees such as those in the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - can lead to high paying positions, they can also lead to high student debt from college loans and other expenses. That means it can take a long time to pay off your student debt and you may not see a return on your investment for a decade after entering your chosen field of work.
Entry-level jobs which require no degree may seem ideal at first glance, but you should do some in depth research before you commit either way. An engineer may land an entry-level position earning $55,000 a year, but the average student loan debt is over 30,000 and can take 10 to 30 years to pay off completely. On the flip side, the same engineer will earn an average $90,000 at mid-career, so their ROI shows that their degree was a sound investment.
A no-degree job, such as an electrician apprentice position, may start at $42,000, which is great when you have no student loans to pay off. The difference is long term: the average licensed electrician earns around $55,000 and the highest paid earn roughly $70,000. That means that, while you will earn more directly after high school, in a decade or two your friends with a STEM degree will out earn you despite having to pay off their student debt.
Some careers can be entered via on the job training, where you start at the bottom and work your way up the chain of command. For example, McDonalds promotes and trains from within, and a manager earns between $39,000 and $46,000 and may be promoted to district or national positions to earn more. Likewise, you might hire on as a parts cashier in an automotive shop and work your way up to office manager or learn to be a nail technician and eventually open your own nail salon.
The key is to do your research before you commit to a career. Visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website and find whether your career of choice is expected to grow in demand, what related positions you might move in to once you've been trained, and what your long-term prospects are. For example, if you plan to work at McDonalds with the goal of entering management, you should learn what training and knowledge is required at the national level so you can add business or sales classes to your long term plans.
You should also look at job search engines to determine whether there is a need for your talent in your area, as well as the requirements for the position you're training in. You can have all the experience or training in the world but if an employer only interviews those who hold a degree, your knowledge base is moot. The same holds for vocational training: you might take a certificate course to become an electrician but if there are no apprenticeship openings, you won't be able to gain the required on-the-job training.
There are plenty of career fields you can enter without a college degree; some require a certificate program and others are great for those with experience but no formal education. For example, in-home caregivers earn an average of $30,000 per year and require no training, so if you've overseen care for a family member, you have the needed experience.
Auto mechanics are highly skilled and earn a considerable salary, yet no formal training is required, only that you be able to prove you have the requisite skill. The same holds true for carpenters, builders, and other skilled trade occupations.
The field of IT is far ranging and still growing; certain IT areas such as cyber security are growing so fast there is a critical lack of, and need for, professionals. As this is an area that can be self-taught or learned independently, if you choose to focus on cyber security your job outlook will be excellent.
Beauty care is another sector that can be entered with little formal training and there are many options you can choose from. You can complete the training to be a makeup artist in as little as six months and add to your skill set after you gain employment. Most beauty school programs run from six months to two years, so within a couple of years, with a few business classes or online learning thrown in, you might be ready to open your own salon or spa.
Many careers are available which only require completion of a certificate program. Although trade schools are the most common source for earning a certificate, many community colleges also offer programs that around a year in length. A certificate program is often the fastest way to enter a career field, but you should keep in mind that you'll most likely need more education or on-the-job training in order to advance in your field of choice. Cosmetology is an excellent example of a vocational school field; you might choose to take a program to learn makeup or massage therapy in order to enter the work field in general and then continue learning other aspects of the industry in order to expand your client services. Likewise, earning an electrician certificate or a plumbing certificate may be the key to landing an apprenticeship position in the field but you'll have to continue learning on the job in order to qualify as a licensed electrician or licensed plumber.
Here are examples of careers that can be entered with little formal training; keep in mind you'll most likely qualify for entry-level jobs that will pay considerably less than the average wage listed:
Average Salary: $59,200
A web development certificate will train you in the basics of the field such as:
Average Salary: $62,700
If you're a self-taught programmer, you may still be able to find employment in the field. Many employers will hire those without a bachelor’s degree if they demonstrate an equivalent number of years (four) of experience. Earning certification in specific software, or completing a certificate program, will demonstrate your expertise.
Average Salary: $44,700
A certificate program in graphic design may be enough to land a position in tech support or as an assistant; graphic design requires an extensive skill set as well as fluency in software or techniques such as:
Average Salary: $50,200
Brick masons can opt for a two- to four-semester certificate program to learn the basic skills such as bricklaying, pointing, and reading diagrams and blueprints; some apprenticeship time will likely be required as well.
Average Salary: $48,300
Most carpenters learn through a three- to four-year apprenticeship, but a certification program may shorten the time frame to become a master carpenter or an expert in a specific area of carpentry.
Average Salary: $42,200
Although no formal education above a high school diploma is required for construction work, your employer may require you to complete specific training to qualify for certain work. Some areas such as working with hazardous materials requires special licensure.
Average Salary: $56,300
Although electricians are required to complete an apprenticeship, it may be difficult to find one; a certificate program will teach you the basic skills you'll need and up your chances of landing an apprenticeship.
Average Salary: $53,100
A plumbing certificate course will take one or two years, most likely followed by an apprenticeship. Learning from an apprenticeship alone will take up to five years, so you may be able to shorten your learning curve with the right program.
Average Salary: $46,300
An accredited HVAC certificate program will take six months to two years; you'll most likely also need to work as an apprentice until you qualify to take EPA certification exams.
Average Salary: $48,200
Although you can become a self-taught mechanic, many states require certification in one or more of eight specialty areas. There's a good chance you can earn one or more certifications and complete others while employed in the field.
Average Salary: $51,400
Aircraft mechanics are required to hold A&P certification, which typically takes around two years of training (1900 hours) to earn at an accredited FAA-approved trade or vocational school.
Average Salary: $47,000
Although you may find employment based on your welding skills alone, most employers prefer to hire those with a welding certificate, which takes seven months or more. If you have welding skill, you may be able to work while earning your certificate.
Average Salary: $52,800
It is mandatory for all firefighters to be certified as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT); EMT requirements vary by state. Note that roughly two-thirds of fire departments are volunteer staffed.
Average Salary: $51,600
Most police academies are around five months long and are the equivalent of a certificate program. It's important to note that most larger police departments now prefer to hire those with a college degree but may hire with a caveat that you will earn your diploma within a set amount of time.
Average Salary: $60,000
Although the only requirement to enter the field of professional diving is a diving physical and scuba certification, to become a commercial diver you'll need to take an advanced certification course that takes around two months. More extensive training will take a year or more and will open many more job opportunities.
Average Salary: $75,100
To become a commercial pilot, you'll need to complete a minimum of 250 flight hours, which includes 50 hours of cross-country flying, 100 hours of in-command time, and 10 hours of instrument training.
Average Salary: $32,300
An EMT or paramedic must be licensed, and the requirements vary by state. Generally, a certificate program will take between 120 to 150 hours and prepare you to take the state licensing exam, which you must then pass.
Average Salary: $31,200
Although certification is not required, most employers require at least CPR certification, which varies by state. A certificate program in medical imaging will take under a year and will train you in medical terminology, giving you an advantage over untrained competitors.
Average Salary: $41,900
A medical coding certificate can be completed in as few as four months; for a better chance at employment you should plan to earn national certification in one or more specific areas such as
Average Salary: $30,000
Although there is no certificate or program requirement specific to in-home care, you should at least have CPR certification. Becoming certified by the National Association for Home Care and Hospice (NAHC) requires 75 hours of training and will boost your employment possibilities.
Average Salary: $34,100
Requirements to become a dental assistant vary by state; a certificate program will last from one to two years and qualify you to take national certification exams.
Average Salary: $47,800
Each state sets its own requirements for real estate licensure; training requirements can vary from 60 to 125 hours before you are eligible to sit for the state exam. Note that realtors are paid by commission and it may take some time for you to build a clientele and begin earning an income.
Average Salary: $44,000
Becoming a salesperson requires no formal training. That being said, a certificate program will help you land a higher paying position as it demonstrates your knowledge base. National certifications are available and will advance your chances of employment.
Average Salary: $49,500
Although there are no formal educational requirements to become a writer, most who work full-time in the field have some formal education in English, Writing, Journalism, and similar fields. Coursework in related areas will give you a chance to begin building a portfolio, which may help you compete with degreed job applicants.
Average Salary: $48,300
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods from one location to another. Commercial truck drivers usually have a high school diploma and attend a professional truck driving school. These long haul truck drivers are crucial in the supply chain process and are required to have a commercial drivers license (CDL).
Whether you're just trying to pay the bills, or you're looking for a full-time, lifelong career, it's good to know you have options outside a four-year degree program. If you're considering one of these career fields, you should look at current employment openings in your area to gauge whether this is a viable choice where you currently live. While you may find a lucrative career that can be learned in a year, it won't help you if every employer requires a Bachelor degree before granting an interview, so research your area of interest thoroughly before you commit to an alternative job training route.