20 Best Paying Trade Jobs for Graduates

highest paying trade jobs

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Trade jobs form the backbone of our economy. Every major industrial sector, including high technology, relies on tradespeople who do the front-line, hands-on work. We often think of tradespeople exclusively in the building trades, which does contain many specialized trades, bur tradespeople are also in healthcare, tech, and real estate..

Careers in the trades is a great option for many students who many not be as interested in the abstract nature of professional jobs, such as finance. The truth is that many trades pay as well as professional jobs and offer the same, if not better, job satisfaction. Given that many trades can be entered without a four-year degree, students are increasingly drawn to these fields.

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What are Trade Jobs?

We often think of trade jobs as low-level menial positions that don't pay well, and which don't offer much future growth. However, that is a narrow view. Trade jobs are skilled labor professions that are found in fields such as construction, which includes professions for electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and painters. Other skilled trade jobs include welders, machinists, nurses, and hair stylists.

The key element that tends to differentiate a trade job is whether or not it's 'hands-on'. Tradespeople often work with tools and machinery, and may do so at the direction of a non-trades worker. For instance, an electrician follows the architect's plans and a nurse follows doctor's orders.

How to Prepare for a Trade Career

Every position requires some degree of preparation and trade careers are no exception. Many skilled trades in the construction realm rely primarily on on-the-job training, though there are notable exceptions. Electricians, for example, often complete a formalized training through a local union organization or trade association. This may be especially true of low-voltage electricians who install and repair complex electronic devices. Plumbers likewise pursue special certifications.

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Vocational training is surely the best option for most workers in the skilled trades sector. Certification from a vocational or technical institute, if not a college degree from a technical college, will pave the way to career success. In fact, skilled trades in the medical field require degrees, professional examinations, and state licensure. These fields include the broad range of nursing professions, radiology technicians, and dental assistants.

Is an Education and Training in a Trade Worth it?

Not every trade requires a specific degree. In fact, it's probable that most trades don't. Trades that require a formal, academic degree include many in the medical realm and certain mechanics, such as airplane mechanics, will benefit from a degree. Meanwhile, many trades such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work, still largely rely on on-the-job training, also known as apprenticeships.

There are many formalized apprenticeship programs that include classroom learning. These programs are often run through a union or a local trade association. Students receive certificates in return for successful completion, though not diplomas that reflect academic credit.

Depending on the field, formal training may or not be worthwhile. Nurses, for instance, absolutely need formal training so that they can pass an exam and earn state licensure. Their degrees not only help them qualify for their first job but can serve as a springboard to other degrees and professional advancement. A registered nurse may use their degree and experience to return to school and become a nurse practitioner.

A degree in a trade is also worthwhile for those just starting out. Formal training can help to leapfrog many years spent learning on the job. Degreed tradespeople can likely negotiate for higher starting salaries when they can tout bona fide degrees from accredited institutions. Their knowledge base will have come from a respected source rather than informal learning from unknown, non-accredited people.

Job Outlook in Trade Jobs and Vocational Careers

Trade jobs tend to have a good outlook for the long-haul. While building trades tend to fluctuate in a cyclical manner, a skilled tradesperson can often maintain steady work if they are flexible. Thus, a tradesperson who works on new construction sites may see a periodic downturn in their work opportunities. However, they may be able to pivot to the role of repair person or one who helps homeowners with smaller jobs, such as fixing a broken pipe or installing a new electrical outlet.

Medical trades also have a strong outlook going forward. The healthcare industry is one of the fastest-growing, most important industries in the nation. Tradespeople who focus on caring for the elderly, for example, may see their job security improve as the baby boomers continue to enter long-term care facilities, and other elder-care institutions.

One key advantage to pursuing a trade job is that they are very difficult to replace with machines and people always need them. For instance, there's virtually no way to add an addition to a home without a carpentry team, an electrician, and perhaps a plumber, too. Plus, tradespeople are there to fix things that break and to analyze situations that confound consumers.

How to Get a Trade Job

There is no one way to land a trade job, as there are so many different trades. For those who desire a position in the building trades, it's often easy to find work as an entry-level laborer. These positions may become more akin to an apprenticeship and can lead to pay increases and more. Medical trades, such as nursing or radiology, almost always require formal training and licensure. However, some nurses start at the CNA level, which may hire people without credentials.

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Those who wish to start their career at a higher level should consider a degree in the trade of their choosing. Electricians who hold formal credentials at the journeyman level, for instance, are sure to command a higher salary than those who start at the apprentice or laborer level. Further, those who earn a full associate degree will enter the workforce with the sorts of soft skills needed to get ahead.

Best Trade School Jobs and Careers

  • Elevator Installer

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): -3%
        Median Annual Salary: $97,860 per year

    Even low-rise buildings need elevators and elevator installers are well-known to be well-paid. Installers need a high level of expertise, including rigorous apprenticeships. This profession is not limited to vertical lifts, however, as they also work on escalators and moving sidewalks. Those who work on-call to fix and maintain people-moving devices can command a high pay rate.

  • Geological and Petroleum Technicians

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +4%
        Median Annual Salary: $98,920

    The oil and gas extraction industry is a vital part of the global economy and geological and petroleum technicians can command a handy salary. This work can be quite dangerous, however, as some worksites are on oil rigs far out at sea. Even landlocked oil derricks pose dangers, but skilled tradespeople implement the best safety practices.

  • Air Traffic Controller

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +1%
        Median Annual Salary: $95,594

    This is a highly skilled position that is vital to the safety of every air traveler. Air traffic controllers ensure that airplanes and helicopters en route to their airports are directed to the runway in the safest, most expedient manner possible. Many air traffic controllers learn their trade in the air force or some other branch of the military.

  • Boilermaker

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): -5%
        Median Annual Salary: $91,456

    These tradespeople create, install, or maintain large metal vessels suitable for boiling various materials. However, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers includes tradespeople such as iron ship builders, blacksmiths, forgers, and those who help any of these workers. Tradespeople in this profession are often called to travel and thus are often far from home.

  • Commercial Pilot

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +6%
        Median Annual Salary: $90,594

    Commercial pilots are aviators who fly large jets for commercial enterprises including airlines such as United, Delta, and Southwest. Commercial pilots may also fly planes for shipping concerns such as FedEx or UPS. Pilots are often assigned to specific routes that they fly on a regular basis and these routes may take them all over the world.

  • Plumber

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +2%
        Median Annual Salary: $87,357

    These tradespeople specialize in the systems that carry fluids or gasses through a building or across any expanse. Plumbers are often thought of as tradespeople who install our water faucets and toilets. However, they also install gas transmission systems for doctors or dentists.

  • MRI Tech

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +6%
        Median Annual Salary: $81,300

    Imaging is a vital part of the medical diagnosis process. MRI technicians specialize in operating MRI machinery and taking images of patients. MRI technicians work with more than the machines, however. A large part of an MRI tech's work is involved with patients who need assurances and coaching on how to help the technician achieve the best imaging possible.

  • Construction Manager

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +8%
        Median Annual Salary: $81,217

    This leadership position often requires a great deal of experience in the building trades. Major developers may want to hire construction managers who hold a bachelor’s construction management degree. Depending on the scope of a project, construction managers may focus on specific parts of a job such as carpentry, electrical crews, or plumbing.

  • Elevator Mechanic

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +3%
        Median Annual Salary: $81,173

    Often considered to be one of the higher-paid trades, elevator mechanics specialize in the devices that move humans. These include elevators, escalators, and moving sidewalks. Elevator mechanics may build elevator cars to meet architect's specifications, or they may focus on repairing and maintaining various people-moving systems.

  • Radiation Therapist

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +6%
        Median Annual Salary: $77,686

    These healthcare workers treat cancer patients by way of radiation therapy. They use high tech machinery and safety equipment to deliver the radiation as prescribed by radiation oncologists. During the treatment, radiation therapists monitor both the machinery and the patient to ensure that there are no unusual reactions.

  • Nuclear Medicine Technologist

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +2%
        Median Annual Salary: $75,081

    These technologists spend their time conducting tests to help in the diagnostic process and for research purposes. They are trained and certified to prepare and administer appropriate medications, take imagery to help with diagnosis, and prepare patients for the procedures.

  • Electric Lineman

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +6%
        Median Annual Salary: $73,250

    Among electricians, there are two general types: wiremen and linemen. An electric lineman works on the power lines that send electricity throughout a city and state. Their job is dangerous on many levels, but it's a vital part of the economy since everyone relies on their electricity to conduct their lives.

  • Millwright

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +14%
        Median Annual Salary: $72,134

    These tradespeople are involved in installing, maintaining, diagnosing, and repairing a wide range of machinery. Often, a millwright will focus on a specific industry and cultivate an expertise in its machines. For instance, they might cultivate expertise in working on monorail trains while others become experts on machines used in mining.

  • Power Plant Operator

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): -15%
        Median Annual Salary: $71,627

    Power plant operators focus their careers on maintaining, troubleshooting, and repairing power plants. They tend to specialize in specific sorts of power plants such as hydroelectric plants, nuclear power plants, or coal-fired power plants.

  • Pile Driver Operator

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +3%
        Median Annual Salary: $70,220

    Pile driver operators are specialists in driving pilings for retaining walls, bulkheads, and foundations. Their work may sound simple, but their pilings must be of the highest integrity since huge structures including bridges, buildings, and piers rely on them for stability.

  • Ultrasound Tech

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +10%
        Median Annual Salary: $68,516

    Medical imaging is increasingly important for diagnosing various conditions. We mostly think of ultrasound technologists as providing images of late-pregnancy fetuses, they also are skilled at determining the sex of a child. Ultrasound technologists also help doctors with images of damaged organs and other diagnostic applications.

  • Computer Programmer

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): -10%
        Median Annual Salary: $68,261

    Computer programmers are the skilled tradespeople of the tech world. Programmers need to be skilled in specific computer coding languages to build or maintain certain software packages. Programmers don't necessarily need a degree since employers are more concerned with evidence of their coding ability.

  • Cardiovascular Tech

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +10%
        Median Annual Salary: $67,777

    Cardiovascular technologists work with various members of a cardio team to help diagnose and treat cardiovascular diseases or injuries. Cardiovascular technologists assist with electrocardiograms, heart catheters, and other tests of the cardiovascular system.

  • Ultrasonographer

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +10%
        Median Annual Salary: $67,627

    The healthcare system is increasingly reliant on the images these experts create. Ultrasonographers hone their craft over years to create the images their radiologists or obstetricians need for diagnosis and treatment. They often work with medical professionals during delicate procedures.

  • Ironworker

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +4%
        Median Annual Salary: $67,563

    These construction tradespeople specialize in building with iron beams. The job requires a great deal of precision when placing iron reinforcements as well as the beams that form the skeleton of major skyscrapers. Ironworkers tend to cultivate various specialties over the course of their career.

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Additional Potential Trade Careers and Salaries

  • Commercial Diver

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +8%
        Median Annual Salary: $66,129

    These tradespeople hold very high-level scuba certifications so that they can perform special dive operations. Commercial divers may help to set the foundation for bridges, or they may be contracted to search for items lost underwater. Most commonly, however, are commercial divers who work on offshore drilling operations for oil companies.

  • Landscape Architect

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): 0%
        Median Annual Salary: $65,303

    Landscape architects create designs for our outdoor spaces. Often landscape architects will design and install plants and hardscapes for a client and then maintain the area over time. Some clients have their landscape design changed once a year, if not seasonally.

  • Electrician

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +7%
        Median Annual Salary: $61,289

    Electricians work on the devices that deliver power to homes and buildings. Some, called linemen, focus on the power lines that border our streets and neighborhoods. Others, called wiremen, install domestic circuits and devices.

  • Wind Turbine Technician

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +44%
        Median Annual Salary: $61,042

    More and more, our electricity is sourced from sustainable resources, such as wind turbines. Wind turbine technicians work on so-called wind farms to ensure that the turbines operate smoothly and efficiently.

  • Solar Installer

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +27%
        Median Annual Salary: $58,555

    Our electricity is increasingly coming from sustainable sources, such as the sun. Solar installers specialize in solar panels. Most are installed on residential homes but there are new applications that find solar panels used as cover in large parking lots.

  • Real Estate Appraiser

        Job Outlook (2021-2031): +4%
        Median Annual Salary: $64,489

    Before an aspiring homeowner can get a mortgage, the lender sends a real estate appraiser to determine the home's value. Real estate appraisers compare the subject home with comparable homes in the same market, or neighborhood.

  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer - $67,188
  • Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Technician - $66,132
  • Aircraft Maintenance Technician - $65,989
  • Commercial Truck Driver - $64,404
  • Dental Hygienist - $63,749
  • Respiratory Therapist - $61,130
  • Web Developer and Digital Designer - $60,424
  • Lodging Manager - $59,430
  • Construction Inspector - $59,153
  • Aircraft Mechanic - $59,122
  • Building Inspector - $58,086
  • Civil Engineering Tech - $57,434
  • Police Officer - $56,644
  • Fire Inspector - $55,986
  • Automotive Technicians and Mechanics - $53,947
  • HVAC Technician - $53,631
  • Landscape Designer - $53,616
  • IT Support Specialist - $53,221
  • Paralegal or Legal Assistant - $52,950
  • Industrial Mechanic - $52,739
  • Construction Equipment Operator - $52,692
  • Camera Operators - $51,225
  • Carpenter - $51,224
  • Home Inspector - $50,103
  • Welders - $49,597
  • Graphic Designer - $49,092
  • Funeral Service Worker - $48,950
  • Chef or Head Cook - $44,340
  • Roofer - $44,235

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