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10 High Paying Jobs for High School Graduates That Don’t Require a Degree


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Traditionally, attending college has been associated with increased earning power, decreased employment volatility, and long-term financial success. In fact, according to studies done by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, higher education can indeed be equated with higher earnings.

The historical success of college graduates, however, has increased the demand for higher education, which in turn has changed the face of the modern educational system. In recent years, established universities have hiked their prices considerably (i.e. average costs have increased 439% since 1982), while new for-profit institutions have arrived on the scene to meet the demand of students who may not qualify for or cannot afford entrance into traditional colleges.

In spite of the changes, labor statistics bear out that college remains an excellent investment for most Americans, especially if you take steps to afford college with less student loan debt and choose a great career field that pays well. With that said, there are still those for whom college is not an option or is a poor choice. It is for the benefit of these individuals that we examine the ten highest paying careers for high school graduates.

10 High Paying Career Fields for High School Graduates

1. Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers carry a massive responsibility in keeping the skies safe for commercial, military, and civilian aircraft. Earning a job as an air traffic controller requires substantial training which is generally not provided within the traditional college setting, but rather within a structured and highly controlled syllabus as dictated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

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Annual Salary: $107,600

Getting Hired: There are two main ways to become an air traffic controller without attending a college level air traffic control training program:

  1. Have prior military air traffic control experience.
  2. Apply for a “general public” position. To apply for a position from the general public without a 4-year college degree, you will need 3 years of full-time work experience.

Applicants from the general public will then need to pass an FAA pre-employment test, which measures their ability to function as an air traffic controller. Once they achieve a passing score, applicants become eligible for employment. They must then pass a security and medical exam as well as a drug screening test. All applicants are also required to be United States citizens and speak fluent English.

Once granted employment, employees attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City for 12 weeks for initial training. Upon successful completion of this training syllabus, employees are assigned to an air traffic control facility where they begin working as junior air traffic controllers. In this position, they combine real world experience with a continued training program that lasts between two and four years.

2. Managers

If you want to make extra money, pursue a management role within your career field. Beware of counting on a promotion to management anytime soon, however, as management jobs generally require experience and longevity within your field as well as the respect and trust of your peers and supervisors.

Annual Salary: $79,200

Getting Hired: Generally, you’ll have little say over whether you are promoted to a managerial position, aside from displaying a good work ethic and the ability to get along well with a variety of different people. But if you are anxious to move your career to the next level, take on additional projects, regularly network with your peers and supervisors, and volunteer for tasks that help the overall organization and display your ability to manage change.

3. Nuclear Power Reactor Operators

Nuclear Power Reactor Operators

Despite the vast responsibility and high level of technical know-how required, many nuclear power reactor operators only possess a high school or trade school education. Much of the training for this specialized career is provided on the job to those with a penchant for science and mathematics.

Annual Salary: $66,200

Getting Hired: Nuclear power reactor operators generally progress through a robust syllabus of on-the-job training. Candidates are normally required to possess a high school diploma with evidence of strong skills in math and science and must know how to use a computer well. In most plants, government-issued security clearance is a must.

Entry-level jobs often include labor intensive or clerical work, from which employees can move up the chain into higher paying jobs that require more training. An employee’s initial placement within a nuclear power plant and their subsequent career field is often based on the results of a placement exam taken during the hiring process. Once hired for an entry-level job, training to become a reactor operator can take up to three years.

4. Sales Representatives (Wholesale & Manufacturing, Technical & Scientific Products)

There is always money to be made in sales, especially sales of large and expensive equipment for specialized purposes. The larger the upfront cost of the item being sold, the larger the commission. That’s why sales representatives of wholesale, manufacturing, and technical products generally earn an excellent living wage.

Annual Salary: $60,800

Getting Hired: There is no formal requirement for training or education beyond the high school level for most jobs as a sales representative. Some of the more technical sales jobs are often offered to those with a college degree, but many are available to people of all educational backgrounds. In this career field, previous sales experience is highly desirable as is a track record of demonstrating sales success.

Though a college degree is not required, many employees will attend courses or seminars on sales, marketing, economics, or a foreign language in order to gain a tactical edge in the cutthroat world of commissioned sales. In addition, many companies require on-the-job training for newly hired salespeople.

5. Elevator Installers and Repairers

Thankfully, the men and women responsible for elevator safety are paid well to ensure that everyone who rides an elevator can count on its safety and security. Installers and repairers develop a specialized knowledge of elevator mechanics that is not learned in traditional educational settings.

Annual Salary: $59,200

Getting Hired: Most elevator installers and repairers learn their trade within an apprenticeship program. These programs are normally sponsored by the International Union of Elevator Constuctors, although workers may also complete apprenticeships sponsored by independent contractors. Apprenticeship programs normally last four years and combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction in blueprint reading, electrical and electronic theory, mathematics, physics, and safety.

Applications for apprenticeship programs are accepted from high school graduates. Being diligent in high school classes, such as electricity, math, and physics, will provide the apprentice a solid foundation off of which to base future training.

6. Power Distributors and Dispatchers

Power Distributors Dispatchers

Power distributors and dispatchers install, run, and repair the infrastructure that controls the U.S. power grid. They are responsible for the uninterrupted flow of electricity into homes, places of business, and all other facilities by managing power plants and electrical distribution infrastructures.

Annual Salary: $59,200

Getting Hired: Getting hired requires at least a high school diploma. However, those with higher levels of education may have an advantage in seeking employment. After being hired, employees undergo an extensive on-the-job training program which couples practical experience with classroom instruction. In fact, several years of experience are required to become fully qualified, and employees must take annual refresher courses and train on simulators in order to handle potential outages and other electrical distribution emergencies.

7. Real Estate Brokers

Commission-based sales people are performing well on our list with real estate brokers coming in at the #7 spot. Responsible for assisting clients in the purchase or sale of real estate nationwide, brokers are known for their hard work and client focus.

Annual Salary: $57,200

Getting Hired: Agents and brokers are required to be high school graduates. In fact, many real estate agents and brokers have some level of college education which often includes courses in business, economics, and mathematics. Though there is no formal education requirement, real estate agencies have begun to hire applicants with an advanced education due to the increasing complexity of the market.

All 50 U.S. states require real estate brokers and sales agents to be licensed. In pursuit of licensure, brokers must pass a written examination as well as complete between 60 and 90 hours of study. In addition, brokers must receive on-the-job training that normally lasts between one and three years.

8. Detectives and Criminal Investigators

Getting started in this field usually begins with employment as a police officer. It is possible to work up the ranks and become a detective without further education, though a 4-year degree in criminal justice is preferred and is increasingly becoming required.

Annual Salary: $55,800

Getting Hired: Applicants to a local or state police force are normally required to have a high school education, but more departments are requiring a four-year degree. Participation in sports during high school is generally considered a plus as it increases the competitive spirit and physical development of candidates. Knowledge of a foreign language can also help applicants stand out from other candidates.

After their initial hiring, officers are sent through a period of training which normally lasts between 12 and 14 weeks. During this training period, candidates learn constitutional law and civil rights, review state and local ordinances, and practice the fundamentals of their profession: patrolling, traffic control, the use of firearms, self defense, first aid, and emergency response.

9. Locomotive Engineers

Locomotive engineers are responsible for the safe transit of commercial and passenger trains around the nation. With the massive number of lives and property at stake in the performance of their daily duty, it is no wonder that locomotive engineers come in at #9 on our list.

Annual Salary: $55,500

Getting Hired: Railroads require that applicants have a high school diploma. Education and training takes place through multiple company programs and on-the-job training. Typical programs combine classroom and on-site training lasting from a few weeks to a few months.

10. Railroad Conductors and Yardmasters

Railroad Conductors Yardmaster

Like their counterparts at #9, Railroad Conductors and Yardmasters play an integral role in ensuring the safe and orderly conduct of our nation’s rail system, and round out our list at #10.

Annual Salary: $54,000

Getting Hired: Employment requirements for railroad conductors and yardmasters are almost identical to the requirements for locomotive engineers; applicants must have at least a high school diploma. Training for conductors and yardmasters is also achieved through the hiring company’s formal training program and on-the-job training. This training varies in length, depending on the employee’s current job, and incorporates classroom and on-site training.

Entry-level conductors, however, may be required to complete a formal conductor training program through a community college.

Final Word

Perhaps surprisingly, there are a number of professions that pay well and don’t require a college degree. From an examination of the list above, however, we can see that specialized technical information and training is still required for most. If you don’t think college is for you for whatever reason, or you’re anxious to jump into the work force, consider your skills and interests.

For example, are you good at math? How do you feel under pressure or handling large responsibilities? Do you enjoy working with people? Do you have what it takes to close a hard sale? Do you like to travel? What kind of environment do you enjoy working in?

As you identify your various skills and interests, research potential careers to see how suitable they may be for you. Remember, there’s a lot more to success than how much money you make. You want to be happy in your chosen career field as well. Keep in mind, though, that as the job market becomes more competitive and college degrees more common, it may be worth earning a degree while you work in your chosen profession. In this way, you can acquire experience within your field, and give yourself a leg up when being considered against your colleagues for potential promotions.

Is high school the highest level of education that you’ve completed? What career field did you end up in and how has the overall experience been for your life?

Pat S is an active duty military officer. On his off time he enjoys working out, reading, writing and spending time with his dog. Pat became interested in personal finance after several costly mistakes early in his military career that could have been avoided by a basic understanding of personal finance.