Lucrative Jobs That Don't Require a Degree

By Jake Schroeder
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Fact: College isn't for everyone. Despite what society (and high school guidance counselors) tell you, it’s still possible to succeed without a degree. If you're willing to start at the bottom and work your way up, you can ultimately achieve a secure, high-paying career — without the student loan debt.

All it takes is a little elbow grease and a willingness to learn. Sound good? Check out these top paying jobs, all requiring nothing more than on-the-job training or a certificate program.

Firefighter

The list of good reasons for becoming a firefighter is long. If you have a desire to serve others, the work is physically demanding and often dangerous, but saving lives and helping people in need can be extremely satisfying. It’s also great for people who want to steer clear of the 9-to-5 life in favor of a flexible schedule.

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Photo Courtesy: David Mark/Pixabay

What kind of training goes into being a firefighter? It's a serious job, so it must require some serious schooling, right? A firefighter certification from a vocational school or college is required — and isn’t easy — but the process can be completed in as little as six months.

Commercial Pilot

If you've ever taken an aerial tour of your favorite city, you have a commercial pilot to thank. They fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters and jets and provide charter flights, rescue operations, photography and other services to private companies. Duties, such as communicating with air traffic controllers, are shared with the flight crew.

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Although many companies do prefer to hire candidates who have a bachelor's degree for this high-pressure role, it's not mandatory from a legal perspective. The minimum education requirement to receive a commercial pilot's license is just two years of college. Tip: Try to take some courses like physics and math!

Real Estate Broker

Like a real estate agent, a real estate broker can help clients buy, sell and rent properties. The difference? A broker has passed a special exam and received a license that allows them to own a real estate firm and hire other agents to work for them.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in both roles should continue to grow well into the future. Although you need a license to work as a broker or an agent — each state has its own licensing requirements — coursework and exams can often be completed in as little as two months online.

Personal Trainer

If you love health and fitness and want to share that passion with others, a career as a personal trainer might be the right choice for you. Helping people achieve their wellness goals can be incredibly rewarding — and demand for trainers is expected to grow.

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But how do you train to be a trainer? Most gyms and fitness centers require their training staff to hold a professional certification obtained from an accredited outlet as well as CPR certification. Ongoing continuing education is also required to stay on top of the latest trends and practices in the field.

Professional Chef

Are your friends and family always raving about your chocolate cake or your mouth-watering souffle? If you love to cook, becoming a chef can be a fun career choice. Despite the often long and grueling hours, many people love being in the kitchen.

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Although many fine-dining restaurants do require a culinary degree, it's not a must in many others. Plenty of chefs start on the line and work their way up. Starting from the bottom, you can expect to work long days for little pay, but this is one industry where you get out of it what you put into it, and it's possible to move up quickly.

Long-Haul Truck Driver

Did you know that the trucking industry provides one out of every 16 jobs in America? There's a reason so many people choose to pursue this career! The average new driver earns about $35,000 a year, but bonuses can significantly increase that number. Got your own truck? You can expect at least $180,000 a year. Wow!

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You don't need a degree to be a truck driver, so you can keep all the money you would have spent on tuition and student loans. Training for trucking is often provided by the company that hires you, although you are responsible for obtaining your CDL.

Hair Stylist

You know what a hair stylist does: shampoos, cuts and colors your hair at the salon. They may even change your texture with a straightener or perm or add length with extensions. Being a stylist also means having a good eye and the ability to analyze hair and recommend styles and treatments.

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How do you train to offer the best service to your clients? Every state requires you to be at least 16 years old and graduate from a state-approved cosmetology program. In addition to training, you will have to obtain a license from the state where you want to work.

Auto Mechanic

Auto mechanics are always in demand, and a career as a mechanic means you're practically guaranteed steady work. Even when people don't have the income to buy a new car, the vehicles they already own will always require maintenance and repairs.

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Choosing a career as a mechanic allows you to gain tons of valuable knowledge about cars while avoiding thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Students attend a vocational school for training and then work as a paid apprentice while they learn the trade. The best part? You'll never have to pay an auto repair bill again!

Garbage Man

Many people would automatically reject the idea of being a garbage man. They think of all the stinky trash, physical labor and long days outside, and they immediately say no. Waste management workers are essential to keeping our communities clean and safe — and they are rewarded with some pretty serious cash.

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How do you become a garbage collector? You need nothing more than a commercial driver's license and some seriously strong arms and legs. If you can deal with weird odors and harsh weather, you can make up to $80,000 a year working for a private waste management firm.

Court Reporter

Have you ever wondered about that person with the little typewriter in the courtroom? Court reporters create word-for-word transcriptions at trials, depositions and other legal proceedings. Some even provide captioning for television or real-time translation services for those with hearing impairments.

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Although it’s possible to get an associate degree in court reporting, it's not necessary. Most employers require a certificate (which can be obtained at a community college or technical school), plus a few weeks of on-the-job training. Many states require court reporters who work in a legal setting to have a state license or certification.

Electric Power Line Installer

Electric lineworkers make $70,000 a year, on average, and handle a variety of duties every day. Some of their responsibilities include testing electrical circuits for proper functioning, controlling power supply connections and climbing equipment to access work areas. Conditions are often dangerous, sometimes even life-threatening.

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You might think someone in this role would need a college degree, but applicants need nothing more than a high school diploma and passing scores on fitness and health tests. New hires are typically provided with at least one year of on-the-job training, plus classroom instruction, and pay is commensurate with experience.

Electrical Contractor

If you want a career that will offer a constant stream of work, consider becoming an electrician. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for electricians is expected to grow. Unfortunately, electrical contractors have reported declining numbers of qualified workers — meaning there aren't enough new workers to replace those who retire.

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To become an electrician, you learn through a technical school or apprenticeship program. Apprenticeships are paid for by the contractor you work for, so you only pay for textbooks. Even better? You can work as an introductory-level electrician while you take classes, earning money as you go.

Architectural Drafter

Did you know an architect doesn't do everything on their own? They employ architectural drafters who use software to convert their original designs into technical drawings. Although drafters spend much of their time working on computers, they may also visit job sites to collaborate with architects.

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Drafters typically complete some education after high school, such as a program at a community college or technical school, as well as getting certified in CAD (computer-aided design). Classes include topics like design fundamentals, sketching and CAD. Although it’s possible to earn an associate of applied science in drafting, it's not necessary.

Plumbing Contractor

Plumbing is another profession that is always in demand. They handle emergencies like clogged toilets and leaky dishwashers along with routine tasks like installing new sinks and bathtubs. Although they often work as independent contractors, some work alongside other construction workers as part of a team.

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Most plumbers only make about $32,000 a year to start, but the potential increases to more than $90,000 a year with experience. Education includes paid apprenticeships, which combine classroom instruction with on-the-job training. Most states require a license to work as a plumber in addition to two to five years of experience.

Postmaster

Perhaps you like the idea of working for the U.S. Postal Service, but you don't want to walk or drive a mail route every day. Postmasters work inside the post office and are responsible for managing day-to-day operations. They hire, train and supervise employees as well as handle customer service and administrative tasks.

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All postal workers must have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and many pursue an associate degree, although this is not required. To become a postmaster, you must have one to five years of experience in a field like customer service or administration as well as on-the-job training.

Private investigator

Does anything sound cooler than becoming a private investigator and cracking unsolved cases? Private investigators (PIs) are hired to locate missing people, help solve crimes and find missing or hidden information. They work independently or for law enforcement agencies and private companies.

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To become a PI, you must possess effective communication skills, be unafraid of confrontation and pay close attention to detail. In most jurisdictions, there are no formal education requirements, but you can expect a background check to qualify for a license. It should come as no surprise that you can’t have a criminal record.

Pet Groomer

What's more fun than hanging out with adorable doggies all day long? That's one of the reasons so many animal lovers choose to become pet groomers. In addition to steady work, minimal education requirements and relatively good pay, they get plenty of therapeutic pet time.

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Pet groomers can learn the basics of the trade quickly and usually do so on the job. They can also participate in professional training programs to further their skills or learn about specific breeds or groups of breeds (e.g., toy dogs). Also, groomers need to pursue continuing education courses to learn new techniques and skills on a routine basis.

Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers are critical to safe travel. They coordinate the movements of aircraft in the sky (and on the ground). The job is considered one of the most stressful careers out there, but the pay is good: The median annual wage for air traffic controllers is $124,540.

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Although job candidates often have a college degree from the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program, it's not essential. You can apply for the job with three years of progressively responsible work experience, and you have to submit medical and background checks and pass an exam at the Federal Aviation Administration academy.

Dental Hygienist

Typically, when you go in for a dental exam, you only see the dentist briefly at the end of your appointment. The person who takes care of you for most of the appointment is the dental hygienist. They clean your teeth, examine your mouth for signs of oral diseases, remove tartar and stains and more.

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Dental hygienists typically have to complete a program at a community college or technical school, although bachelor's and master's programs are available if you choose to go that route. Programs usually take about three years, and all states require hygienists to be licensed upon completion.

Brick Mason

Brick masons — also referred to as bricklayers — repair and build a variety of brick and stone structures, including walkways, walls and floors. They must be strong and capable of physically demanding work as well as be adept at mathematics, sketching and blueprint reading.

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Like most other trades, applicants must possess a high school diploma or equivalent, but training takes place on the job. Although some technical schools offer programs in brick masonry, most candidates take part in a paid apprenticeship. A mason who owns their own business and contracts directly with clients will probably be required to have a license.

Automobile Insurance Appraiser

Insurance appraisers play a vital role when you are involved in an automobile accident. They are the ones who decide whether an insurance company must pay a claim and how much the claim is worth. They also ensure that claims are not fraudulent. The job often takes place in the field, going to different locations to inspect damaged automobiles.

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There are no specific education requirements to become an appraiser, but some employers may prefer candidates to have a bachelor's degree. Still, it’s possible to obtain an entry-level position with a high school diploma and work your way up. Many employers offer in-house training programs.

Ultrasound Technologist

Ultrasound technologists operate special equipment that uses high-frequency sound waves to record images of internal organs. Although the procedure is often associated with pregnancy, it's used for a variety of other purposes, such as abdominal, breast, vascular and cardiac sonography.

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If you want to become an ultrasound technologist, you can complete two and half years of education and training through a technical school or community college if — and only if — you are already working in another healthcare occupation. Following that training, the final requirement is passing a national credentialing exam. All 50 states require technologists to be licensed.

Executive Assistant

Executive assistants are similar to administrative assistants. Their work revolves around completing office duties to support someone else. The difference is that an executive assistant is specifically assigned to work for a top-level executive. Their job involves supervising and training other staff, including lower-level administrative assistants, as well as accounting, meeting organization and client relations.

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There are no specific education requirements for an executive assistant, although the role is usually achieved after several years of experience at lower levels. Completing online certification courses for common software programs, such as Microsoft Office, could make you a more attractive candidate.

Insurance Broker

If you own or lease a car or home, you have probably spoken with an insurance agent. They act as a middleman between you and the insurance company to help you obtain appropriate coverage at a reasonable price. Their products typically include health, long-term care insurance and property and casualty.

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Insurance brokers perform the same duties, but they aren’t employed directly by an insurer. Instead, they obtain quotes from a variety of sources and submit applications on behalf of their buyers. There are no specific education requirements, although a state license is required for each different type of insurance they want to sell.

Web Developer

In today's economy, big-name companies often look to freelancers for many jobs, rather than hiring in-house staff. One of the most frequently needed roles is a web developer — someone who can design and code web pages. They not only create new websites but also troubleshoot problems and update and maintain existing sites.

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There are no specific requirements for web developers, and many of the basics are taught in high school computer classes. Still, many employers look for candidates with more advanced education, so some college courses in graphic design or coding wouldn't hurt. Many options are available online.

Radiation Therapist

Radiation therapists administer life-saving treatments to patients with cancer and other diseases every day. They often work with radiation oncologists, oncology nurses and radiation physicists. Their duties include explaining treatments to patients, completing x-rays and operating the machine that administers radiation. They are often on their feet for hours at a time.

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The job sounds demanding, but it's also highly rewarding, and there are a lot of opportunities for advancement. Candidates only need to complete a 12-month certificate program to get hired. With experience, they can work their way up to manage programs in hospitals or other healthcare facilities.

Nuclear Operator

A lot of controversy surrounds nuclear power, but many people believe it’s the energy of the future. Demand for nuclear operators (the people who control the flow of electricity generated) is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.

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With duties that include starting and stopping valves, testing equipment, routine maintenance of machines and collecting and disposing of radiological waste, it’s a career that sounds like it requires some serious education. In reality, becoming a nuclear operator requires only a high school diploma and a license from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Elevator Installer and Mechanic

Next time you ride an elevator safely from one floor to the next, thank an elevator installer. Elevator installers and mechanics are responsible for installing, maintaining and repairing elevators, escalators and moving walkways. Workers need to have flexible schedules to be on call in case of emergencies.

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Each type of work — installation, maintenance, repair — requires different training, so workers tend to specialize in one area. To take on any of those roles, you will have to complete a four-year apprenticeship that consists of 144 hours of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training.

Welder

Think of things in your life that are made of metal: bridges, automobiles, bicycles, even the oven in your kitchen. A welder bonded each of those items together so they could withstand weight, heat and pressure without falling apart.

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In addition to being an incredibly cool job (who doesn't want to play with blowtorches all day?), becoming a welder is reasonably easy to do. That's not to say it doesn't require skill, but most employers provide on-the-job training via a paid apprenticeship and not through a college degree. You may also obtain certification through the American Welding Society.

Farmer

Have you seen that "If you ate today, thank a farmer" bumper sticker on anyone's car recently? It's not a bad idea. Farmers directly impact your life every day through the food you eat, and they often work long, hard, back-breaking hours with little time for themselves.

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Of course, they also get to spend their days outside and work for themselves. It’s a pretty good gig if you enjoy manual labor. So, how do you land it? Old-fashioned hands-on experience — find an experienced farmer willing to train you and learn on the job.