Anyone keeping tabs on the news probably knows the U.S. has a bit of a student debt problem. A recent Pew Research Center analysis placed median student loan debt near $27,000 per graduate in 2012, and fees and interest rates drive costs even higher. Steep student loan payments mean many graduates must put off marriage, retirement planning and buying a home. And what's worse, many students would chalk it up to short-term pain, long-term gain. You need at least a bachelor's degree to get a good job, right?
No. You don't. Contrary to popular perception, many new jobs do not require a four-year degree. Of the thousands of new jobs expected to emerge in the decade before 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) projects that nearly 80 percent will require an associate degree or less.
The following technical, vocational and trade careers (in no particular order) are serious contenders for "gold collar" job status. Each requires an associate degree or less, is in demand, and paid at least $50,000 on average in 2013. Note that all career data and projections were compiled by the BLS and on a national basis; earnings and outlooks can vary regionally. Look to your state's labor department for more.
Successful web developers are both creative and technically savvy. These professionals design and create websites that are attractive, user friendly and technically sound. They must know how to code, debug problems and, in most cases, work well in a team. Homebodies take note: A quarter of Web developers were self-employed in 2012.
- Education required: Some Web developers have an associate degree, but self-taught developers with a snazzy portfolio may get by with less.
- Average compensation: $67,540 (BLS.gov, 2013)
- Job outlook: 20% projected job growth (2012 and 2022)
Registered nurses, or RNs, are a critical piece of the health care puzzle. RNs provide and coordinate patient care under the direction of a physician or surgeon. They also educate patients and their families about health conditions, treatment plans and long-term care options. The work can be gratifying, if challenging.
"I became an RN because I wanted to help people," said Lindsay Crosby, a traveling RN. "It can be emotionally and physically draining, but I feel good about what I do and can always find work."
- Education required: Most RNs earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), though some states accept diplomas from a nursing school. All states require RNs to be licensed, a process that requires candidates to complete accredited RN degree or diploma programs and earn passing scores on the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN.
- Average compensation: $68,910 (BLS.gov, 2013)
- Job outlook: 19 % projected job growth (2012 and 2022)
Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Advances in patient have made sonography a more affordable (and often less invasive) alternative to other diagnostic imaging technologies -- a trend that bodes well ultrasound technicians. These professionals use sonography to capture the images doctors need to monitor patient health and diagnose health problems. Some sonographers specialize in certain body systems, like abdominal, musculoskeletal, and obstetric and gynecologic sonography.
- Education required: Though requirements vary by state, most diagnostic medical sonographers typically a postsecondary certificate or an associate degree. Many employers and most insurance companies prefer to have work performed by licensed ultrasound technicians, though only some states require licensure.
- Average compensation: $67,170 (BLS.gov, 2013)
- Job outlook: 46% projected job growth (2012 and 2022)
Dental hygienists are typically the first providers patients see when reporting to the dentist, and their skills are in high demand. They clean teeth and examine patients for signs of oral disease like gingivitis, but also teach patients how to improve and maintain good dental health.
- Education required: Dental hygienists usually need an associate degree in dental hygiene. All states require hygienists to be licensed, though requirements vary by state.
- Average compensation: $71,530 (BLS.gov, 2013)
- Job outlook: 33% projected job growth (2012 and 2022)
Construction managers are an excellent example of just how valuable the right combination of education and experience can be, even in a traditionally "blue collar" field. Construction managers plan, budget, coordinate and supervise construction projects.
- Education required: Construction managers may need a bachelor's degree to lead large projects, but an associate degree may be sufficient for small and mid-size projects, especially for candidates with solid experience in the field.
- Average compensation: $92,700 (BLS.gov, 2013)
- Job outlook: 16% projected job growth (2012 and 2022)
Sales representatives sell goods or services to individuals, businesses, government agencies and other organizations, and may specialize in a certain area of sales, like retail, wholesale, medical or scientific sales. Experienced sales rep Richard Hayman told us that sales can be an incredibly exciting and lucrative field -- but only for those who are willing to put in the work.
"If you can't own your own business, the next best job is commission sales," said Hayman, noting that the field "is not for the lazy, but a college degree isn't required." Hayman went into sales on his father's advice despite already earning an engineering degree from Cornell. "He said after I learned how to sell, I could do anything I wanted in the company. It was the best advice and training he could have given me."
- Education required: Requirements vary by specialty, but a good number of representatives have an associate degree or less. Those who are expected to have more extensive technical or scientific knowledge may need at least two years of relevant postsecondary education.
- Average compensation: $85,610 (BLS.gov, 2013)
- Job outlook: 10% projected job growth (2012 and 2022)
Plumber or Pipefitter
Anyone who appreciates running water and living in a largely post-outhouse society can thank a plumber. Plumbers and pipefitters install, maintain and repair pipes (including water and gas pipes) in businesses, homes and other facilities, and may occasionally respond to emergency calls. Plumbing is one of the few fields that still embraces the apprenticeship model of training.
- Education required: While most plumbers learn on the job or through apprenticeships, technical school is an increasingly popular training path, especially among those who want to learn how to weld. Plumbers who complete training or an apprenticeship begin as journeymen, but with additional training and experience, can eventually earn master plumber status.
- Average compensation: $53,820 (BLS.gov, 2013)
- Job outlook: 21% projected job growth (2012 and 2022)