College degrees may be associated with stable jobs and high salaries, but contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not always the case. Recent studies show that it takes the average college graduate three to six months to secure employment after graduation (University of Washington, 2021). Moreover, approximately 53% of college graduates are unemployed or are working in a job that does not require a bachelor’s degree (Federal Reserve Bank, 2021).
Trade school graduates, on the other hand, typically land a job before they even complete their program. As such, there are many cases where college graduates struggle to find employment while trade school students are well on their way to clearly-defined career paths, even managing to secure employment among the highest paying trade school jobs.
This article provides a list of the 25 highest paying trade school jobs. All the identified jobs require at least a high school degree, plus years of experience, some postsecondary education, or vocational education training.
Postsecondary education graduates with work experience enter the labor market more smoothly (Oswald-Egg and Renold, 2020). Vocational education and training, as provided by technical schools, vocational colleges, and trade schools, give students an option aside from pursuing the traditional four-year university degree.
After all, not all students thrive in a college setting as they would in technical school and vice versa. This was what a study by Choi et al. (2019) titled, “Impact of vocational education and training on adult skills and employment: An applied multilevel analysis” discussed as it looked into the individual returns of vocational education and training (VET).
Published in the International Journal of Educational Development, Choi et al. (2019) found that “Individuals with vocational education scored 12.09 lower than general education graduates in terms of literacy ability. However, this was compensated for by the higher probability of VET graduates being employed. VET graduates had 1.519 times higher odds of employment than general education graduates. With regard to the long-term effects of VET, this study indicated that there were converging patterns in labor market outcomes.”
In the U.S., the construction trade posted the highest skilled trade jobs in demand with a 360% increase from January to August 2021 (Hoff, 2021). However, this trade, along with other in-demand skilled trade jobs, remains unfilled. This is despite the fact that skilled trade workers are typically paid well and can land a job faster than the typical four-year bachelor program graduate. Through the years, vocational education has been perceived as the path for those who cannot make it to the traditional four-year college. But as revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, key sectors that will sustain economies need highly-skilled graduates of trade schools.
The truth is, trade school is neither better nor worse than college. Depending on individual priorities and career plans, trade school can provide several benefits:
Trade school programs can be completed in as little as six months. Dedicated to vocational training, trade schools offer a curriculum that provides hands-on training and classroom theories, minus the general education classes. In vocational or trade school, every coursework intends to teach specific skills and provide practical knowledge. For instance, welders only take courses and practical training related to welding, and plumbers only take courses and practical training related to plumbing.
A radiology program graduate from a trade school may also pursue sonography, nuclear medicine, and other career paths that involve medical imaging. A vocational school provides specific foundational knowledge and skill sets that can lead to career advancement.
Cost can become a major consideration when it comes to investing in education. Trade school graduates typically complete their program with less student debt. The average four-year college program costs $127,000 while the average trade school costs $33,000. At an interest rate of 4% over 10 years of payment, the college graduate would have to pay a total of $154,000 and the trade school graduate would pay $40,000.
Once you graduate from trade school, you will have the proper certifications and work experience that will make you a competitive applicant. Most trade schools also provide job placement for their graduates by partnering with organizations that provide apprenticeship programs.
Longer education does not guarantee higher earnings. The general average salary for college graduates is $50,000 per year, and there are at least 30 million jobs in the U.S. that do not require a bachelor’s degree but pay more than $55,000 per year.
Source: People Ready
Whether you want to pursue a career in medicine, information technology, culinary arts, or any other industry, there are plenty of high-paying trade school jobs that you can look into. Below is a compilation of some of the most lucrative options based on median annual salary and job outlook from 2020 to 2023. All the data has been sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook which was updated in 2021.
Median annual salary: $130,420
Job outlook: 4%
On top of the list of highest-paid trade school graduates are air traffic controllers. They are in charge of coordinating the movement of aircraft to ensure that safe distances are maintained. Maximum concentration is required from air traffic controllers as they work in control towers, approach control facilities, and route centers.
An associate degree is typically required for this job. The Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program is an example of a training program for students that desire to work as air traffic controllers. In the U.S., air traffic controllers are required to be legal citizens, and are also required to undergo medical and background checks, and take exams and courses from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) academy.
Median annual salary: $89,190
Writing and testing codes that ensure the smooth execution of software and applications is the main role of the computer programmer. While the job outlook for computer programmers is projected to decline through 2030, learning a new programming language holds the key to being able to thrive in this lucrative industry.
Typically engaged in computer systems design, computer programmers have an associate’s degree while some have a bachelor’s degree. Employers typically prefer hiring programmers that specialize in specific programming languages. Computer programmers are highly analytical and detail-oriented.
Median annual salary: $88,540
Job outlook: 6%
Typically on-call 24 hours a day, elevator and escalator installers and repairers have acquired the necessary mechanical skills to install, fix, and maintain elevators through apprenticeships. The apprenticeship program usually lasts for four years, each year requiring a predetermined number of hours of technical instruction and paid on-the-job training.
Elevator and escalator installers and repairers keep an accurate record of job orders and maintenance, they know how to use a variety of power tools used in installing and fixing elevators and escalators. They are also skilled in troubleshooting elevator and escalator malfunctions. Typically working in cramped areas, elevator and escalator installers and repairers must be physically fit as their job requires lifting heavy materials.
During training, apprentices learn about safety, blueprint reading, mathematics, applied physics, elevator and escalator parts, electrical and digital theory, and electronics.
Median annual salary: $86,850 per year
Job outlook 9%
Radiation therapists facilitate the treatment of cancer and other diseases through the use of radiation technology. Typically, radiation therapists have an associate’s degree, but some also have a bachelor’s degree. In most states, radiation therapists are required to secure a license to practice. Radiation therapists are detail-oriented because they perform extremely sensitive procedures.
They are skilled in operating medical equipment and possess the physical stamina needed for the job. Radiation therapists are also experts in interpersonal communication because they have to make patients feel at ease all the time for the procedure to be conducted properly.
Median annual salary: $79,590
Job outlook: 8%
A nuclear medicine technologist prepares and administers radioactive drugs in medical procedures. As graduates of accredited nuclear medicine technology programs, nuclear medicine technologists have obtained a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s degree. Since nuclear medicine technologists perform very precise procedures that involve highly toxic substances, they are required to have a license in most states.
Nuclear medicine technologists are knowledgeable in human anatomy, physiology, and other sciences. This is important because determining the right dosage is crucial for every patient. They are highly analytical and detail-oriented, but compassionate and emphatic to patients at the same time.
Median annual salary: $77,200
Job outlook: 13%
While the creation and maintenance of websites is the job of the web developer, the digital designer is in charge of developing, creating, and testing the website interface. Their roles may be different but they typically work together in computer systems design and related services industry. Digital designers and web developers may work in the publishing industry, advertising, and management consulting.
A high school diploma or some postsecondary or vocational education is required to be qualified for this job. Most web developers and digital designers also pursue a bachelor’s degree for career advancement.
Median annual salary: $77,090
Job outlook: 11%
When it comes to assisting dentists in maintaining oral hygiene, dental hygienists are the ones checking patients for signs of oral disease. Dental hygienists provide preventive care and also teach patients how to keep their teeth healthy. Dental hygienists typically have an associate degree, which usually takes three years to complete. Most states require dental hygienists to be licensed.
Dental hygienists are skilled in assessing the oral health of patients. In some states, dental hygienists are allowed to work even without the supervision of a dentist. They are very familiar with dental procedures and are problem solvers. Dental hygienists also possess interpersonal and communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal, which is very important in providing their services.
Median annual salary: $76,270
Job outlook: 30%
One of the fastest-growing trade jobs in 2021 is that of a logistician, who plays a crucial role in every organization’s operations. They ensure that supply chains are working efficiently as otherwise it would have a significant effect on overall profitability.
Analysis and coordination are the major skills of a logistician. They should also have superior organizational and problem-solving skills. While a bachelor’s degree is offered in preparation for this role, an associate’s degree has typically been sufficient for employers that put more weight on apprenticeship. Previous work experience in a field related to logistics, supply chains, or business can be put in place of a specific degree. Although certification is not required to land a job in this field, it can be a ticket to career advancement.
Median annual salary: $75,920
Job outlook: 14%
Diagnostic medical sonographers employ a combination of soft and hard skills in performing their job. Working with patients requires interpersonal skills, and conducting the imaging procedure requires technical skills to get the most accurate images for diagnostic purposes. In performing diagnostic imaging, these professionals move the equipment and capture key images, requiring superior hand-eye coordination. Since they operate special imaging equipment, diagnostic medical sonographers are required to earn professional certification.
Diagnostic medical sonographers need formal education, such as an associate’s degree or a postsecondary certificate. Specific courses in human anatomy and physiology are required for this job.
Median annual salary: $72,530
Job outlook: 7%
Occupational health and safety technicians analyze work environments and procedures by collecting data. They typically work in the manufacturing sector where they evaluate the operations of manufacturing facilities. Occupational health and safety technicians are certificate program or associate’s degree completers, while some have postsecondary education and apprenticeship. They are required to have professional certifications from the Board of Certified Safety Professionals and the American Board of Industrial Hygiene.
Occupational health and safety technicians must be good communicators because they must be able to communicate safety instructions and concerns to employees and managers. They work with complex testing equipment and also educate organizations on how to follow safety standards and complex government regulations. To become a qualified occupational health and safety technician, you must have at least an associate’s degree or certificate from a community college or vocational school.
Median annual salary: $71,880
Job outlook: 15%
This job requires highly technical skills as pile driver operators operate machines that hammer piles into the ground to support building foundations, bridges, and piers. using pedals and levels, pile driver operators work from machine cabs to direct operation and move heavy materials at construction sites and mining sites.
Pile drivers have extensive training on heavy equipment operations as provided by trade schools. While pile driving does not require formal education, employers still prefer those who have acquired formal training and years of apprenticeship. Typically, most pile drivers start to work with light equipment. After sufficient training, they will be allowed to operate heavier machines. Certification as a pile driver operator can help you stand out in the job market and makes it easier to advance your career.
Median annual salary: $68,030
Job outlook: 0%
The work of line installers and repairers involves electrical and telecommunication cables, including fiber optics. They install and repair these systems and may encounter serious hazards on the job as they often work at great heights and high voltage electricity. While most line installers and repairers work full time, most are on-call as needed by service companies. Despite limited employment growth, about 23,300 openings for line installers and repairers are projected each year, on average, over the next decade.
Long-term on-the-job training is an important qualification in this line of work, plus the applicable certificates on technical instruction. Most utility companies require line installers to have a high school diploma or equivalent, but completers of trade school programs are often preferred for having basic knowledge on electronics and principles of electricity.
Median annual salary: $66,680
Job outlook: 10%
Also known as aviation and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians, aircraft mechanics ensure that engine and electrical systems are in good condition. The role of the aircraft mechanic also encompasses conducting tests on aircraft components, looking for signs of wear and tear, and replacing parts and components. Usually employed by airports and airline service shops, aircraft mechanics read and interpret aircraft schematics, and have a solid understanding of aircraft electrical systems.
Before taking on this role, the aircraft mechanic is required to at least have an associate’s degree. Proper knowledge in aviation flight instruments or computer systems repair is needed to maintain complex systems. In addition, as flight instruments have become increasingly computerized, additional training is required by the FAA to comply with updated regulations.
Median annual salary: $65,360
Job outlook: 8%
Boilermakers are highly skilled workers that learn their craft through apprenticeship programs. They are trained to use boilermaker tools and equipment, including blueprint reading and sketching, and metals and installation techniques. Boilermakers typically work in confined spaces and are also used to installing boilers at elevated areas.
Boilermakers are usually required to have a license in most states. Maintenance and repair of boilers, closed vats, and other large vessels or containers that hold liquids and gases is also the turf of boilermakers.
Median annual salary: $62,860
Job outlook: -3%
The projection for building and home inspector occupation is declining at -3% through 2030. This projection, however, is dependent on the demand of employers. If you will take the path of an independent contractor, this career can be very promising. Purchasing a property is a major investment and inspectors are often sought to assess the integrity of the property to make sure that there are no underlying issues. Home and building inspectors typically check the property’s foundation, the heating, and cooling systems, the structural integrity, and will also check for any code violations.
Building and home inspectors typically need a high school diploma, plus relevant experience in the construction trade. On-the-job experience is often the key to achieving competency. Most states require home and building inspectors to have a license or certification.
Median annual salary: $62,120
Job outlook: 11%
Fire inspectors ensure that potential fire hazards are eliminated. They inspect buildings at least once a year to ensure that they meet the latest federal, state, and local fire codes. As experienced firefighters, fire inspectors are always ready to respond when fires occur and are always required to be on-site to conduct post-fire investigations.
Fire inspectors need to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, plus postsecondary training in technical or vocational schools, or through on-the-job training. They are also trained to become forest fire inspectors, which are occurring more frequently due to climate change. A two-year degree or certificate program in engineering, chemistry, or fire science can pave the way for this career. Most firefighters are also completers of postsecondary education programs for emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
Median annual salary: $58,230
Job outlook: 6%
The mechanical engineering technician assists mechanical engineers in the design, development, testing, and manufacture of machines and other mechanical devices. Typically working in factories and R&D laboratories, mechanical engineering technicians have an associate’s degree or some postsecondary training, while others are graduates of vocational and technical schools.
Mechanical engineering technicians help optimize the performance of mechanical products with the mechanical engineer as their lead. They also create sketches, record data, make estimates and report their findings on specific tests. Mechanical engineering technicians may advance to become mechanical engineering technologists after obtaining appropriate education or certification.
Median annual salary: $58,170
Job outlook: 4%
Funeral service workers organize and manage the details of internment, including the details of ceremonies that honor the deceased. A funeral service worker is the umbrella term for the mortician, the undertaker, or the funeral director. State licensing laws for funeral workers require them to be at least 21 years old, have at least two years of formal postsecondary education and supervised training. They typically have an associate degree in mortuary science education in which they are trained in grief counseling, ethics, and business law.
Funeral service workers are on-call 24 hours a day due to the nature of their job. Since death is a delicate matter, they are trained to perform their job with compassion and sympathy, both for the deceased and the family. Time management is important because funeral service workers often handle multiple customers.
Median annual salary: $56,900
Job outlook: 9%
Electricians are typically graduates of trade schools where they learn how to install, test, and maintain electrical systems. Their skills are further honed through apprenticeships. Most electricians work full-time and are always on-call. They are troubleshooters and problem-solvers and are always learning new things on the job. Electricians may work indoors and even outdoors to be able to provide power systems to structures and other areas that need electrical systems.
One of the major responsibilities of an electrician is to ensure that electrical designs and systems in homes and buildings comply with all the relevant codes. They are also skilled in reading blueprints and schematics.
Median annual salary: $56,670
Job outlook: 9%
Lodging managers manage the operations of hotels, motels, and other establishments that offer accommodations. They ensure that guests experience a pleasant stay, while at the same time keeping the business running efficiently and profitably. Lodging managers have under their belt several years of hotel work experience, an associate’s degree or certificate in hotel management, or even a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management.
This job requires working long hours because hotels are typically open 24 hours, and the front desk can be challenging and stressful most of the time. For this reason, lodging managers should be good problem solvers, must have impeccable customer service and interpersonal skills that can deal with all types of customers.
Source: Education Resources Information Center
Median annual salary: $56,590
Job outlook: 15%
Foodservice managers are responsible for the daily operation of restaurants or other establishments that prepare and serve food and beverages. They work in restaurants, school cafeterias, college residence dining halls, and other establishments that offer dining services. Their work is not always confined to the backend as they also have to deal with the complaints of customers. This is the reason why food service managers should have customer service skills as one of their most important qualifications.
Most food service managers are graduates of certificate programs in trade schools, but those with a high school diploma and several years of work experience in the foodservice industry may also take this career path. Some additional training may be required by employers, which are available in community colleges, vocational or technical schools, or culinary schools.
Median annual salary: $56,330
Job outlook: 5%
To learn the pipefitter trade, one may take the path of apprenticeship, or take a combination of on-the-job and trade school training. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install pipes that may carry acids, gases, and chemicals. They also work in large office buildings and power plants in which their role is to maintain the plumbing for heating and cooling systems. Solid knowledge of hydraulic (water) pressure and pneumatic (air) pressure is required, as well as skills in electronic controls. Plumbers are also very adept at following building plans and blueprints.
Aside from their technical skills, plumbers are also great collaborators as they often work with general contractors, electricians, and other construction professionals.
Median annual salary: $56,230
Job outlook: 68%
Having the highest employment projection through 2030 at 68%, wind turbine technicians are involved in the installation, repair, and maintenance of wind turbines. Wind turbines are heavy machines that demand a combination of specific technical skills. This job requires a specific set of training and years of experience.
Often working at great heights and cramped spaces, wind turbine technicians develop their skills by attending a technical school while at the same time receiving technical training through an apprenticeship. In addition, the manufacturer of wind turbines also provides training to wind turbine technicians.
Median annual salary: $54,800
Job outlook: 5%
Commercial divers are typically employed by the oil industry. These divers are highly skilled in installing and fixing broken structures underwater in which underwater welding is used. Some commercial divers are also skilled photographers and are commissioned by organizations to take photos of marine life and underwater structures.
There are also HAZMAT divers whose job entails search and rescue responsibilities as well as cleaning and controlling oil spills. The commercial diving course takes roughly six months to complete as offered by trade schools and technical institutes. These commercial diving training schools are typically affiliated with professional organizations such as the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI), International Marine Contracts Association (IMCA), and National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE).
Median annual salary: $53,380
Job outlook: 25%
Orchestrating the kitchen are chefs and head cooks who are in charge of overseeing daily food preparation at restaurants and other establishments where food is served. Chefs and cooks also work for private households and often work early mornings, late evenings, holidays, and weekends. They are trained to perform in fast-paced settings, cooking and managing multiple food preparation procedures at the same time.
While most seasoned chefs and head cooks learn their craft through long years of experience in the kitchen through apprenticeship, others are graduates of community colleges, culinary arts schools, and some are completers of four-year programs.
Now that you have the list of the highest paying trade school jobs, you have an idea of what trade jobs pay the most. Getting your postsecondary education from a trade school can be a viable alternative to the traditional four-year college degree but there are other things that you have to take into account. Carefully evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of both trade school and college within your context.
Vocational school offers significant advantages over college education, which may prove to be significant to your specific career plans. Misconceptions exist about the perceived advantages of a college degree over trade school education but as shown in the list of high-paying trade school jobs, vocational education also opens doors to rewarding career paths.