As college degrees continue to climb in cost, some companies are losing the degree requirement altogether and pursuing alternative methods of recruiting talented employees. While research shows that people with a bachelor’s degree tend to fare better in lifetime earnings, you can still earn a good living without one. And while few jobs pay that kind of money at the start, these career options offer the potential of reaching a six-figure income without a four-year degree.
Transportation, storage, and distribution managers
Logistics is big business, and companies need people who can get goods and products from point A to point B. Transportation, storage, and distribution managers keep the wheels of commerce turning by moving goods. As a reward for being able to get things where they need to go, these workers earn a mean annual wage of $92,460, with the 75th percentile earning more than $121,000 in 2017. Typically, entry-level jobs require a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Air traffic controllers
The people who keep planes moving in and out of airports can make serious bank. While an associate’s degree and intensive on-the-job training is required to be an air traffic controller, the median 2017 pay was $124,540 with the top 10% earning more than $175,800. Pay increases depending on the level of training and may fluctuate based on the area in which the controllers work.
While some companies require degrees as a matter of course, good salespeople have many opportunities to earn well as they build their skills and client base. Real estate salespeople must pass a course and be licensed in their state. According to the National Association of Realtors, 38% of members who had 16 years or more of experience made more than $100,000. From insurance to equipment to automobiles, virtually every product or service has a sales component to its business model.
Being successful in sales requires knowing your product and taking a business-minded approach, says Nick Cromydas, CEO of recruitment firm Hunt Club. “Outside sales representatives, they’re folks that are trying to scale their sales organizations very quickly that are passionate and hungry,” he says. And today’s technological advantages, such as customer relationship management and automated email marketing systems, can help salespeople stay organized, track leads, and increase sales, he says. He sees certain sales positions as excellent ways to make more than $100,000 with a high school diploma.
There is a wide array of technician roles within the healthcare community, such as sonographers, vascular technicians, and medical and clinical laboratory technicians. Each offers the promise to earn a median salary of approximately $50,000 to more than $65,000 per year.
An associate’s degree can also help you toward certification as a radiation therapist, who assists with radiation treatment for cancer and other diseases and can expect a median salary of $80,570, with top earners reaching $123,000, according to the BLS.
While airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree and extensive on-the-job training, commercial pilots who transport goods typically need a high school degree, training, and a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Commercial pilots in the manufacturing sector earn the most, with a median pay rate of more than $99,000 per year.
Beyond the BLS data, people working in the field are seeing more opportunities for people with high school diplomas, certificates, and associate’s degrees to have hefty earning power. “Other jobs that fall into this [six-figure] category are military officers—colonels and above,” says Marc Cendella, CEO of New York City-based Ladders, a job listing and career information site specializing in six-figure jobs. “Here in New York State, especially, certain police officers and fire department officials make over $100,000.”
Steve Wolfe, executive vice president of operations and administration at Addison Group, a Chicago-based staffing and employment agency, says he’s seeing more people land information technology growth jobs with certificates and associate’s degrees, including software engineers. “‘Prevalent may be too strong a word, but we’re seeing it with some regularity,” he says. He’s also seen cases where entry-level opportunities like computer support specialists rose through the ranks from the help desk to manager and increased their earning power to six figures.
Sarah Boisvert, founder of Fab Lab Hub, a Santa Fe-based commercial digital fabrication job shop and author of The New Collar Workforce: An Insider’s Guide to Making Impactful Changes to Manufacturing and Training, says she has interviewed roughly 200 manufacturers from startups to some of the world’s largest companies about their need for operators and technicians. As manufacturing equipment becomes increasingly tech-based, manufacturers need people with those skills, and they often don’t require a college degree.
“What I saw was that the bulk of the skills gap is really not in engineering or the higher-level areas, like R&D. It’s more in the operators and technicians,” she says. “Many, many people in my survey told me good engineers are a dime a dozen today, but try and find a digital machinist. I interviewed so many companies who said, I can’t adopt new technology like 3D printing, because I don’t have anybody to run the machines.”
Of course, the correlation between higher education and higher pay isn’t going away anytime soon. But there are opportunities for those who chose not to or are not able to pursue a four-year degree or more to land high-paying jobs.