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Essential Jobs That You Can Learn Online or On Campus

By Publisher
| Last Updated December 6, 2023

Healthcare, human services, public safety, communications, information technology, skilled trades, and business and financial services are examples of critical sectors with essential jobs. Online education is available for many vital occupations that pay well. You can study when and where you want while preparing for a new career that boosts your earning potential, which may be more reliable during hard times.

Woman using laptop in bright modern kitchenThe COVID-19 pandemic taught us that we need millions of workers to stay on the job—even during a major national crisis. Unlike millions of others deemed "non-essential," Americans with essential jobs perform duties that contribute to our very survival. They can often count on their work being seen as vital to the public's health, safety, and general welfare.

Of course, not everyone agrees about what is necessary.

We've learned from the coronavirus emergency that the work deemed most critical can vary from state to state and city to city. However, many occupations consistently appear on lists of high-priority workers. That means people with those careers can benefit from enhanced job security when many other workers are laid off.

By learning skills for an essential vocation, you can become more resilient to crises that harm the economy. And you can boost your income potential if you pursue a vital career that requires some post-secondary education.

Based on the federal government's list of critical industries during the COVID-19 response, we've identified several examples of good careers worth pursuing. For many of them, online programs are available, allowing you to learn from home. For others, you may need to enroll in an on-campus program.


Nurse with stethoscope in hospital room, patient resting in backgroundHealth and medical careers are always essential, but their importance is particularly magnified during a public health crisis. The list of necessary workers in this sector is almost impossibly long. It includes physicians, pharmacists, dentists, physical therapists, nurses, medical lab technicians, respiratory therapists, and many other medical practitioners, technologists, technicians, assistants, and administrative specialists. Here are a few more good examples.

Possible to learn online:

  • Health services manager: Plays a leadership role by planning, directing, and coordinating the efficient operations of a medical facility (or a specific department within one).
  • Health information coder: Ensures the correct codes are assigned for patients' diagnoses and treatments so that medical records are accurate for billing and future care assessments.

Typically learn on campus:

  • Registered nurse: Creates care plans for medical patients, monitors their treatment, provides explanations and emotional support, and much more. During public health crises, nurses who specialize in critical care are especially in demand.
  • Radiologic technologist: Takes x-rays or CT scans of patients to help doctors diagnose and monitor medical conditions' progress.

Human Services

Blonde woman with crossed arms standing in a bright office spaceMental, emotional, social, and financial well-being are frequently just as important as physical health during a crisis. That's why there is hardly ever a shortage of work for people on the frontlines of helping others cope with difficult or desperate circumstances. Like the healthcare industry, the human services sector requires a range of specialists, including managers and administrators. These are some of the most essential roles.

Possible to learn mostly online:

  • Social worker: Helps people in the community deal with problems caused by issues like domestic violence, neglect, poverty, addiction, disability, or mental or physical illness. You can specialize in the area that most interests you.
  • Mental health counselor: Provides advice, treatment, and compassionate support to people experiencing depression, anxiety, high stress, low self-esteem, and similar challenges. You can also specialize in providing substance abuse counseling to those suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Typically learn on campus:

  • Clinical psychologist: Assesses and treats people with acute or chronic psychological disorders by providing talk therapy, designing programs for behavior modification, or using other strategies. Many online psychology programs are available, but the clinical path often requires courses with on-campus laboratory components.
  • Occupational therapy assistant: Helps carry out treatment plans for people learning to get by at home or work while coping with disability or recovering from illness or injury.

Public Safety and Emergency Services

Police officer in uniform smiling and holding young child who is playfully wearing a police cap, indoors with a white wall and artwork in the background.Even in the best of times, our society requires workers who rescue and protect us from various dangers. It's why we have firefighters and air traffic controllers, among many other day-to-day heroes. So it's fair to say that careers in this category are almost always vital. Here are some that stand out.

Possible to learn the fundamentals online:

  • Emergency management director: Helps plan and lead effective responses to major emergencies caused by natural disasters, terrorism, cyberattacks, public health crises, or other dangers.
  • Correctional officer: Provides essential duties within the criminal justice system by maintaining order and security inside prisons or jails.

Typically learn on campus:

  • Police officer: Helps protect the people and property in the community by enforcing laws, responding to emergencies, and keeping an eye out for suspected criminals.
  • Emergency medical technician: Responds to 911 calls for urgent medical attention, provides first aid to sick and injured people, and transports them to the hospital when necessary.

Communications and Information Technology

Young African American man working at desk with computer in bright office setting.Many of us now take a steady flow of information for granted. But without the workers who keep us digitally connected and in the know, little could be accomplished in our modern world. Transmitting facts and data is especially important during emergencies. These are a few of the many professionals who help ensure that our news media and vast electronic infrastructure continue to function.

Possible to learn online:

  • Network systems administrator: Keeps critical computer networks secure and functional around the clock by optimizing their performance and making necessary repairs or upgrades.
  • News reporter: Monitors current events, gathers facts, interviews key people, and shares information with the public through print, online, or broadcast media outlets.

Typically learn on campus:

  • Computer hardware engineer: Designs, tests, upgrades, and oversees the manufacturing of computer equipment used in critical settings like data centers, research laboratories, and defense facilities.
  • Broadcast technician: Contributes to successful studio or on-location TV or radio broadcasts by setting up and operating transmitters and other key equipment, as well as keeping it all in good working condition.

Skilled Trades

Electrician wearing a hard hat examining a blueprint in front of an electrical panel in an industrial setting.Many hands-on jobs in skilled trades category are essential to the industries and conveniences we all depend on. For instance, consider the distribution of water, electricity, and natural gas. Think about the transportation and supply chains of the food and other goods we buy. Or picture the manufacturing of critical parts for vehicles or medical equipment. Tradespeople are counted upon in those sectors and many others. Here are some examples.

Possible to learn the basic concepts online:

  • Electrician: Performs urgent repairs and maintenance on the electrical wiring and components in homes, businesses, hospitals, factories, and other critical workplaces. Additionally, executes installation of electrical systems in newly constructed structures.
  • Plumber: Installs and repairs pipes, drains, toilets, water heaters, and other water-related systems, fixtures, and appliances.

Typically learn on campus:

  • CNC machine tool programmer: Sets up computer numerically controlled equipment to help manufacture specific plastic or metal parts.
  • HVAC technician: Provides repair, installation, or maintenance services that keep buildings' air and indoor climate healthy and comfortable.
  • Diesel engine specialist: Repairs and maintains large trucks, buses, heavy mobile equipment, or other powerful vehicles that operate on diesel fuel.
  • Commercial truck driver: Transports and delivers goods across long distances by safely driving heavy and tractor-trailer trucks.

Business and Financial Services

Many organizations, families, and individuals can be impacted during any kind of economic downturn. However, some careers in this category tend to be more stable than others. That's because they are often crucial to the management of money, assets, or personnel. Plus, you can get a college education for any of these careers, mostly or entirely online. So if you're at home and have time to study, don't overlook that opportunity. Check out these examples.

Professional woman in glasses smiling, holding a tablet, wearing a white top and black skirt standing in front of an office building.
  • Human resources manager: Oversees an organization's workforce, including the hiring, retention, training, and discipline of employees. Assists executives and employees in navigating challenging staffing or compensation issues during uncertain times.
  • Personal financial advisor: Provides expert guidance to people who want to grow their wealth, save for retirement, buy a home, minimize their tax obligations, protect their assets, or achieve other financial goals. Good financial advice can prove especially useful when the economy hits a rough patch.
  • Accountant: Helps organizations track, evaluate, and make decisions about their financial operations, so they can maximize their profits during good times and minimize their losses when things become more challenging.
  • Property manager: Ensures clients' income-producing properties are well-maintained, so they provide a good return on investment. In times of financial downturn, a property manager may need to negotiate alternative agreements with tenants facing difficulties meeting their lease obligations.