26 Short Career Programs That Lead to High-Paying Jobs
| Last Updated October 11, 2022
Are you eager to start earning good money but not ready to commit to a bachelor's degree? Trade schools and colleges offer short career programs that can qualify you for a professional role that pays well. Plenty of high-paying jobs with little schooling required rival jobs that need a bachelor's or higher, especially when it comes to salary and job outlook.* Areas like healthcare, technology, and skilled trades are full of opportunities.
Is it possible to get a job that pays well without spending four or more years at a traditional college or university? Could trade schools near me offer training that could lead to a good-paying job?
The answer is yes. Absolutely. Many people choose to bypass that longer path and end up with some of America's highest-paying jobs. Without a degree like a bachelor's, they can still out-earn many four-year college graduates.
So, what does it take? It takes a broader view of your educational options and the enthusiasm to learn what skills are needed in the marketplace. Let this be your introduction to a world of fast careers that pay well. The opportunities for those with just two years or less of trade school or vocational training can be surprising.
High-Paying Jobs With Little Schooling Required
Following, you'll find some of the best-paying careers with little schooling required. For many, all you need is a simple two-year associate degree. And a months-long diploma or certificate program is often enough for some of the fastest careers to get into. Keep in mind that what you can earn might vary depending on which part of the country you work in and how much experience you have.
1. Dental Hygienist
Cleaning teeth, inspecting mouths for signs of disease, and educating patients about proper oral care are the primary duties of dental hygienists. For quick degrees that pay well, this is a popular option. Dental hygienist training can be completed in as little as two years.
- Median pay: $77,810
- Top pay: $100,200 or more
2. Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
These healthcare technicians use special ultrasound technology to capture images that help doctors correctly diagnose and treat their patients. Most ultrasound techs have an associate degree in diagnostic medical sonography.
- Median pay: $77,740
- Top pay: $101,650 or more
3. Registered Nurse
With just an associate degree in nursing, you can enter the world of providing and coordinating essential care for patients in places like hospitals, nursing facilities, and other healthcare settings.
- Median pay: $77,600
- Top pay: $120,250 or more
4. Web Developer/Digital Interface Designer
Building attractive and functional websites requires plenty of technical skill but not necessarily much schooling, especially if you already enjoy teaching yourself new tricks. Depending on how motivated you are, this could be one of the quickest careers you can get into in tech. While not required, a formal education in web development or design can give you an edge.
- Median pay: $77,030
- Top pay: $129,760 or more
5. Respiratory Therapist
Respiratory therapists help patients breathe effectively, whether they are helping with rehabilitation in a private clinic or placing someone on a ventilator to save their life. COVID-19 has dramatically increased the need for RTs on the front lines in hospitals and in treating lingering or lasting lung damage in those affected by the virus. This means the demand for RTs is high and expected to stay high for some time. Respiratory therapist school can be completed in as little as two years or less.
- Median pay: $61,830
- Top pay: $95,540 or more
6. Cardiovascular Technologist/Technician
These specialists perform tests, take ultrasound images, or provide assistance during surgery for heart-related conditions. Cardiovascular technologist training can typically be completed in one to two years.
- Median pay: $60,570
- Top pay: $98,070 or more
Training at an electrician trade school and a short apprenticeship are usually enough to enter this trade, letting you wire buildings for electrical power and communications.
- Median pay: $60,040
- Top pay: $99,800 or more
With a short amount of formal plumbing trade school or apprenticeship training, you can specialize in installing and repairing pipes and related equipment.
- Median pay: $59,880
- Top pay: $99,920 or more
9. Commercial Diver
This tradesperson works underwater in special scuba gear to help build, repair, or remove large structures or equipment. For someone who already loves diving, training to dive professionally can be one of the most exciting options among other programs in skilled trades.
- Median pay: $60,360
- Top pay: $160,110 or more
10. Paralegal or Legal Assistant
Supporting lawyers by taking care of responsibilities like legal research, administrative tasks, or document drafting is what these well-paid professionals are trained for. An associate degree in legal assisting or paralegal studies can be completed in just two years.
- Median pay: $56,230
- Top pay: $88,640 or more
11. HVAC Technician
These tradespeople install, maintain, and repair the systems that heat and cool our homes, businesses, and other buildings. You can learn to become a technician through a short HVAC program available at a skilled trade school in just 8 to 24 months.
- Median pay: $48,630
- Top pay: $78,210 or more
12. Surgical Technologist
Preparing operating rooms, organizing surgical equipment, and assisting surgeons during operations are a few of the main roles of this kind of healthcare technician. A certificate or diploma in surgical technology can be completed in 9 to 15 months.
- Median pay: $48,530
- Top pay: $75,940 or more
13. Construction Equipment Operator
This skilled trade involves controlling big construction machinery used for building roads or major structures. Businesses are often willing to train on the job. Still, formal heavy equipment training could give you an edge in securing a good job.
- Median pay: $48,290
- Top pay: $84,640 or more
14. Licensed Practical or Vocational Nurse
You do not need a degree to get into this level of nursing, which lets you work alongside doctors and other health professionals after a quick (typically one year) LPN training program.
- Median pay: $48,070
- Top pay: $63,790 or more
15. Clinical Laboratory Technician
Clinical or medical lab technicians collect fluid and tissue samples and perform basic diagnostic tests using special lab equipment. A bachelor's degree is typically required, but an associate degree or certificate in clinical laboratory technology is a great starting point.
- Median pay: $57,800
- Top pay: $79,340 or more
16. Software Developer
Although many developers have bachelor's degrees, other successful people in this field begin their careers with under two years of formal training in software development.
- Median pay: $120,730
- Top pay: $168,570 or more
17. Commercial Pilot (Non-Airline)
You don't need a college degree to fly charters or to get paid for jobs like aerial photography or firefighting missions. But you do need certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. You can prepare for your certification at an aviation school offering short pilot training.
- Median pay: $99,640
- Top pay: $205,940 or more
18. Network Systems Administrator
Looking after the day-to-day needs of an organization's data communications systems is what this technology-based vocation is all about. Networking training ranges from short certificate and diploma programs to degrees and specific vendor certifications.
- Median pay: $80,600
- Top pay: $130,830 or more
19. Automotive Technician
Formal automotive training can prepare you to become a respected technician in an exciting and challenging field. To become a mechanic, you must complete an apprenticeship or a post-secondary program. Many vocational schools offer auto mechanic programs, and some offer apprenticeships and externships.
- Median pay: $46,880
- Top pay: $75,100 or more
20. Electrical or Electronics Engineering Technician
Helping engineers develop and test equipment and devices related to things like computers, health monitoring, communications, or navigation is what this kind of specialist does. Electronics training can take anywhere from four months to two years. Certificate or diploma programs can take four months or more to complete, and associate degree programs are typically 18 to 24 months long.
- Median pay: $63,640
- Top pay: $99,210 or more
21. Police Officer
Requirements vary from agency to agency. In some cases, you can become a viable candidate for police academy training by being in good physical shape and having some criminal justice education. Short career training in law enforcement can be a requirement or an asset.
- Median pay: $66,020
- Top pay: $105,540 or more
22. Aircraft Mechanic
The exciting trade of repairing and maintaining airplanes or helicopters can be learned by getting short FAA-approved aircraft maintenance training from an aviation school.
- Median pay: $65,380
- Top pay: $98,590 or more
23. Mechanical Engineering Technician
With an associate degree in mechanical engineering, you can begin assisting mechanical engineers with developing, testing, and manufacturing things like industrial machines, engines, and tools with moving parts.
- Median pay: $60,460
- Top pay: $95,300 or more
24. Radiologic (X-Ray) Technologist
An X-Ray technologist operates radiologic medical imaging equipment to produce images and media for diagnostic purposes. These types of professionals assist patients before and after imaging; then process and review the results to ensure they are clear enough for diagnosis and evaluation by a doctor. Completing a diploma or certificate program in basic X-Ray or radiologic technology can help you prepare for any required licensing exams.
- Median pay: $61,370
- Top pay: $94,880 or more
Manufacturing, construction, and fabrication usually require welding. Most welders work in the manufacturing sector. However, welders are employed in various other industries, including construction, mining, shipbuilding, power generation, and oil and gas production. The typical way to enter the welding trade is by completing formal welding training, getting certified, and continuing to learn while on the job. By combining classroom education and on-the-job training, employers and unions sometimes offer the opportunity to earn money while learning through a welding apprenticeship.
- Median pay: $47,010
- Top pay: $63,660 or more
26. Diesel Mechanic
In this automotive trade, the focus is on inspecting, repairing, or overhauling large vehicles with diesel engines such as trucks, buses, and rolling machinery used in mining or construction. Diesel mechanic training is offered at vocational and trade schools, usually taking nine to 24 months to complete.
- Median pay: $48,690
- Top pay: $76,150 or more
The Trouble With Many Conventional Degrees
Many traditional four-year degrees aren't all they're cracked up to be. For example, a 2022 labor market study shows that, on average, people with bachelor's degrees in majors like education and the humanities have some of the lowest earnings of all their peers.
According to a 2019 NCES employment report , more than half of college graduates with a traditional bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering, or math are not employed in the fields they studied. Science majors often have difficulty finding work in their fields. In many cases, success in these areas requires spending additional time in school to earn master's or doctorate degrees.
The result is that many college graduates who choose the conventional route end up underemployed in jobs like retail or food service. Those who major in science or the liberal arts are especially vulnerable unless they go on to graduate school to increase their opportunities. According to numbers from the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS) program, the median annual wage of a retail salesperson in the U.S. was only $29,120. For cashiers, it was even less: $27,260.
Whether traditional college is worth the time and investment often depends on the career you want. You will need to discover if you can achieve your goals without a degree. Often, training at a vocational school is what you need.
Maximize Your Return-on-Investment (ROI) at a Trade School
In contrast to most traditional four-year institutions, career and technical schools specialize in putting students on a more defined path to succeeding in the job market. And they offer the chance to earn quick degrees or diplomas and complete fast career certification programs. Many of the highest-paying entry-level jobs can be attained with only two years or less of focused career education.
That's the real value of short vocational schooling. It's all about getting new opportunities and a positive return on investment (ROI) with the least amount of schooling needed. In this case, ROI refers to the extra amount you can earn in your lifetime as a graduate, after subtracting the cost of schooling and the amount that a typical non-graduate would earn.
Whether looking for easy trades that pay well, a rewarding healthcare career, or arts and design options, the ROI of graduating from a vocational college or trade school is often very good since you learn marketable skills and technical abilities that employers need. Plus, your time is valuable. So why spend extra time training when there are great careers with little schooling you can get into sooner?
* Unless otherwise noted, salary information is based on May 2021 data from the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS) program.