27 Highest-Paying Jobs That You Can Train for in 2 Years or Less
Here's a common question: Is it possible to get a job that pays well without spending four or more years at a traditional college or university?
The answer is yes. Absolutely. In fact, a lot of 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 are still able to out-earn many four-year college graduates.
So, what does it take? It takes a broader view of your educational options as well as the enthusiasm to learn what kinds of skills are actually needed in the marketplace. That's what this article is for. Let it be your introduction to a world of high-paying careers—with little schooling necessary—that you might not have considered before. The opportunities for those with just two years or less of trade school or vocational training can be surprising.
The Trouble with Many Conventional Degrees
Many traditional four-year degrees aren't all they're cracked up to be. For example, on average, people who attend conventional colleges and graduate with bachelor's degrees in majors like the humanities go on to have some of the lowest earnings of all their peers.*
And did you know that almost 75 percent of people with a traditional bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) aren't even employed in the fields they studied?* That's the reality. Science majors, in particular, 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 a lot 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. In 2015, the median annual wage of a retail salesperson in the U.S. was only $21,780. For cashiers, it was even less: $19,310.**
Clearly, whether traditional college is worth the time and investment often depends on the major you choose.
The Opportunity for Students Who Think More Broadly
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 certification programs. In fact, 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 positive return on investment (ROI), which is 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.
The ROI of graduating from a vocational college or trade school is often very good since you're being taught marketable skills and technical abilities that employers need instead of just theory. Plus, your time is valuable. Why spend extra time in school when you can get trained and start making money in a good career sooner?
High-Paying, Fast-Growing Careers That Require Little Schooling
The following career examples don't require much post-secondary education. In a lot of cases, all you need is a simple two-year associate's degree. And for some of them, a diploma or certificate is enough to get you started, which can often be earned in a matter of months.
National salary and job growth data is taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment in each of the 15 careers below is projected to increase at a rate that's above the average of seven percent for all occupations between 2014 and 2024.*** Salaries are based on estimates from May 2015. 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.
Cleaning teeth, inspecting mouths for signs of disease, and educating patients about proper oral care are the primary duties for people with this career.
- Median pay—$72,330
- Top pay—$98,440 or more
- Job growth—19 percent
These healthcare technicians use special ultrasound technology to capture images that help doctors correctly diagnose and treat their patients.
- Median pay—$68,970
- Top pay—$97,390 or more
- Job growth—26 percent
With just an associate's degree, 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—$67,490
- Top pay—$101,630 or more
- Job growth—16 percent
Building attractive and functional websites requires plenty of technical skill but not necessarily much schooling, especially if you already enjoy teaching yourself new tricks.
- Median pay—$64,970
- Top pay—$116,620 or more
- Job growth—27 percent
Many people need professional care to help breathe effectively, which is where these health pros come in. The work can vary from facilitating life support to working in small clinics to assist people with asthma and other respiratory ailments.
- Median pay—$57,790
- Top pay—$80,440 or more
- Job growth—12 percent
These specialists perform tests, take ultrasound images, or provide assistance during surgery for heart-related conditions.
- Median pay—$54,880
- Top pay—$87,170 or more
- Job growth—22 percent
A little vocational schooling and a short apprenticeship is usually enough to enter this trade that lets you wire buildings for electrical power and communications.
- Median pay—$51,880
- Top pay—$88,130 or more
- Job growth—14 percent
With a short amount of formal trade school or apprenticeship training, you can specialize in installing and repairing pipes and related equipment.
- Median pay—$50,620
- Top pay—$89,720 or more
- Job growth—12 percent
This type of tradesperson works underwater in special scuba gear to help build, repair, or remove large structures or equipment.
- Median pay—$50,470
- Top pay—$88,470 or more
- Job growth—37 percent
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.
- Median pay—$48,810
- Top pay—$79,010 or more
- Job growth—Eight percent
11. HVAC Technician
These tradespeople install, maintain, and repair the systems that heat and cool our homes, businesses, and other buildings.
- Median pay—$45,110
- Top pay—$71,690 or more
- Job growth—14 percent
Preparing operating rooms, organizing surgical equipment, and assisting surgeons during operations are a few of the main roles for this kind of healthcare technician.
- Median pay—$44,330
- Top pay—$63,410 or more
- Job growth—15 percent
This skilled trade involves controlling big construction machinery used for building roads or major structures.
- Median pay—$44,600
- Top pay—$77,490 or more
- Job growth—10 percent
No degree is required to get into this level of nursing, which lets you work alongside doctors and other health professionals after a quick vocational education.
- Median pay—$43,170
- Top pay—$59,510 or more
- Job growth—16 percent
People in this occupation collect fluid and tissue samples from medical patients and perform basic diagnostic tests using special lab equipment.
- Median pay—$38,970
- Top pay—$60,810 or more
- Job growth—18 percent
Other High-Paying Jobs With Little Schooling Required
In addition to the above careers, the following options can also pay well and are expected to have some job growth. And they can often be started without a degree or with just a short amount of formal training or certification preparation.
Although many programmers have bachelor's degrees in computer science, a lot of other successful people in this field are able to begin their careers with under two years of formal training in software coding or mobile app development.
- Median pay—$79,530
- Top pay—$130,800 or more
You don't need a college degree to fly charters or to get paid for things like aerial photography or firefighting missions. But you do need certification from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), which can be prepared for at an aviation school that offers short pilot training.
- Median pay—$76,150
- Top pay—$147,890 or more
Looking after the day-to-day needs of an organization's data communications systems is what this technology-based vocation is all about.
- Median pay—$77,810
- Top pay—$124,090 or more
19. Multimedia Artist or Animator
With the success of the video game and other entertainment industries like film and TV, the need for those with artistic talent and 2D or 3D computer animation skills is always present.
- Median pay—$63,970
- Top pay—$113,600 or more
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.
- Median pay—$61,130
- Top pay—$90,570 or more
21. Police Officer
Although requirements vary from agency to agency, in a lot of cases you can become an attractive candidate for police academy training by being in good physical shape and having a little bit of criminal justice schooling.
- Median pay—$58,320
- Top pay—$96,110 or more
The exciting trade of repairing and maintaining airplanes or helicopters can be learned by getting short FAA-approved training from an aviation school.
- Median pay—$58,370
- Top pay—$89,050 or more
With a quick associate's degree in this field, you can begin assisting mechanical engineers with the development, testing, and manufacturing of things like industrial machines, engines, and tools with moving parts.
- Median pay—$53,910
- Top pay—$81,010 or more
Using computer-assisted design and drafting (CADD) programs, these professionals turn the ideas of architects into plans and blueprints that can be used for the actual construction of buildings.
- Median pay—$50,710
- Top pay—$77,450 or more
Infrastructure projects like bridges and highways have their beginnings in the design and planning stage, which is what these professionals assist with.
- Median pay—$49,260
- Top pay—$75,550 or more
26. Graphic Designer
Visually communicating ideas through graphics and illustrations that inform people and capture their attention is what this occupation is all about. Plus, career advancement in this field can be very rewarding since art directors, depending on their experience and particular industries, can make over $169,000 in some locations.
- Median pay—$46,900
- Top pay—$81,320 or more
27. 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.
- Median pay—$44,520
- Top pay—$66,940 or more
* 2012 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, website last visited on April 20, 2016.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on April 7, 2016.
*** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, website last accessed on February 17, 2016.
Georgetown University, "What it's Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors," website last accessed on April 20, 2016.