1. Air Traffic Control
If you ask about the best job you can get without a degree, every source will tell you to become an air traffic controller, even though the job comes with a lot of responsibility and stress. Most of your days will be spent tracking and directing dots on a radar screen that represents the lives of hundreds of people. But with great responsibility comes great salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median income for air traffic controllers in 2006 was $117,240, within a range from about $59,000 to about $145,000. Benefits typically include lots of vacation and sick days, life insurance, health insurance and early retirement.
Air traffic controller training is typically completed through an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program that has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Alternatively, people who haven't completed the AT-CTI must have at least three years of responsibility-bearing work experience and/or a bachelor's degree. Other job requirements include passing a pre-employment skills test, undergoing drug screening, passing a medical exam and obtaining federal security clearance. Visit the FAA website to learn more about air traffic controller training.
2. Law Enforcement
Joining the police force is another very popular career solution for people who don't want to pursue a degree. The entry-level salary isn't extremely high - the BLS indicates that patrol officers earned a median income of $47,460 in 2006. However, the field offers lots of opportunities for advancement in both responsibilities and wage. The median income for detectives and police supervisors was $69,310 in that same year. Joining federal law enforcement agencies can lead to even higher earning opportunities, with the highest level management and executive positions earning up to $131,000. Furthermore, many detectives and police officers earn more than their stated salary due to high levels of overtime pay.
A high school diploma is required in order to apply to a police academy. Some officers also have postsecondary education in criminal justice or other related fields, but most training is completed at the academy and on the job. Law enforcement professionals seeking to advance to higher-paying positions that do require a degree may qualify for tuition reimbursement through their agency. It's worth noting that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) does require a bachelor's degree.
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3. Technical Support
There was a time when most computer jobs were open to whiz kids with more tech-savvy than education. Unfortunately, increasing levels of competition have led employers to require at least a bachelor's degree for positions such as networking and systems administration. However, there's still one computer career that's open to anyone with strong analytical and technical skills: computer support specialist. According to the BLS, the 2006 median salary for tech support specialists was $41,470, ranging from about $25,000 to about $68,000.
Because modern business is so reliant on computers, computer support specialists can work in almost any industry. The top employers of these professionals are software publishers, business managers, computer systems design and related service providers, universities, colleges and professional schools, and K-12 schools. Although an associate's degree in computer science or a related field can give you an edge in the hiring process, most employers prefer computing experience to a degree. You can demonstrate technical experience and skill through professional certification, which can usually be achieved through short training programs and exams offered by software and computing companies.
4. Rail Transportation
Have you ever dreamed of workin' on the railroad? You can do it with no college education, and because most positions are union, you'll earn more than you'd expect. The average transportation employee in the U.S. earns $12.17 an hour, but even the lowest-paid railroad worker makes almost twice that. The BLS reports that in 2006 the hourly wage for rail transportation employees ranged from $23.49 to $27.88.
Popular occupations in the railroad transportation industry include railroad brake, signal and switch operators, subway and streetcar operators, railroad conductors and yardmasters, and locomotive engineers. A high school diploma is all the education required for most of these positions and training usually happens on the job or through a company training program. Aspiring engineers typically start out as conductors, who have to complete special conductor training programs. These programs may be offered on the job or through local community colleges and vocational schools. Engineers are the only railroad operators who must be federally licensed in order to operate freight and passenger trains.
5. Solar Energy
The federal government's recent stimulus bill poured billions of dollars into alternative and renewable energy, which has created thousands of jobs. Individuals who want to jump into the 'green revolution' with little to no formal education can join the fast-growing field of solar energy systems installation. These professionals, who install solar panels that convert the sun's energy into electricity, are known as 'solar photovoltaic (PV) installers.' Industry analysts report that entry-level wages for solar PV installers range from $12 to $15 per hour, and team leaders typically earn between $20 and $25 per hour. If you already have an electrician's license you may be qualified to earn even more.
Work experience is valued much more than education for solar PV installers. Most installers have a background in mechanics, electrical work or construction, and roofing experience is especially advantageous - aspiring solar PV installers should definitely be prepared to work outside. Most training happens on the job, but voluntary certification programs are available.
Tip: If you're between the ages of 16 and 24, you may qualify for free job training through the U.S. Job Corps, which serves approximately 100,000 young adults each year. Visit the Job Corps website for more information.