Highest Paying Trade Jobs

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If you still hold the belief that pursuing a four-year degree is your ticket to economic stability, just consider the volume of recent graduates who are unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid. A college degree almost always goes hand in hand with staggering student loans, a huge investment of time, and misplaced expectations. For instance, in place of the expected $75,000+ salaries, college grads have been settling for an average salary of $50,000 per year according to a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey. While some graduates, like registered nurses and engineers, garner some measure of success, by far the majority of graduates are struggling to find a decent job and salary after investing in their education.

The fact is that a college degree should no longer be the default pathway to success. Some thinking men and women are discovering financial stability, without a lengthy time commitment and a mountain of debt, in the abundance of high-paying trade jobs available. There’s a huge demand for welders, plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, and carpenters. Why? Because so much of our workforce is stuck on the idea of white-collar jobs. The shortage of skilled tradesmen means a better job outlook and higher salaries. More than that, trade jobs are recession-proof. There are a projected 30 million trade jobs available, and most of them pay more than $58,000 per year. At the entry-level, skilled workers can earn more than college grads!

Trade careers are diverse and provide opportunities to work in numerous industries. A common denominator is that they almost always involve hands-on work and short-term training. There’s a long list of skills you can explore; some are more common than others. It’s always best to choose one that you can enjoy for the greatest satisfaction in your career.  While you ponder your options, check out the following list of the highest-paying trade jobs to help you determine if skipping out on college is right for you.

What Is a Trade Job?

A trade job is one that requires a specialized skill or skillset. Tradespeople typically develop their specialized skills through a career-focused curriculum at a community college, vocational institute, apprenticeship program, or on-the-job training. Preparation for a trade job is short-term – from 2 months to 2 years- and not as extensive as the bachelor’s degree with its major and general education requirements. Although some programs are short-term, graduates have all the practical training they need to begin entry-level employment. This trend is in line with industry practices of hiring candidates who are already trained.

The extent of the curriculum and duration of the program will depend on the job title, skills required, and whether certification is needed. A high school diploma, while not absolutely required by all trades, is a first step for entry. The next step is to determine the timeframe required to complete the educational preparation for your trade of choice and compare trade schools in your area. Take the time to also research any certification or licensing requirements at the state level.

If a normal 4-year degree isn’t in the cards, then consider the list of trade jobs outlined below.

Highest Paying Trade Jobs

Summary of TSNY’s Highest-Paying Trade Jobs

  • Elevator and Escalator Technician: $97,860
  • Dental Hygienist: $77,810
  • Aircraft mechanic and technician: $65,550
  • Electrician: $60,040
  • Plumber and Pipefitter: $59,880
  • Ironworker: $57,160
  • HVAC/R Technician: $48,630

Elevator and Escalator Technicians
Median Salary: $97,860
Expected 10-Year Job Growth: 3 percent
States with the highest employment level: New York, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio
State with the highest mean wage: California – $112,530
Educational requirements: High School Diploma, Technical Diploma
License requirements: Required in most states
National certification: Certified Elevator Technician

Elevator mechanics or elevator installers are responsible for the installation, repair, maintenance, and replacement of elevators, escalators, moving walkways, and related technologies. They hold an extremely important role to ensure the safety of the public who use the machinery to get from one point to another. Elevator technicians must have specialized knowledge of hydraulics or traction, electrical wiring, and diagnostics. The specialized training is made available through an associate of science in electronics engineering programs and mechanical technician programs. A few schools offer a mechanical technician program with an emphasis on elevating devices to prepare students specifically for this career. Apprenticeship programs are also offered as a means of preparing for a career as an elevator mechanic.

Elevator technicians perform some of the following tasks:

  • Connecting and repairing broken wires
  • Read blueprints to ensure they match the specifications of the machinery
  • Install and assemble new machinery
  • Test new equipment before roll-out to the public
  • Perform scheduled maintenance to ensure public safety
  • Submit inspection reports
  • Diagnose and replace faulty equipment

Elevator technicians work in private and public buildings where elevators, escalators, and movable walkways are installed. Candidates must be able to meet the physical demands of the job including lifting heavy equipment to assemble, fix, install, and replace. The profession may also require working in tight and dark spaces. Weekend and night work is common as technicians perform installation and repairs when traffic is limited.

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Although the projected growth is lower than the national average for all occupations, you can increase your opportunities by moving to a state with the highest rates of employment. The commissioning of high-rise buildings will increase the demand for technicians to install, inspect and maintain these elevating devices. The salary and benefits are great incentives for exploring this field. According to the BLS, an additional 700 new jobs will be added by 2031.

Dental Hygienist
Median Salary: $77,810
Expected 10-Year Job Growth: 9 percent
States with the highest employment level: Alaska, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada
State with the highest mean wage: Alaska – $115,510
Educational requirements: Associate’s Degree
License requirements: Required in all states
National certification: Registered Dental Hygienist

Dental hygiene is another trade that offers personal and financial rewards. Dental hygienist associate degree programs include theory and practical training to perform a vital role in the dental office providing specialized oral care to patients during routine checkups, exams, and other procedures. Dental hygiene is one trade job that requires a license in every state. They requirements for licensure vary from state to state. The associate degree is the minimum educational preparation for entry – which qualifies the profession as a trade job. However, you can pursue a bachelor’s degree to advance your career and earn a higher salary.

Dental hygienists perform some of the following tasks:

  • Conduct medical history to assess oral health risks and prevent medical emergencies
  • Screen patients for tooth decay and oral disease
  • Perform dental cleaning including polishing teeth, removing hard and soft deposits, and using special tools to remove tartar and plaque
  • Take dental x-rays to spot potential problems
  • Perform preventative care such as fluoride and sealant applications
  • Patient education to empower patients to care for their teeth

Dental hygienists must demonstrate specific hard and soft skills to be successful in the industry. Apart from the technical knowledge to perform their duties, dental hygienists must be excellent communicators, team players, have strong motor function, attentive to detail, critical thinkers, and customer service oriented.

The job growth for a dental hygienist is 9 percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. The profession will add approximately 16,300 new openings for dental hygienists each year over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Aircraft Mechanics and Technicians
Median Salary: $65,550
Expected 10-Year Job Growth: 6 percent
States with the highest employment level: Texas, Florida, California, Tennessee, Georgia
State with the highest mean wage: California – $77,320
Educational requirements: Post-secondary education from an FAA approved aviation maintenance technician school
License requirements: Required in all states
National certification: Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) Ratings

Aircraft mechanics ensure the safety and airworthiness of passenger and air cargo planes. They perform scheduled maintenance, inspections, and repairs. Aircraft mechanics are commonly called airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics or aviation maintenance technicians after receiving federal A&P certification.

Aircraft mechanics hold the life of passengers and staff in their hands. They must undergo rigorous training and testing to secure A&P certification – a license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to perform aviation maintenance. A&P ratings are a necessary part of becoming an aircraft mechanic.

Aircraft mechanics perform some of the following tasks:

  • Keep accurate and clear records of daily maintenance tasks
  • Keep tools organized to ensure the timeliness of operations
  • Perform examinations, inspections and testing services
  • Inspect the aircraft for damage and imperfections
  • Test aircraft parts with diagnostic equipment
  • Perform repairs or unscheduled maintenance
  • Perform preventative care or scheduled maintenance at regular intervals

Aircraft maintenance has numerous career opportunities. Mechanics can select a specialized pathway such as airframe, avionics systems, or powerplant or choose general aviation pathways which cover all civil aviation operations. An aircraft mechanic can pursue additional certifications and training to become a lead mechanic/technician. Lead mechanics may progress to supervisory or management roles where they will oversee the aircraft maintenance crew. There is much room for growth for aircraft mechanics, and a salary increase comes with each step up the career ladder. FAA-approved, part 147 schools prepare adults for success on the A&P exam. Candidates must complete a total of 9 exams within a 24-month period.

The projected employment growth of 6 percent from 2021 to 2031 translates to about 13,100 openings for aircraft mechanics each year over the decade.

Median Salary: $60,040
Expected 10-Year Job Growth: 7 percent
States with the highest employment level: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio
State with the highest mean wage: New York – $81,700
Educational requirements: High School Diploma, Technical Diploma
Certification requirements:Vary by state
National certification: Certified Professional Electrician

If you question the necessity of electricians, just think of your reaction when there’s a power outage at home or work. Electricians perform required maintenance to ensure an uninterrupted power supply and work to restore power when the grid goes down. They rewire equipment, maintain the safety of electrical components, install wiring and lighting, and troubleshot electrical problems when they arise. Electrician schools prepare adults for certification and entry-level employment.

Some of the standard skills you’ll need as an electrician include:

  • Knowledge to read and understand complex diagrams and blueprints
  • Repairing and replacing equipment, fixtures, and wiring
  • Inspecting circuit breakers, transformers, and electrical wiring
  • Troubleshooting and resolving electrical problems
  • Knowledge of local and state building regulations

Since electrical wiring is color-coded, electricians must have a good color vision to identify wires and special markings. Electricians must also be excellent at problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication. The work can be physically demanding at times, so you should be able to lift heavy weights, when necessary, stand for extended periods, bend and crouch, squeeze into tight spaces, and ascend and descend ladders and scaffolds.

The projected job growth as published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is excellent for the industry. An additional 50,200 new jobs will be added by 2031. Employment opportunities typically peak when there’s an increase in construction and maintenance projects.

You can have a rewarding career as an electrician, especially if you stay on top of industry regulations and continuously improve your skills.

Plumber and Pipefitter
Median Salary: $59,880
Expected 10-Year Job Growth: 2 percent
States with the highest employment level: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois
State with the highest mean wage: Illinois – $86,200
Educational requirements: High School Diploma, Technical Diploma
License requirements: Required in most states
National certification: N/A

Without a plumber, a minor issue could quickly become a costly problem. Frozen pipes can damage a home’s ceilings or walls. Backed-up sewer lines can damage the home’s foundation. A plumber can perform preventative maintenance to spot potential problems in residential and commercial properties. For these major issues as well as the minor ones such as leaky faucets, training is required. Plumbers don’t need a college degree. Many of them learn the trade through apprenticeship programs or plumbing schools. Apprenticeships are conducted under the supervision of a journeyman or a master plumber and include theoretical coursework and practical learning activities on the job.

Plumbers perform some of the following tasks:

  • Install hot and cold water supply to bathrooms and kitchens
  • Install sanitary fixtures such as toilets, basins, and sinks
  • Clear blockages in sanitary systems
  • Install central heating systems
  • Design water and heating systems
  • Clear and repair underground drains
  • Install sewage treatment systems

Plumbing is one of the most regulated professions in the United States. A license is required for practice in most states. The licensing requirements vary as well as the government agency that issues the license. Plumbers must have some experience and commit to ongoing training to stay on top of industry trends to acquire and maintain a license. Licensed plumbers must carry state-mandated insurance and bonding to protect clients from damage or mishaps during a plumbing repair.

The field is projected to have limited growth during the period 2021 to 2031. Although the forecast of 2 percent growth is lower than the national average for all professions, there will be about 48,600 openings for plumbers and pipefitters each year over the decade. Retirement of senior plumbers and the transfer of existing plumbers to new trade professions are some factors that influence demand.

Iron Worker
Median Salary: $57,160
Expected 10-Year Job Growth: 4 percent
States with the highest employment level: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Ohio
State with the highest mean wage: New York – $90,280
Educational requirements: High school diploma or GED
License requirements: Vary by state
National certification: N/A

Ironworkers have a critical role in the erecting of buildings and bridges. Using provided blueprints, they determine where structural elements fit into a structure and install them. Structural elements include iron and metal and sometimes precast concrete and concrete reinforcing materials. Once the structural elements are in position, ironworkers use bolts or various welding techniques to hold them in place.

This particular does not require formal training. Most ironworkers learn on the job or through apprenticeship programs. An apprenticeship will involve some classroom studies but the bulk of the training will be conducted on the job under the supervision of a certified ironworker. The duration of the apprenticeship varies but can be generally completed within 12 months. Apprentices may be able to earn while they learn.

Ironworkers perform some of the following tasks:

  • Position fabricated steel, according to the blueprint, for easy lifting using slings
  • Direct a crane operator in the lifting of steel beams, columns, and girders
  • Use welding techniques to cut, bend, and weld the steel
  • Connect columns, beams, and girders using bolts

Ironwork involves a lot of outside work and physical activity. Ironworkers may face extremely hot or cold days in the performance of their duties. The work also requires working at heights, which is not for everyone. Other skills that determine success in the field include attention to detail, precision, some knowledge of basic calculations, teamwork, and critical thinking.

The 4 percent BLS projection for the industry is as fast as the average for all occupations. There will be about 9,400 openings for ironworkers each year over the decade. Those with specialized skills in structural ironwork, ornamental ironwork, reinforcing ironwork, and rigging have the best opportunities and earn the highest salaries.

HVAC/R Technician
Median Salary: $48,630
Expected 10-Year Job Growth: 5 percent
States with the highest employment level: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania
State with the highest mean wage: New York – $66,180
Educational requirements: Post-secondary diploma or certificate
License requirements: Required in all states
National certification: NATE, EPA 608, HVAC Excellence

HVAC/R technicians have a hand in the management of indoor spaces to ensure comfort, safety, and utility. They keep your home cool in the summer and warm in the winter months. In commercial space, they maintain the temperature of coolers and freezers for goods to remain fresh. The introduction of more energy-efficient systems calls for technicians to install and maintain them. The extensive duties of the HVAC technician require specialized training offered in vocational schools, community colleges, and apprenticeship programs. Some programs cover all the basics including installation, repair, and maintenance, while others may specialize in just one area. Others areas of specialty include commercial refrigeration and solar technology. A college degree is not required for entry. There are many comprehensive diploma and certificate HVAC programs. However, an associate degree curriculum will cover advanced training and include valuable practical experiences in the labs and on the job.

HVAC/R technicians perform some of the following tasks:

  • Install new HVAC systems
  • Inspect and maintain existing systems
  • Troubleshoot and repair HVAC systems
  • Study blueprints and other specifications
  • Repair or replace defective parts
  • Connect HVAC equipment to fuel, water, or refrigerant sources

HVAC technicians work with heavy heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration equipment which presents one set of occupational hazards. Other risks include exposure to harsh chemicals, working in confined spaces, electrocution, and accidents and falls. HVAC/R technicians must be mindful of their own safety as well as the safety of those around them.

Consumers will be using refrigerators, heating systems, and air conditioners well into the future. This fact alone will maintain the demand for HVAC technicians. The BLS notes that 40,100 new openings will be available for HVAC each year over the next decade. The growth of the construction industry, including commercial and residential, will contribute to the rise in available opportunities. With quality training and the right set of skills, you can build a rewarding career in the industry.

How To Get a Trade Job

A trade job has many benefits including personal fulfillment, short-term and affordable preparation for the job, and a potentially high salary. The steps required for getting a trade job depend on your field of choice, but they all require the following common steps:

  1. Complete your high school diploma or GED equivalent – A high school diploma is the minimum requirement for entry into most trade schools or apprenticeship programs
  2. Pursue postsecondary training through a formal program, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training – After choosing a trade and understanding the requirements, you can decide how you plan to prepare for the position based on the training options available.
  3. Complete and certification or licensing requirements in your chosen field- Some certifications are mandatory; make sure to complete these as well as other voluntary certifications that will improve your opportunities and salary. Some trades require a license. Check with your program instructor or state board to learn more.