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High-Skill Jobs That Don’t Need a College Degree

Mike Sauter

When people think of high-tech or high-skill jobs, they typically think of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Ivy League Ph.D.s. But according to a new definition of STEM jobs — those requiring skills in science, technology, engineering or math — half of all high-skill positions are held by employees without a bachelor’s degree.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution redefines STEM jobs to include those with a substantial base of technical knowledge, but not necessarily requiring a bachelor’s degree. With this new perspective, high-skill jobs are not limited to advanced degrees and represent a larger part of the American middle class.

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The average STEM job available to workers without a bachelor’s degree paid $53,000, 10% higher than other jobs requiring similar educational attainment. Among the eight most popular STEM jobs that do not require a college degree, six paid more than the national annual average wage of $45,230. There were nearly 500,000 people working as computer systems analysts in 2011, a position that does not require a bachelor’s degree and paid $82,320, on average.

Though a four-year college degree is not a prerequisite, many of these jobs still have rigorous requirements. Most plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters go through a four or five year apprenticeship program, which includes studying math, physics and chemistry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Registered nurses, by far the fastest growing STEM job that does not require a bachelor’s degree, need to take courses in anatomy, chemistry and microbiology.

Jonathan Rothwell, associate fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the report told 24/7 Wall St., “the course requirements for some of these jobs [include] things like electronics, physics, engineering, technology. There’s usually some math requirement too.” These workers, Rothwell added, also “have longer periods of on-the-job training” than many jobs that require a college degree.

Many sub-bachelor STEM jobs have grown fairly quickly. According to Rothwell, there has been strong growth in health care and computer systems occupations, while production occupations have been shrinking. According to BLS projections, from 2010 to 2020, the numbers of registered nurses and computer systems analysts will rise 26% and 22%, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of workers employed as machinists — or in similar occupations — is expected to rise just 7%.

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Based on figures published by the Brookings Institution’s report, “The Hidden STEM Economy,” 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the most popular high-skill jobs in the United States that do not require a college degree. Additional data on individual occupations came from the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. Average annual wage and employment count per occupation came from the Bureau’s May 2011 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates (OES). In identifying STEM jobs, Brookings consulted O*NET surveys to measure the level of science, technology, engineering and math knowledge required for each occupation. O*NET is a database for occupational information sponsored by the Employment and Training Administration.

These are the high-skill jobs that do not require a college degree.

8. Welders, Cutters, Solderers and Brazers
> Number of jobs: 316,290
> Average wages: $37,920
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 15%

There are more than 300,000 workers employed in occupations that involve the joining and shaping of metal parts. The majority of such metalworkers work in manufacturing or construction. Welders and other similar professionals work in potentially dangerous environments that require protective clothing, goggles and well-ventilated work spaces for safety purposes. For high-skilled welding and soldering jobs, employers often hire workers who have been through a formal training program.

7. Plumbers, Pipefitters, Steamfitters
> Number of jobs: 349,320
> Average wages: $51,830
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 26%

Plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters are generally responsible for installing, maintaining and repairing pipe systems that carry liquids or gases. They work on both residential and industrial projects, and they must often be available on both nights and weekends. These professions often require multiyear apprenticeships that include on-the-job training and class work covering regulations, math, physics and chemistry. Such workers usually need only a high school diploma.

6. Machinists
> Number of jobs: 368,510
> Average wages: $40,520
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 7%

Machinists use lathes, grinders and other tools to produce unique and often difficult-to-replace parts machine parts and must be able to operate a large variety of machines. Formal, multiyear apprenticeship programs typically require workers to have a strong understanding of math. These programs are often competitive, with apprentices having to juggle both work and technical school. Rockford, Ill., which is a major center for the manufacturing of automotive and machine parts, has a machinist-to-population ratio more than six and a half times the national rate.

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5. Computer Systems Analysts
> Number of jobs: 487,740
> Average wages: $82,320
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 22%

Computer systems analysts review an organization’s computer system and help it operate more efficiently. Analysts often specialize in a particular type of computer system, and many work as consultants. While most computer systems analysts have a bachelor’s degree, this is not always a requirement. Edward Snowden, the CIA and NSA analyst who is currently wanted by the United States for disclosing the existence of the NSA’s surveillance operations, has a GED and no college degree. Despite this, his annual salary was $122,000, according to his employer. Major metro areas, like Austin, Washington D.C. and San Jose have very high concentrations of computer systems analysts.

4. Electricians
> Number of jobs: 512,290
> Average wages: $52,910
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 23%

Electricians install and maintain electrical equipment in houses and buildings. Those aspiring to be electricians usually need to have a high-school diploma with at least one year of algebra. They also generally undergo a four-year apprenticeship, which involves both time in the classroom and on-the-job training. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of electrician jobs is expected to grow an additional 23%, higher than the 14% job growth for all professions.

3. Carpenters
> Number of jobs: 578,910
> Average wages: $44,330
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 20%

Carpenters both build and repair home and building structures such as door frames and stairwells. Most carpenters learn their craft through a paid apprenticeship lasting three or four years. Apprentices must complete 144 hours of technical training, where they learn carpentry, mathematics and safety, among others skills. In addition, carpenter apprentices are expected to complete 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of carpenters is expected to grow by 20%, compared to 14% for all professions.

2. Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics
> Number of jobs: 589,570
> Average wages: $38,560
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 17%

Automotive service technicians and mechanics help repair and maintain cars and trucks. Some auto shops have technicians and mechanics that specialize in such fields as brake repairs and front-end mechanics. Many prospective technicians and mechanics come from postsecondary training programs that take anywhere from six months to a year to complete. These types of programs provide both classroom and on-the-job training. Some service technicians also obtain an associate’s degree, which is sometimes sponsored by car manufacturers and dealerships. Students in these programs take courses in basic mathematics, computers and electronics, among other subjects.

1. Registered Nurses
> Number of jobs: 2,724,570
> Average wages: $69,110
> Pct. growth 2010-2020: 26%

The number of registered nurses is expected to grow by 26% between 2010 and 2020 due to an increased emphasis on preventative health care and an aging population. To complete their education, nurses can either get a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree or a diploma from an accredited nursing program. Regardless of the educational paths, students take classes in a host of subjects, including physiology, microbiology and chemistry. In Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic, the nurse-to-population ratio is the higher than any other metropolitan area in the country.