High Wages, Low Credentials
June 22, 2010 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Do high-paying, low-skilled jobs exist?

My friends and I met up the other day, and we eventually got to talking about the rise of "credential inflation" in the United States over the past few decades. We came to a general consensus that the once valuable college degree has largely become the new high school diploma, and that it's gotten harder, if not impossible, to break into the middle class with only a high school education.

So I got to thinking: what high-paying jobs are there for people who don't have any extensive formal training past high school? Do high-paying, low-skilled jobs still exist for people who are willing to work hard? Obviously, if these jobs exist, there's probably some sort of tradeoff (bad hours, dangerous, dirty, etc.), but those criteria don't exclude them from my query. I would love to continue this discussion with the guys over beers tonight, and I think it's pretty interesting. Are recent high school graduates who don't want to attend college screwed into a life full of McJobs?

Are there any jobs these days where a young guy with a good work-ethic can show up with no experience or post-high school training, get hired, and get paid relatively high wages?
posted by Despondent_Monkey to Work & Money (41 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
There are lots of jobs that you can still learn through informal apprenticeship, if you've got the connections.

I've met lots of auto mechanics, machinists, welders, machinery operators, roofers who learned their trades on the job. By the time they'd been working for a year or two, they were skilled. But they weren't before they got the job.

Those jobs usually pay a decent wage by the time you know what's going on.

Also, the military will take you before you've had any training, if you're young enough.
posted by Netzapper at 6:37 PM on June 22, 2010

Are you excluding on-the-job or vocational training? There are a lot of skilled trades, but they usually involve apprenticeships, etc. A recent college graduate is not going to be a Master Electrician, though.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:39 PM on June 22, 2010

Preview fail, obviously.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:40 PM on June 22, 2010

Plumbers, electricians, skilled auto mechanics can make decent wage. As can contractors. Non of these need more than a high school diploma or maybe a bit of trade school.
posted by Pineapplicious at 6:40 PM on June 22, 2010

Sex work of all kinds.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:42 PM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

(I guess you're just looking for things that "guys" can do, in which case, sex work is still a viable answer.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:42 PM on June 22, 2010

Coal mining. Oil rigs in alaska or gulf coast.

And of course, comission sales, ie car salesman.
posted by pwnguin at 6:43 PM on June 22, 2010

Coal mining sometimes pays well, until your body can't take it anymore.
posted by dilettante at 6:44 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

2 year trade school degree + (paid) apprenticeship = union master electrician at (eventually) 6 figures, in some states.
posted by availablelight at 6:49 PM on June 22, 2010

Becoming a plumber or electrician is not as easy as you make it sound: in most states, you'll need a license to do it. To get the license, you will have to pass a certification exam that is not particularly easy and will take months of serious studying to prepare for. To be eligible to sit for the exam, you will need a minimum of a year experience (four years of full-time employment for journeymen in Washington). Starting salary is about $30,000 and maxes out at about $100,000 after six years, assuming you get all certifications on schedule. I wouldn't consider any of the plumber/mechanic/electrician/etc. trades listed above as "low-skill".

As an experienced truck driver, on the other hand, you could make about $50,000 a year (payoff: you will never be home). Deckhand jobs in Alaska pay pretty well, but can sustain you only for a few months a year. Cruiseship jobs don't pay particularly well, but you won't have to pay for room & board.
posted by halogen at 6:53 PM on June 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can't just "be" a plumber or electrician straight out of high school. It pays well but you do actually have to train in that field. Even most actors or musicians have actually put a great deal of effort into their craft so I'm not sure if that really applies to your rules does it?

Other jobs which might pay well could have you risking your life or health. So working in a mine, as a logger, oil derrick etc will all be low educational requirement, big health risk. In the same vane human guinea pig would also get you some money for no skill.

I always felt that bartenders and waiters were over-paid for what they do. It's well above the minimum-wage of other service jobs, but you really don't have to learn anything more than on-the-job.
posted by Napierzaza at 6:54 PM on June 22, 2010

There's still a lot of money to be made driving a semi truck, which doesn't require a lot of training...and union-represented manufacturing jobs ala General Motors still exist, they are just getting harder and harder to find.
posted by mjcon at 6:57 PM on June 22, 2010

Pretty much any high-paying job that doesn't require a degree is still high training and high skill. Except maybe sales, and not just anyone can hack it in that area, either. Some waiters can work their way up to manager and make up to $100k, depending on the location. Most higher paid managers went to college or at least vocational school. Even many auto mechanics, electricians, and other trades require at least a vocational degree to break a certain pay rate.
posted by ishotjr at 6:58 PM on June 22, 2010

Finding the best union job in your area is the way to go.

I know a guy who after high school (with some vocational school during) got into the elevators and escalators union after graduation and started his paid apprentice ship. He’s been making more then I have as an Engineer, and been making this much since he basically graduated high school.
posted by JustAGuy at 7:02 PM on June 22, 2010

If you're willing to work your way up from the bottom (or near the bottom) in larger retail chains, you can make quite a comfortable living in the upper levels of management, on into near-wealth if you move into corporate management. You can't go right into management after high school without putting in a few years of grunt work, but all the training needed is on-the-job.

Vendors (for example, the people who stock your grocery shelves with Sara Lee bread and Coke) make a decent, although not huge, amount of money. They also work very long hours. Most of these jobs seem to go to "people who know people," also, you occasionally have to have enough capital to buy your route in the first place, but no training is required at all.

The military will take college grads right into officer training (after basic training, of course).
posted by frobozz at 7:02 PM on June 22, 2010

It all depends on what you mean by "relatively high wages." There are plenty of dirty or dangerous jobs that eventually earn what a high school senior might consider to be "relatively high wages." But in the real world, the wages aren't really high relative to much.

The best path for an uneducated, untrained person to take in order to eventually make high wages is to do something that leads eventually to owning a business and making it successful. While this does not technically require any formal education, it is tough to do without any. I know someone who has an extremely lucrative roofing company who started off as just a guy doing roofing for another company, saved money, and started his own company. But it took him about 25 years to get to the point where he was making "relatively high wages."
posted by The World Famous at 7:06 PM on June 22, 2010

Some of the MTA workers (subway train drivers, track maintenance, etc) in NYC take home an insanely high $100k to $200k per year, depending upon the amount of overtime they work. Most of those jobs do not require a college degree. (My source for this is the free daily rag - either the AMNY or the Metro).
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 7:06 PM on June 22, 2010

Various sorts of crime, of course.
posted by XMLicious at 7:07 PM on June 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is it true that at some point in the past, a high-school diploma alone was enough to get either "high wages" or to allow you to "break into the middle class" assuming that you weren't already there? Also, "high wages" seem pretty different from "breaking into the middle class" -- I'm not sure those two things are equivalent, and while I frequently read that in the US a college diploma is the new high school diploma, I'm not clear which high school degree is the "old" high school diploma -- one from the 1920s? One from the 1970s? They've been worth different amounts -- and have indicated different levels of existing class privilege -- at different times.

This might sound like semantics but I think this stuff is really interesting, and actually gets to the core of your question.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:13 PM on June 22, 2010

I had a discussion at a party here in Vancouver with someone who worked in tugboats--our port is a pretty busy place, and the strait sees a lot of barge traffic too. He said that the entry level positions on tugs sucked, but that was because the people working them were low-skilled bottomfeeders who usually left after a year. We're talking crew sizes of 3-6.

However, he said that if you stick it out a year or two, you can be a first mate just through attrition, at which point salary goes up to mid-five figures, and a lot of training and certification opportunities open up. He expected to be a tug captain within a couple years (at 27), at which point six figures was available, along with a lot of control and discretion over his job.

I imagine there are a few more sectors like that, where the run-of-the-mill work is low paying and crappy, but because few people stick it out and climb the ladder, all it takes is a bit of endurance to get into a much better career position.
posted by fatbird at 7:14 PM on June 22, 2010

Casino workers also make relatively good wages and most jobs require only a short training course.
posted by bove at 7:16 PM on June 22, 2010

I know multiple people who started working in IT or web development right after high school, and by the time they would have finished college, had respectable jobs in consulting or mid-level management. It's not easy but it is doable!

Also, there are plenty of jobs in the Federal government that only require a high school diploma. They don't pay great to start, but after a decade or two of seniority wages you could do OK.
posted by miyabo at 7:17 PM on June 22, 2010

Seconding union jobs. A good union can make a huge difference in salary. UPS drivers, for example, make $50-70K on average with overtime.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:31 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If your on the west coast try and get in the longshoreman's hall
once you get sonority its pretty good money
posted by SatansCabanaboy at 7:32 PM on June 22, 2010

Do you actually mean low credentials like you said in the title or low skills like you said in the question opening? Like Miyabo, I know quite a few people who don't have a college degree, and even a few who don't have a high school degree, who are making six figures in IT.

For low-skilled labor, two I haven't seen mentioned are commercial fishing in Alaska, and doing contract work in war zones as a truck driver/etc. for American companies.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:50 PM on June 22, 2010

Freight train brakemen, switchmen and engineers are high paying, union jobs with a federal pension, however it is dirty, dangerous, sometimes off-hours work.
posted by rabbitsnake at 7:59 PM on June 22, 2010

Secondly Ashley's comment about low credentials vs. low skills. The two don't mean the same thing at all. I went to a 4-year college and graduated, but didn't learn any job-related skills there.

There are plenty of high-paying fields which don't require a degree to break into. Internet marketing for example. You could read a few books and blogs and know more about it than 95% of people in the world in a month or two. Apply to an internship at a marketing firm or an internet company and show them what you've learned and that you have a good attitude. From there you'll begin to build the skills and contacts you need to kickstart your career.

Another good example is sales, if that type of thing interests you. If you're willing to sell, persistent and have some talent you can make a killing selling whatever.
posted by jeff1010 at 8:01 PM on June 22, 2010

"Are there any jobs these days where a young guy with a good work-ethic can show up with no experience or post-high school training, get hired, and get paid relatively high wages? "

There are all sorts of bush jobs that pay well with little up front training (EG: faller). They have the down side of also being dangerous heavy labour far from amenities.
posted by Mitheral at 8:16 PM on June 22, 2010


Waitress/Bartender at a fancy place

Drug Dealin'?
posted by low affect at 9:55 PM on June 22, 2010

I hear Garbage Men make a lot.
posted by philosophistry at 10:03 PM on June 22, 2010

If you can learn the basics of programming (and *very* basic server administration), you can make pretty good money without being remarkably-skilled. I'm talking stuff like installing wordpress (or drupal), and making basic themes and plugins for it. I'd guess that with that skillset you could make $25-$35/hr which ought to work out to somewhere around $40k on the low end. Then, if it turns out you're actually good at programming and enjoy it, you can make a whole lot of money, even without special training (but with a lot of self-learning.)
posted by !Jim at 10:46 PM on June 22, 2010

I love the parameters of your question. Just for kicks, I decided to run down the job categories on craigslist and organize my ideas. I came up with a couple ideas in more than half of the categories:

accounting+finance: Most people don't understand what financial advisers do, which helps them keep their fees high.

arch / engineering: It's easy to get CAD-certified and get some middle-class level paying jobs shortly thereafter.

art / media / design: Wedding photographers just need a portfolio. And the wedding photographers I know make a lot of money for what seems like a short amount of work.

biotech / science: You could be a human guinea pig or donate sperm.

business / mgmt: People who hire managers usually care most about prior management experience. Getting prior management experience is easy if you start in retail or restaurants. One of our best project managers at Mutual Mobile impressed us with managing and expanding a restaurant chain over six years, working his way up from busboy (no college degree). At most low-level jobs you start at, you can step up to management in six months to a year. Even better, by that point, you'll know enough about the ins-and-outs of that industry to set up your own shop. Being an entrepreneur requires no credentials, and the pay potential is unlimited.

education: Tutoring pays, even if all you have is "I got a 5 in AP Calculus BC" or "My SAT score was 1500+" Teaching music also pays well.

general labor: Landscape designers and garbage men do well for themselves.

internet engineering: None of these positions require college backgrounds. My web programmer friend was already making more than the average University of Texas graduate before he got accepted there.

real estate: I still believe there's a lot of money to be made in real estate. You could start out as a property manager and then transition to being an agent.

sales: The sky's the limit with commission sales jobs. I heard of a guy who eventually made $10K/mo. selling vacuum cleaners.

salon/spa/fitness jobs: Physical trainers don't need much in the way of certifications. Same with Yoga instructors.

security: I'd imagine if you develop some expertise in installing security systems, you could make a lot of money. Their prices always seem like a rip-off, but someone must be paying them.

skilled trades/artisan: Specialty service techs seem to make a lot of money for not much knowledge. There's people in town that charge an arm and a leg for just fixing washers and dryers. I looked into the knowledge bases for those devices, and there isn't that much too it. There's maybe 100 man-hours of experience to get a start, and then the rest is bonus experience. There's all sorts of specialty jobs in here, like HVAC (air conditioner) technicians etc.

software / qa / dba: As I said with web design, it just takes a portfolio or a track record to convince people to pay you to do programming. As long as you're reliable and reasonably competent, you're set. Especially if you know a special language or one that is uniquely in demand (like Objective-C these days).

transport: Someone talked about driving for Ryder and making $65K/yr. Tow truck drivers also make a lot of money.

web/HTML/info design: Web design has been and still is a high-paying job as long as you're reliable. See above.
posted by philosophistry at 10:55 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was talking once to a guy who works for Amtrak. He earns 50k/ year and only has a high school diploma.
posted by oceano at 11:06 PM on June 22, 2010

My hairdresser friends who work at nice salons make bank. Also: makeup artists.
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:20 AM on June 23, 2010

Philosophistry- you may want to consider the difference between a great hourly rate (e.g wedding photography and music tutoring) and a high wage. It is, on my experience, difficult and uncommon to make a lucrative living out of tutoring for most people because of the challenge of making it a full time job, and for the lack of associated benefits that commonly come witha full time, salaried job. Ymmv
posted by jojobobo at 12:29 AM on June 23, 2010

I'm an engineer, working in software, and I only have a high school diploma. I know a couple of others with the same level of education as me. We're the exception, rather than the rule, but there are a few ways to make this possible for you.

If one were to manage to become an expert in a field that's not really taught in universities (QA, security engineering, that sort of thing), it makes it a lot easier. The important thing is to have some thing(s) that makes you stand out enough that having or not having a degree becomes a moot point.

The other necessary thing is networking - HR and recruiters will usually weed people out based on education, even if having a degree isn't all that useful to the position. If you can bypass the HR filter by both being good at what you do and knowing someone willing to recommend you, almost anything becomes a possibility.
posted by DoomGerbil at 1:17 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Secretaries and assistants can make a decent living, and can even reach upper/upper-middle class status if they work for a major law or finance firm.
posted by AmitinLA at 2:41 AM on June 23, 2010

A couple people have mentioned tutoring.

For things that are customarily taught in school, tutoring is a nice way to make money on the side -- I know plenty of grad students who have supplemented their stipends doing this. But it's highly seasonal (students panic at the end of the semester and realize they need help), which would be a huge difficulty in making something full-time out of it. Also, to get high wages it definitely requires knowledge (although not necessarily formal courses?). You can't tutor calculus well if calculus is the most advanced math you know.

Giving lessons of some sort in non-academic things might not have the seasonality problem, I don't know.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:55 AM on June 23, 2010

skilled trades/artisan: Specialty service techs seem to make a lot of money for not much knowledge. There's people in town that charge an arm and a leg for just fixing washers and dryers. I looked into the knowledge bases for those devices, and there isn't that much too it. There's maybe 100 man-hours of experience to get a start, and then the rest is bonus experience. There's all sorts of specialty jobs in here, like HVAC (air conditioner) technicians etc.

Respectfully disagree with this. They are called "specialties" because they require specialized knowledge that you do not know, and are not even aware of (unknown unknowns). If it really were a case of "any idiot can do it, no knowledge or skill required", well then these jobs would not be well paid.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:22 AM on June 23, 2010

My husband has a HS diploma and holds a masters-level license and works as a supervisor in a skilled trade (operating engineer--he basically operates and maintains commercial/industrial HVAC equipment), a position he worked up to through several years of informal apprenticeship, a limited amount of union-directed classroom training, and several years of additional on-the-job experience at a journeyman's level. He makes more than I do, and I have a PhD. The hours in his field are often not-good (evening/night shifts, swing shifts, weekend shifts, and even if you do luck out and get a day job, they typically start at 7:00 am or earlier), and there are aspects that are somewhat physical and dirty. And he was only able to get his foot in the door to the skilled trades after spending a few years working for the same employer doing much more menial, poorly paid gruntwork and gruntworker supervising.

As several people point out, it would, of course, be a mistake to call what he does "unskilled." Also, at a slightly lower level than where he's at--your run-of-the-mill HVAC installers or appliance repair guys--unless you own your own business, you're likely making "ok" money at best ($20-30/hr in an expensive city, $15-20 where the cost of living is less). If you come in as a completely unskilled trades helper, you can move your way up, but the starting pay is even less.

Aptitude makes a difference, although this may not be relevant to your discussion. A person who is not "mechanically inclined" would not get very far in his field, and a person who's not really capable of a more intuitive understanding complex, abstract concepts (programming logic, physics) or handling personnel issues is not going to get past the journeyman level. And even then, there comes a point where you can't advance without picking up a college degree along the way. My husband's boss has a college degree, and his boss's boss has a master's. Conceivably, he could move up one more rung without picking up a BA, but that's about it. So (without additional formal education) he's close to the top of his career ladder, and he's not even 40 yet.

But to go back to your question, with enough aptitude, motivation, and hard work, it's certainly possible to break into the middle class with without a college degree, though most paths to this goal will take at least a 5-10 year time horizon.
posted by drlith at 9:33 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hard-hat divers definitely make bank. The downside, think about it, is the guy who's doing your air control is sitting in a boat making $10/hr.
posted by jet_silver at 11:53 AM on June 23, 2010

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