What degree/trade is worth the student loans?
August 9, 2013 2:59 PM   Subscribe

I've got a little money I'm thinking about turning into some classes/training for a serious career change. With education at such a high price, I would need to pick a career/trade that can pay off the loans I would need to complete. I'm looking at trades, skilled craftwork, 2-year degrees, and 4-year degrees. Got any suggestions?

I've been thinking a lot lately about turning a money windfall from a recent contract into a career change. I'm currently a graphic designer who's increasingly shuttled into web work... that I don't enjoy and frankly SUCK AT. Some details
  • I love graphic design but nobody wants to pay for it. Not a lot of jobs here
  • I've got a 4-year BS in Anthropology, world's most useless degree. Also, youth and temporary idiocy contributed to me barely graduating, AKA bad grades
  • I'm attracted to jobs where something concrete gets done. I'd rather do a trade than work in finance
  • I've handled a lot of my own home improvement and found that I may be ignorant but I enjoy the work
  • I'll admit that I am attracted to the respect people give skilled tradespeople and science-oriented careers
  • I enjoy doing specialty things where people pay you because you have specialized knowledge
  • I can handle math, physics, and chemistry but I'd need to take remedial classes
  • My best subjects were always English and history but I doubt I could ever pay back loans with a career in either
  • I'm 37, so, I'm not exactly at the beginning of my working life. I don't want to spend the rest of my career working off my loans
  • I'm worried that trades will include an apprenticeship. Will anyone be willing to take on a 37 year old woman?
  • I live in an area with a lot of mining, fishing, government employment, and tourism (Southeast Alaska)
Some jobs I have given thought to:
  • Nursing
  • Engineering
  • Diesel engine repair
  • Electrician
  • Cabinetry
  • Specializing in some crazy historical trade, like stonework (See here)
  • Some other option I never knew existed
This is a weird question, I know. All my family are farmers and teachers. All my friends are cooks, office assistants, and programmers. I've somehow managed to reach middle age without a lot of knowledge of the world of work.
posted by Foam Pants to Education (26 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Cabinetry does not pay as well as finish carpentry. Finish carpenters generally need things to pass inspections though. Electricians and plumbers earn decent money, but it takes a little more training to get started. If you like designing, plumbing or electrical layouts are always fun to draw up and put in even if no one sees the finished work. With everything you are saying, I would definitely look at plumbing or electricity because they are big fields and a high standard of quality will take you far.
posted by Nackt at 3:17 PM on August 9, 2013

If you have a career experience in graphic design, instead of throwing that away, why not use the windfall, sans loans, to get some web-specific training, and hopefully turn your dislike to something more neutral?

There are lots of short-to-medium term bootcamp type courses, as well as community college courses you could take to build some web specific skills.

That way you're building on your existing experience, instead of starting from scratch.
posted by colin_l at 3:28 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't know what the job market is like in Southeast Alaska, but nursing or another allied health field is a pretty good bet many places. Many folks enter the field by becoming a CNA and then working while finishing your training in a 2-year or 4-year degree in something like nursing or radiologic tech. Although, now that I'm looking at it, that school has lots of really cool trades and I kind of want to move to Juneau and go into Marine Transportation.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:33 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think a big factor in coming to some feasible path on this is understanding the resources available in your location, and the demands of the job market. Southeast Alaska may well be the most populous area of our biggest state, but in aggregate, it's still a comparatively small economic and population area. So, if you're committed to staying there, you should be scoping out what opportunities exist in the local economy, and where that economy is headed. On the other hand, if you're willing to relocate for training and employment, you may have more options in larger economic pools.

Increasingly, community colleges and vocational institutes are getting downright efficient in doing this for you. In many areas, community colleges have active outreach programs to local business communities, and develop whole academic programs to fill the needs of employers for particular skill sets. You might start with interviewing student services or academic counselors at nearby institutions, to see what kind of programs they have created recently in response to such interests from the business community.
posted by paulsc at 3:36 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Lots of below-the-line jobs in film and TV pay very well, but it's hard to get started and hard to get into the craft unions. Still, not impossible.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:44 PM on August 9, 2013

Architectural or civil engineering technologist? You get to work with programs like AutCAD and Revit all day. In fact, if you can master Revit you can get a very good job. BIM is going to explode over the next decade.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:04 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Airplane Mechanic or Accountant
posted by parmanparman at 4:29 PM on August 9, 2013

paulsc: "In many areas, community colleges have active outreach programs to local business communities, and develop whole academic programs to fill the needs of employers for particular skill sets. "

Seconding this. A small local school just launched a program in mechatronics, I'm assuming to support the robotics in the auto plants and other manufacturers in our area. CNC operation is another hot program, again, depending on the amount of manufacturing in your area.
posted by jquinby at 4:40 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Radiology Tech! It's a 2 year program at most community colleges.
posted by zw98105 at 4:52 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would look into things like boiler operator, operating/stationary engineer (there are two types: one that operates large-scale boilers/chillers and another type that operates cranes, a split that dates back to the boiler-operated steam shovel days), or HVAC/building controls technician. Those lines of work can all lead into well-paying supervisory positions as you work your way up through the licensing system. A person with a 4-year-degree, some brains, the ability to pick up a broad skillset, and some managerial/leadership skills can wind up in a quite respectable position of significant responsibility, such as chief engineer or facilities manager--after some years of service.

These trades also continue to be in demand and there is slightly less fluctuation with economic ups and downs than you see with the construction trades. Only occasional significant physical demands, which are reduced the higher up you move in the ranks. Still somewhat male-dominated, but less of a boy's-club atmosphere than you see in some trades, and I've known successful female operating engineers and HVAC mechanics.

You might take a look at this salary database for skilled trades; you can break it down by income bracket.
posted by drlith at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would probably pick nursing. The pay is awfully good, and demand is bound to increase as the boomers age.
posted by gjc at 5:16 PM on August 9, 2013

Nursing: an awesome career provided you really want to do it. My wife's a nurse- now in administration. Nursing offers a ton of career paths. I'd recommend a BSN over RN. Also make sure the program is top end accredited. I know my wife's university hospital will not hire from other programs.

Also: I considered but did not pursue surveying. Based on what you've said, might suit you. Check local programs for an overview.
posted by ecorrocio at 5:19 PM on August 9, 2013

I'd favorite drlith's answer a second time if I could. At least in my town, the most desperate shortage we seem to have is in things like HVAC tech. The certification lists I see at work for these positions sometimes have just one name on them, or we've had to ask that the test be redone early because everyone from the list has either been hired or proven to be desperately un-hireable.

The key thing, in my opinion, is to find something that takes real skill, must be done on site, and can be learned well enough to do really good quality work in less than two years. That plus your BA and thinking/writing skills will take you quite far in the facilities management field. I know quite a few places that would have loved to hire an articulate and diplomatic person who also understood how to maintain and repair physical plant stuff, if only such a person had actually applied.

Meanwhile, everyone I know who has specialized in a construction type position (masonry, etc., included) has gone through almost as many lean times as the actors and writers and prop-makers that I know. It's just too dependent on the health of the larger economy - people can put off pretty much anything of that sort, other than an emergency roof repair or toilet/sewer fix or heater replacement in the winter, and even that kind of work can be scarce in bad times that don't happen to include a hurricane (and, well, there's a reason that mechanic's liens exist.)

My grandfather was a full-time construction worker (skilled stuff - he also built furniture and craft toys as a side thing,) and there were some extremely difficult times as my mom grew up, as a direct result - at one point they had to move across the country just on the hope that work might be easier to find in his old hometown (in part due to the networking skills of his parents, and 9 siblings still living in the area.) I know that he built furniture because the house was full of it - if they needed a table, he'd have to find some scrap wood and make it. Plus, people are willing to pay $2,000 less for incredibly crappy work, so it's hard to make an honorable living. I would not want to plant my flag on that particular beachhead, as it is extremely challenging to defend.

I don't know why I keep using these strange metaphors, but I actually really like this one, so from now on, I will refer to the construction industry as the exact opposite of Omaha Beach.
posted by SMPA at 5:23 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's true- go with a bachelor's degree. That is the trend and a lot of places aren't hiring associate degree nurses regardless of experience. The career path for a non 4 year nursing degree is not nearly as good.

More generally too, no matter what you do, I would think that it would be much more valuable to work for a larger concern to start out, and then go out on your own after you've learned all you can.
posted by gjc at 5:27 PM on August 9, 2013

As a nurse I would recommend not becoming a nurse unless you really want to be a nurse. I love my job but it's not easy, like not even a little bit, and I guarantee with the amount of things you'll have to deal with no amount of money will seem like it's enough.
posted by makonan at 5:42 PM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

You say that one of your strongest fields was English and you are considering engineering. Speaking from personal experience, as an engineer who is subpar at math, but a formidable writer, having a unique combination of skills (being able to write and speak well in a field that generally doesn't) can take you quite far.
posted by C'est la D.C. at 6:21 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'll go against trend and second KokoRyu on CAD/drafting tech. Obviously depends on the market in your area, but it's a trade, it pays decently, it involves graphic design knowledge and similar skills, moderate math but nothing insane, and can be used in a number of different fields (not just architecture). My brother and one of my exes both worked their way through grad school (architect and civil engineer) working as drafters...
posted by celtalitha at 6:53 PM on August 9, 2013

The Health Field usually has a positive growth outlook. Have you thought of Paramedic? A paramedic can encompass more than working in an ambulance. Most community colleges have a "bridge" program for paramedics who want to go into nursing.
posted by JujuB at 7:03 PM on August 9, 2013

I didn't have time to read the replies, but get thee to a community college and see what they have. You may be surprised -- I was!
posted by michellenoel at 7:51 PM on August 9, 2013

I was 38 when I started training to be an electrician. The training experience is significantly different in Canada than the US but someone with your academic background shouldn't have any problem with the course work. The work is physical though not anywhere near as hard as carpentry, steam fitting or plumbing and about the same as HVAC. A hardworking female has a huge advantage getting on with large companies and it's generally these companies doing industrial work that pay the best; though at many industrial work sites you need to be able to pass a drug test. If you can lift and carry ~60ish pounds or figure you can exercise into it you can be an electrician.

The trade is quite diverse. Residential work bears little resemblance to industrial construction which is significantly different than industrial maintenance and commercial work kind of splits the difference between industrial and commercial.

A mine maintenance position is about as secure a job as one can expect (and at least around here it is a full ride if you can get hired on as an apprentice; they pay for all your schooling). Because there is so much capital involved things really have to tank economic wise before an active mine will prematurely cease operations. Hard job to get though. Oh and the only poop or blood you'll have to deal with is your own.

Lineman is also good but you end up being busiest when the weather is at it's worst.
posted by Mitheral at 8:40 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

My Dad just finished a degree in Brewmastering at Niagara collage in Ontario, and they have over a 90% employment rate after a 2 year degree (and most of his classmates did find jobs right off the bat, all over North America and beyond). It involves a fair bit of science (I had to help him with some chemistry questions), a lot of business type stuff, and hands on work making the beer, maintaining equipment, etc.

Oh, and you should like craft beer, as most brewmaster jobs are in smaller breweries catering to the growing more refined drinking populace.
posted by Canageek at 12:42 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dental hygienist?
posted by Ms Vegetable at 10:03 AM on August 10, 2013

How about learning tiling? It requires good design skills and math, it will be in demand as long as people want tiled bathrooms, and you can get really creative. the best way to learn it would be as an apprentice. Are there any apprenticeship programs in your area? Check them out and see if anything appeals.
posted by mareli at 10:17 AM on August 10, 2013

Art conservation is a really fascinating niche field. Your anthropology degree and graphic design experience would be an asset, though you would need to take chemistry classes in order to be eligible for a degree or apprenticeship. This is a not uncommon career path for burnt out artists, so I wouldn't worry about your age.
posted by lemerle at 11:49 AM on August 10, 2013

Nursing is always a good one...if you aren't averse to bodily fluids and people being mean to you all day. :) I started out with my associates degree (2 years) and then did RN to BSN in 3 semesters, ALL ONLINE. I'm getting ready to start the master's program to be a nurse practitioner. I have been a nurse since 2000. I have done everything from travel nursing to administration. It has been a very well paying career, even with just an associates degree. (I never made one penny more for obtaining my BSN.) On the upside, I didn't have to take out any loans for my associate degree because community college was in my budget. I did, however, have to take out a loan for my BSN...but no problems paying it. (If you neglect to pay your student loans on time, in my state, they suspend your nursing license.) Good luck to you!
posted by Amalie-Suzette at 11:04 AM on August 12, 2013

Response by poster: After much debate and several phonecalls, I am now signed up for some classes. Since I haven't been a student in forever, I have forgotten every useful thing so I'm doing a lot of catch up. Chemistry, Trig, and AutCAD. I figure they will translate to several options mentioned above.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:19 PM on August 12, 2013

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