Starting From Little: Stop Blindly Chasing Dreams
Two months ago, I posted about some of the most reliably-lucrative careers you can pursue in the United States, those that can reliably offer six-figure salaries. Predictably, the results were mostly jobs that require expensive college degrees (which is to say, at least a Bachelor’s Degree).
That’s all well and good for folks who are either wealthy, talented enough to get great scholarships, or who are so determined to pursue those fields that they don’t mind the enormous pile of student loan debt they’ll need to accrue to pursue them. But the thing is, a lot of us aren’t in one of those positions. A lot of us aren’t sure what we want to do. Mainly, we were told to “do whatever we want,” because this is America and you can, supposedly. This tends to lead people to “follow their dreams,” or what they think are maybe their dreams, except that they aren’t that confident that being artistic is really their dream because their heart isn’t quite in it enough to be practicing their art all the time, which is how frequently you need to practice your art these days if you want to stand out.
Some folks work on the art anyway, and persist, and deal with the downsides of pursuing artistic careers, and are probably fulfilled in that. Most folks don’t, because in the end they realize it’s not their dream and they have to prioritize paying their bills over pursuing dreams, at least until they’re financially comfortable.
Now don’t get me wrong, dreams are great. By all means pursue them. But chasing a dream, which might not even be the right dream through poverty or tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, is almost certainly foolishness. Don’t let anyone older than you tell you otherwise; they paid a lot less for college, rent, and a car than you’re going to.
Here’s a better plan: go make good money and also pursue a dream. After that, don’t ditch the day job until the dream job is reliably paying more. Exceptions can be made for folks with high-income spouses or generous parents, maybe, but you should take cost of living seriously in making these decisions, which is not usually part of the “chase your dreams” career advice discussion.
Furthermore, there’s another component to the equation we haven’t discussed: you have a certain cost of living right now, but that might not be the lifestyle you want to live. Do you want to drive a Porsche? If so, you should probably get a job that pays better than working at Target. Do you want to live in San Francisco? If so, I wouldn’t pursue a career at a restaurant.
All that is well and good, you may say, but there’s a disconnect: all the high-paying jobs require degrees!
Not so. I decided to do some research on the subject, and while I found that a Bachelor’s Degree or higher tends to lead to more lucrative career paths, there are several jobs that you can do without an expensive, time-consuming, four-year degree that also happen to pay pretty well.
So how do you get started? Take the dream job visions out. Assume you can’t afford to continue to live at your current income level, meaning you can’t do four years of college to get this job. Assume the number one goal is to start bringing home a reasonable paycheck you can live on (which, if you don’t have one yet, should definitely be your goal right now). What can you do as a U.S. citizen in 2019?
I’ve compiled a list of answers to that question.
High School Diploma (or Equivalent) Opportunities
Sell Phones, Cars, and TV
Everyone loves to hate on salespeople. Car salespeople are criticized the most, with the folks selling smartphones, TV and internet, and insurance not far behind. And to be sure, salespeople can be frustrating and obnoxious. But the fact is, it’s not selling in general that bothers us, it’s feeling like we’re being sold to. We don’t get this feeling from a good salesperson, or good advertising. We typically get it when a salesperson doesn’t believe the words they’re saying to sell to us, which is pretty common on sales floors.
But here’s the deal: if you can find a product or service you can get behind and vouch for yourself, most of the struggle of selling is taken away, and the pay can be pretty respectable. At T-Mobile I was paid roughly $55,000/year to sell smartphones, depending on commission. My former manager went to work at a Nissan dealership selling Leafs and makes over $70,000/year. Comcast/Xfinity/whatever they want to call themselves are making retail outlets now to sell both their wireless service and their cable and internet packages, and a friend of mine works at one making similar income. No degree necessary, no certification necessary.
Of course, the big thing to be aware of with these positions is that your mileage will definitely vary. The T-Mobile I worked at was a popular store, meaning there were lots of customers, meaning there was lots of commission to be made. The Sprint across the road was a ghost town, which I’m sure would be great if you want a job you can coast through, but it won’t help your commission check out next month.
Similarly, trying to sell unpopular car models will be a non-starter (heh). There will be a bit of fluctuation in your income at any of these jobs because they’re at least partly commission-based, but the phone stores, at least, pay a base wage so you’re always making something. If you can stick with it, though, you can eventually build up a base of repeat customers who you can work with over and over to make things easier.
Mostly, a good strategy here is to do your homework, but it’s certainly a better place to head to in retail than at a Target or a Walmart.
Work With Your Hands, Learn on the Job
There’s also a general distaste for blue collar jobs, even though it’s probably a great choice for a lot of people to work with their hands or work outside. If the idea of staring at a computer screen in an office all day is your worst nightmare, consider looking into a trade job. There are lots of opportunities for welders, plumbers, oil field workers, elevator repairpeople, nuclear reactor and power plant operators, transportation inspectors, subway and street car operators, electrical-power line installers, petroleum-pump-system operators, gas-plant operators, and boilermakers out there.
All of these jobs pay $50,000-$70,000/year on average, and as long as you have a high school diploma you’re qualified to start in the trade because they train you on the job. You’ll presumably start below the average, but I’ve met plumbers and welders who make six-figure salaries in their trade. Consider looking into what opportunities are in your area and check them out.
Protect the People
A friend and reader wrote in to add another option to this list, which is typically missed by articles about high-paying jobs that don’t require a Bachelor’s Degree. There are several law enforcement jobs, such as police positions and dispatchers, which typically pay about $60,000/year, train employees on the job, and require neither a degree nor a previous certification. Plus, you will be doing a job that is unquestionably important and helpful to people, which is its own reward, especially if you have ever experienced the nearly-useless drudgery of working at many fast-food restaurants and big-box retail stores.
There are some minor caveats to being a police dispatcher—one major one is that you’ll be working some long hours (my friend said she works twelve-hour workdays pretty frequently). However, when I asked if she was expected to work graveyard shifts, she clarified that you are typically either a day shift employee or a night shift employee, not both, so she never has to work nights. That beats the inconsistency found at most entry-level jobs, let me tell ya, on top of that part where they pay about three or four times more.
High School Diploma + Certification Opportunities
I can tell you from personal experience that software developers are paid pretty well. I personally make $65,000/year and, at least in the Northern Colorado area, that’s considered below the overall industry average.
This link, which is mostly accurate and inspired several sections of this article, claims you’ll need an associate’s degree and will be paid $62,000/year for web development. In my experience, neither of these things are true. Now, to be fair, the company I work for, Radial Development Group, does both web and native app development (and the “app” part is probably worth noting—web apps and websites are very different things). But all the same, it is not unheard of to get a starting salary of $60-70k as a junior software developer, and I learned to code through an online coding bootcamp, not through a traditional college.
Operate a Plane or Boat
My former T-Mobile coworker was working on getting his pilot’s license the whole time I worked with him. As this site points out, commercial pilots need a certification, but not a degree, and are often paid around $73,000/year. Business Insider points out that you can earn similar income with similar qualifications as a captain, mate, or pilot of a water vessel (like tugboats and ferryboats).
It’s sure to be a more stressful task, but if you’re good at keeping your cool and staying focused, being an air traffic controller can net you up to $122,000/year, no degree necessary.
Help People Find a New Home
Real estate agents typically need a certification, but in my experience, full-time real estate agents are often paid more than the $58,000/year The Job Network claims. Northern Colorado real estate isn’t cheap, so I’m sure that’s a factor, but I’ve met real estate agents who say they pretty comfortably command six figure salaries.
One important thing to consider here, as with some of the other jobs I have mentioned, is that you should consider how this job fits your lifestyle. Real estate agents are typically paid based on how many houses they sell, similar to how car and phone salesmen are paid. Busy months will mean a lot of money; slow months will mean you better have something saved up, or have additional income in the household to cushion the blow. If your income is one of two incomes, the fluctuations in commission-based jobs are likely to be easier to swallow than if you rely too heavily on the busy months to make it through.
Similarly, understanding how you will be paid can mitigate this. If you are always paid something in a sales job no matter how well you sell, that stability may be of greater value to you than a job that technically pays more, but fluctuates dramatically throughout the year.
Associate’s Degree Opportunities
Help People Stay Healthy
In my previous post, I discussed some of the healthcare jobs on the market that pay extremely well and require extensive schooling—surgeons, of course, are the absolute top of their field in pay (not to mention prestige).
But if you don’t have $100k or so to blow on schooling, you can also get a respectable salary as a radiation therapist, dental hygienist, or nuclear medicine technologist—right around $70,000/year. You’ll need an Associate’s Degree for these positions, but that’s a tiny fraction of the cost of a doctorate.
Some of these jobs, of course, are not going to be available in everyone’s area—it can be hard to get into a new industry, even one that allows for remote work like software development, when you don’t live near where the action happens.
Additionally, many of these jobs are labor-intensive or are traditionally gendered, which limits their ability to help everyone looking for a higher-paying career. Some are not for the faint of heart—air traffic controllers seem to reliably crop up at the head of the pack of high-paying jobs that don’t require a degree, but I’ve also heard it’s a tremendously stressful job.
Lastly, some of these jobs can pay well, but don’t necessarily pay well on a reliable basis because they rely heavily on commission or seasonal work.
However, I feel there’s a good amount of variety here, enough that you can probably find something in this list that can help you get on your financial feet, even if it doesn’t quite make for a dream job. If you’re in a tough spot financially and you’re trying to land a dream job, it’s at least a better interim strategy than working at a fast food joint that will pay you as little as they legally can. All of these careers have the potential to put you in a much better position to save some money for a car, a house, retirement, or any other big expenses you see in your future, and if it turns out you like one of these careers better than that dream job you had in mind, there’s nothing stopping you from sticking with it.
Are there any other worthwhile career fields you know of that don’t require a four-year degree that you’d like to see mentioned here? Let me know in the comments!
Post number 62.