Rapidly rising education costs have some people claiming that college is worthless, but it’s still widely considered the best way to launch a successful career. Roughly 60% of American adults believe it’s probably or definitely worthwhile, even today[1].

However, the college route presents some undeniable challenges, and it won’t pay off for everyone. If you dislike the idea of spending years at an expensive university or find the subsequent career options distasteful, trade jobs are a viable alternative. They can help you earn a great living with no bachelor’s degree required.

Here’s what you should consider before you decide to pursue a trade job, including how they work, their advantages and disadvantages, and some examples of the best ones on the market.

What Are Trade Jobs?

A trade job is any career that requires advanced training from something other than a traditional four-year university. That could be trade school, on-the-job experience, an apprenticeship, independent certifications, or some combination of the four.

Trade jobs are often highly specialized and practical, and their qualification requirements typically reflect that. To get employed, you’ll usually need to undergo training that dives deep into the technical skills necessary for the work, get hands-on experience, and demonstrate your capability.

Many traditional trade jobs are physically demanding and involve skilled manual labor. For example, the construction and manufacturing industries are popular sources of trade jobs, such as welder, plumber, and auto repair person.

It’s also worth noting that trade jobs aren’t always technically “jobs” that involve full-time employment. In many cases, tradespeople can start as employees or contract workers under someone else, then transition into small business ownership.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to earn the big bucks by leveraging your skills when you’re in charge of the operation. As a result, if you’re interested in starting your own business, mastering a trade can be a great way to do it.

Trade Jobs vs. the College Route

Investing in education is undeniably the most reliable path to success. There’s a reason immigrant parents work so hard to send their children to good schools. You can turn your family’s fortunes around in a single generation by going to a great university, getting a pragmatic degree, and entering a lucrative field.

The data shows that attending college is still the most reliable way to earn great money. On average, graduates earn roughly $1 million more over their careers than those who pursue a trade directly after high school[2]. In addition, college graduates usually have more flexible career options, while tradespeople often have skills appropriate to a single industry, making career changes more complicated.

However, there are significant costs to taking the college route, and unfortunately, they’re rising. That includes:

  • The financial cost of attendance: The cost of college tuition is already staggering, but it’s still going up. In fact, it’s increasing far faster than the rate of general inflation. Since 1980, it’s increased by 1,200%, while the consumer price index has only risen by 236%[3]. The average trade school education costs $33,000, compared to $132,000 for the average bachelor’s degree.
  • Delayed entrance to the workforce: Traditionally, attending college prevents you from earning money for four years after high school. However, it’s taking longer for people to finish college these days, to the point where more people graduate in five to ten years than in four[4].

Trade jobs typically require less time in training before you can enter the workforce. That training also costs much less than college, which means you can start your career sooner and without tens of thousands of dollars in student loans weighing you down.

As a result, you’ll have an extra half-decade to save, invest, and put compound interest to work, plus significantly lower monthly expenses. The average student loan has a $460 monthly payment and lasts for roughly 20 years, which is a serious financial headwind[5].

There’s No Universally Correct Path

Hopefully, you came away from that section unsure whether I think it’s better to go to college or pursue a trade job. If so, that’s because I don’t think either one is inherently better than the other.

Statistically, you’ll probably be able to earn more money with a college degree than by working a traditional trade job. However, you’ll also have to delay your entrance into the workforce and may need to take on significant student loan debt.

That said, trends and averages can only tell you so much. You’re an individual, and your results will be different from everyone else’s. It’s possible to become a millionaire working a trade or wind up broke with a college degree.

What’s more, money isn’t everything. Maybe you find the traditional academic route distasteful, or perhaps fixing cars is your one true passion. If so, that’s fine! Choosing a trade won’t doom you to a life of poverty.

📘 Learn More: Fortunately, student loans aren’t entirely unavoidable. Learn how to earn a college degree with as few of them as possible: College Without Debt: Where to Get Help Paying for College.

10 Best Trade Jobs In 2022

Trade jobs are as varied as the career paths available to college graduates. Whether you’re happiest doing manual labor or providing medical care, there are plenty of lucrative trades to suit your skillset and temperament.

Let’s look at options in a few different fields, their earning potentials, and the training and education you’ll need to secure them, assuming you’ve completed high school or gotten your GED.

Trade JobJob DescriptionMedian Annual Earnings[6]Job Requirements
PlumberInstall, fix, and maintain plumbing systems in buildings, such as pipes, valves, and drains.$56,330Two to five years in a paid apprenticeship or trade school followed by a licensing exam.
ElectricianInstall, maintain, inspect, and repair electrical wiring systems.$56,900Four-year paid apprenticeship followed by a licensing exam.
Auto MechanicInspecting, maintaining, and repairing vehicle parts, such as the engine, computer, and electronic systems.$44,050Trade school followed by a paid apprenticeship and a licensing exam.
Wind Turbine TechnicianMaintaining, repairing, and replacing the electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic components of wind turbines.$56,230Trade school followed by extensive training on the job.
Dental HygienistFacilitate the oral health of patients through prevention and maintenance. Assist dentists with procedures.$77,090Accredited dental hygienist program followed by a licensing exam.
ParamedicProvide transportation and medical assistance as needed in emergencies.$36,650Get CPR certified, complete an emergency medical tech program, a paramedic program, then pass licensing exams. 
Web DeveloperCreating client websites, including designing the style, writing the code, and fixing bugs.$77,200Demonstrate capabilities through training certifications and a robust portfolio of previous work.
BookkeeperMaintain accurate records of a business’s financial transactions.$42,410On-the-job experience and training plus certifications.
PilotOperate aircraft like airplanes and helicopters.$130,440Flight school and extensive certification exams.
Real Estate AgentFacilitate real estate transactions for consumers and businesses.$49,040Minimum coursework and a licensing exam followed by experience under a broker.

Are Trade Jobs Worth It?

Pursuing a trade job is a viable alternative to going to college. You can earn a comfortable living without getting a bachelor’s degree, and the diversity of trades available means there’s probably something out there that you’d enjoy doing.

However, getting a college degree is traditionally considered the superior career choice for good reason. The odds are that it’ll give you better earning power and a more diverse range of potential career options. If you can get a degree without student loans, that’s probably your best choice.

That said, there isn’t a single correct answer for everyone. There’s no way to know for sure what your eventual earning power, education costs, and finance charges will be. And, of course, you always have to consider which route will make you happiest, and there’s no accounting for taste.

Ultimately, all you can do is try to choose the career path you think will maximize your satisfaction and financial security. If you want help, consider talking to people who’ve chosen the careers that you’re considering to get some first-hand insight.

📘 Further Reading: Are you still unsure whether you want to go to college or pursue a trade? Take a look at our analysis of the two educational tracks: Trade School or College? What’s the Difference? Pros and Cons of Each

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