22 High-Paying Trade Vocational Jobs in 2024

By Kim Franke-Folstad · March 27, 2024 · 16 minute read

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22 High-Paying Trade Vocational Jobs in 2024

People tend to think of vocational jobs — which require special skills and training, but not necessarily a college degree — as paying less than careers that call for higher education. But there are plenty of vocational jobs, in a wide range of fields, that can provide a competitive paycheck. And those jobs can be both personally rewarding and vital to the economy.

If you aren’t sure college is in your future — because of the cost, the time commitment, or the desire to pursue a skilled job for which you have a passion — read on to learn more about which vocational jobs are among the highest paying.

What Is a Vocational Job?

Vocational occupations generally require using specific skills that may be learned with hands-on training and/or classroom instruction — through an apprenticeship, for example, or at a vocational school or community college.

People may assume vocational jobs are mostly manual labor (think plumbers or machine operators), but that isn’t always the case. Many vocational jobs are done in an office setting, or in a hospital, airport, or school. And increasingly these jobs can require serious technical skills. So even though a vocational job won’t require a degree, workers may have to earn certain licenses or certifications to prove their proficiency, find employment, or advance in their career.

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Reasons for Applying for a Vocational Job

If you look up the word “vocation” in the dictionary, you’ll see that it’s sometimes used to describe a strong desire or “calling” to do a certain kind of work. And for workers in many vocational careers — bakers, hair stylists, carpenters, landscapers — the work they do is truly their passion.

But there are other reasons why workers might pursue a vocational job, including:

Eagerness to Enter the Workforce

Because a vocational job doesn’t require a four-year degree, workers can get a head start on life:

•   Get into the labor force faster.

•   Start earning a competitive salary or hourly wage.

•   Begin saving and investing money.

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Avoid Heavy Student Debt

Vocational school costs less than a four-year college, which can mean spending less upfront and graduating with no loans or lower student loan payments.

Follow in Someone’s Footsteps

If the family business is HVAC repair, a bakery, or salon, it might have been a goal since childhood to lean into that legacy.

A Less Traditional Path

Some extremely successful entrepreneurs, including tech executives like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, built their empires without earning a college degree. A college education can be a plus, but it isn’t a must for everyone.

Job Security

There likely will always be plumbers, auto mechanics, electricians, and cooks. And those aren’t the only vocational jobs that offer stability and competitive pay. Check out the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ current list of the “Fastest Growing Occupations,” which projects job growth to 2032. You’ll see wind turbine service technicians, occupational therapy assistants, solar panel installers, and several other vocational careers.

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Pros and Cons of Pursuing a Vocational Job

Besides saving money and time on a four-year degree, there are other positives to pursuing a vocational career, including:

•   Unlike a career that requires a bachelor’s degree or higher, you probably won’t have to spend time studying material unrelated to the job you want.

•   Even while you’re in training, you’ll be making contacts that can help you in your career.

•   Many vocational jobs are stable and in high demand.

But there are some downsides to training for a vocational job:

•   If your education or training is too narrow in scope, you may have to go back to school if you decide to transition to a new job.

•   Your vocational program may not qualify for some types of federal financial aid.

•   Specialized careers often require continuing education to update skills and renew certifications.

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Tips for Finding Vocational Jobs

If you think a vocational job might be right for you, here are some steps to consider as you get started:

Find a Mentor

Ask someone who is doing the job you’re interested in how they got started. They may be able to steer you toward a good training program, apprenticeship, or even a job.

Use Connections Made During Training

If you attend a vocational school, you likely will have access to networking events, career fairs, and job placement assistance. (Some programs offer lifetime placement assistance to their graduates.) Apprenticeships, certification courses, and even high school vocational programs may also offer opportunities to connect with potential employers.

Consider Enrolling in Job Corps

Job Corps is a free federal program that offers education, on-the-job training, and career assistance for young adults (ages 16 to 24). Career opportunities are available in a variety of fields, including automotive repair, manufacturing, construction, hospitality, renewable resources, health care, and homeland security.

Check Employment Sites and Job Boards

Many popular job boards include listings for apprenticeships and vocational jobs, as well as information on how to begin your job search.

22 High-Paying Trade Vocational Jobs in 2024

The money you can earn in any vocational job will vary depending on several factors:

•   Education and training

•   Certifications and credentials

•   Experience

•   Job difficulty

•   How much work you’re willing to put in

With that in mind, here are some high-paying vocational jobs to consider in 2024. (Average wages and job growth outlook are from Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)

1. Air Traffic Controller

Median Annual Salary: $132,250

Job Description: Coordinate the safe movement of various aircraft as they arrive and depart the airport.

Duties May Include: Using computers, radar, and visual references to direct air and ground traffic. Monitoring weather conditions. Alerting pilots to potential emergencies.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree plus training program

Job Outlook: 1% (little or no change)

Getting Started: Air traffic controllers typically earn an associate degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. Controllers also must meet several Federal Aviation Association (FAA) requirements, complete training at the FAA Academy, and obtain FAA certification.

2. Commercial Pilot

Median Annual Salary: $148,900

Job Description: Pilot a plane or other aircraft for a business, individual, or organization.

Duties May Include: Navigating and flying planes, helicopters, or other aircraft. Managing flight crew and interacting with ground crew. Assisting in maintenance and recordkeeping. Interacting with passengers.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Varies by employer

Job Outlook: 4% (as fast as average)

Getting Started
: To get a commercial pilot certificate, applicants must meet federal requirements for age and flight hours. They also must pass a physical exam, including a vision test. And they must earn the FAA-issued certificates and ratings required for their job. For more on commercial pilot requirements, see our guide to paying for flight school.

3. Nuclear Technician

Median Annual Salary: $100,420

Job Description: Assist physicists, engineers, and others doing nuclear research and nuclear energy production.

Duties May Include: Using computers and other equipment to monitor and help operate nuclear reactors.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree

Job Outlook: -1% (little or no change)

Getting Started: Many community colleges and technical institutes have associate degree programs in nuclear science, nuclear technology, or related fields. The amount of on-the-job training required to become a nuclear technician varies from one employer to the next and may be based on previous experience and education. Technicians often are expected to update their training throughout their career. Several certification programs are available.

4. Elevator and Escalator Mechanic

Median Annual Salary: $99,000

Job Description: Install and repair elevators, escalators, moving walkways, and related equipment.

Duties May Include: Testing, maintaining, and repairing electrical lines and control systems. Keeping inspection records.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent

Job Outlook: 1% (little or no change)

Getting Started: This work, which is both technical and physical, requires participating in an apprenticeship program through a union, employer, or industry association. In many states, you must be licensed.

5. Radiation Therapist

Median Annual Salary: $89,530

Job Description: Use radiation equipment to treat cancer patients, typically in a hospital, doctor’s office, or outpatient center.

Duties May Include: Explaining treatment plans. Treating and monitoring patients. Updating records.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree

Job Outlook: 2% (as fast as average)

Getting Started: Accredited associate degree programs typically offer both classroom and hands-on training. Most states require some type of licensing or certification.

6. Dental Hygienist

Median Annual Salary: $81,400

Job Description: Provide screenings, treatment, and preventive care for oral diseases.

Duties May Include: Taking X-rays, cleaning teeth, advising patients about good oral hygiene, keeping records.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree

Job Outlook: 7% (faster than average)

Getting Started: Look for a dental hygiene degree program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which should offer both classroom and clinical education. To become certified as a Licensed Dental Hygienist (LDH), you must also pass any state-required licensure exams.

7. MRI Technologist

Median Annual Salary: $67,180

Job Description: MRI technologists produce diagnostic images for patients at health-care facilities.

Duties May Include: Working with physicians and patients to get requested diagnostic images using an MRI scanner.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree

Job Outlook: 6% (about average)

Getting Started: Some states require MRI techs to complete an accredited training program before they can be licensed. Accredited MRI programs typically require applicants to have an associate degree for acceptance. If you’re heading to school with this job in mind, you may want to focus on anatomy, biology, and other health-related courses.

8. Aircraft and Avionics Equipment Mechanics and Technicians

Median Annual Salary: $70,740

Job Description: Mechanics and technicians work in hangars, repair stations, and at airfields, repairing and maintaining aircraft and equipment.

Duties May Include: Diagnosing problems, repairing malfunctioning systems, installing new equipment.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Varies by employer

Job Outlook: 4% (as fast as average)

Getting Started: Mechanics and technicians typically attend an FAA-approved aviation school, but some may gain their skills while in the military or on the job. You don’t have to have a degree, but you must be FAA-certified to work on aircraft.

9. Wholesale or Manufacturing Sales Representative

Median Annual Salary: $67,750

Job Description: Sell goods for wholesalers or manufacturers to a variety of businesses and other organizations, including government agencies.

Duties May Include: Working with clients in person and remotely to meet sales quotas and ensure quality customer service. Many sales representatives are given a specific geographical territory to cover.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Can vary depending on what’s being sold. Some products may require more technical knowledge than others

Job Outlook: 1% (little or no change)

Getting Started: Companies may offer a formal training program for sales employees that can include learning about all aspects of the product, from manufacturing to distribution. Certification and continuing education may be required.

10. Occupational Therapy Assistant

Median Annual Salary: $63,450

Job Description: Help patients work on skills needed for daily living and working.

Duties May Include: Working with therapists and patients to regain or improve basic life skills, such as getting up from a bed or chair, and walking. The job requires physical strength, patience, and good communication skills.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree

Job Outlook: 23% (much faster than average)

Getting Started: Occupational therapy assistants typically must obtain an associate degree from an accredited program that includes both academic study and field work. Most states require licensure.

11. Electrician

Median Annual Salary: $60,240

Job Description: Install, maintain, and repair electrical systems for businesses and homeowners.

Duties May Include: Problem solving when electrical systems aren’t working properly, reading blueprints, laying wire, and connecting fixtures.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent

Job Outlook: 6% (average)

Getting Started: This job can require both physical and technical ability. Some electricians attend a vocational program and then move on to an apprenticeship. Others may learn their skills in the military, while many go straight to a lengthy (four to five years) apprenticeship. Most states require a license to do this type of work.

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12. Plumber

Median Annual Salary: $60,090

Job Description: Plumbers install, repair, and replace pipes and fixtures in homes and buildings.

Duties May Include: Knowing building codes and mastering everything from new builds to regular maintenance and emergency fixes.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent

Job Outlook: 2% (as fast as average)

Getting Started: Plumbers typically learn their trade through an apprenticeship or vocational program. Most states have licensing requirements.

13. Civil Engineering Technologist / Technician

Median Annual Salary: $59,630

Job Description: Help plan, design, build, and maintain infrastructure projects, including roads, railroads, bridges, and dams.

Duties May Include: Working in an office and in the field, civil engineering technicians and technologists assist in collecting and analyzing project data, preparing reports, designing projects, and monitoring project progress.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree

Job Outlook: 1% (little or no change)

Getting Started: Many vocational schools offer classes in engineering, design, computer software, and other areas related to this career. Look for a program that’s been accredited by the Board for Engineering and Technology.

14. Paralegal or Legal Assistant

Median Annual Salary: $59,200

Job Description: Serve as support staff for attorneys.

Duties May Include: Researching cases, typing, communicating with attorneys and clients, organizing files.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Associate degree

Job Outlook: 4% (as fast as average)

Getting Started: You may want to start by earning an associate degree in paralegal studies from a program approved by the American Bar Association. Some employers may offer on-the-job training. Though it isn’t required, some paralegal organizations offer paralegal certifications to students who pass an exam.

15. Broadcast, Sound, and Video Technician

Median Annual Salary: $53,960

Job Description: Operate various types of equipment for media programs.

Duties May Include: Setting up and testing electrical equipment. Knowing industry codes and standards. Communicating with clients about their specific needs. Continuing education and certification may be required.

Entry Level Education Requirements: Requirements vary; some employers may require an associate or bachelor’s degree

Job Outlook: 2% (as fast as average)

Getting Started: Because this is a technical job utilizing equipment that is constantly changing, it can be useful to enroll in a targeted vocational or community college program. There also are voluntary certification / credentialing programs that can help with advancement.

16. Auto Service Technician or Mechanic

Median Annual Salary: $46,970

Job Description: Inspect, maintain, and repair cars, trucks, and other vehicles.

Duties May Include: Communicating with customers. Using diagnostic equipment and experience to monitor and troubleshoot a variety of problems. Repairing and replacing car components. Record keeping.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent

Job Outlook: 2% (as fast as average)

Getting Started: Although it isn’t always required, many auto service technicians and mechanics complete a vocational or associate degree program that includes classroom instruction and hands-on practice. Certificate programs in specific automotive repair categories are also available. Many employers require service technicians to become certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

17. Medical Records Specialist

Median Annual Salary: $47,180

Job Description: Compile and maintain patient files for a doctor’s office, hospital, clinic, etc.

Duties May Include: Managing patient charts and records for billing and other purposes. Preparing billing statements. Requesting information from nurses, doctors, and other sources to keep files updated.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent

Job Outlook: 8% (faster than average)

Getting Started: Employers may provide on-the-job training for entry-level positions, but advanced training and courses in medical terminology, electronic health records, and medical billing may be needed for more complex duties. Employers may expect candidates to complete one or more certifications.

18. HVAC Installer / Mechanic

Median Annual Salary: $51,390

Job Description: Install and repair heating and air-conditioning systems in homes and buildings.

Duties May Include: Assembling, installing, and fixing HVAC systems.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent

Job Outlook: 6% (faster than average)

Getting Started: Many HVAC technicians receive instruction from a vocational school or a community college. Programs typically take six months to two years to complete and can lead to certification or an associate degree. Some techs learn their trade through an apprenticeship or years on the job. Some states require technicians to be licensed, and the Environmental Protection Agency requires all who buy, handle, or work with refrigerants to be certified in proper handling.

19. Tractor Trailer Driver

Median Annual Salary: $49,920

Job Description: Long-haul truck drivers transport goods across the country.

Duties May Include: Using GPS and maps to plan a safe and efficient delivery route. Ensuring the tractor trailer is well maintained. Driving routes that require spending several days away from home. Navigating busy highways, backroads, and crowded city streets.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent, plus training course

Job Outlook: 4% (as fast as average)

Getting Started: Long-haul truck drivers must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL), which could require passing a knowledge test and a driving test. Professional driving instruction is required to be a long-haul driver, so you’ll have to sign up with a private truck-driving school or community college program. Drivers must maintain a clean driving record and pass a physical exam every two years. They also must submit to random drug and alcohol testing.

20. Carpenter

Median Annual Salary: $51,390

Job Description: Design, build, install, and repair structures made from wood and other materials.

Duties May Include: Carpenters might do anything from building kitchen cabinets to contributing to major infrastructure projects. They must be able read blueprints, understand building code requirements, and do hands-on construction work.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school degree or equivalent

Job Outlook: 1% (little or no change)

Getting Started: Most carpenters learn through an apprenticeship or on-the-job from experienced tradespeople. They may start out in other construction jobs before moving into carpentry. All carpenters are required to pass a safety course administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

21. Licensed Practical Nurse

Median Annual Salary: $54,620

Job Description: LPNs provide basic medical care for patients under the supervision of physicians and registered nurses.

Duties May Include: Monitoring patient health. Providing medical care and comfort. Record-keeping.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent, plus training program

Job Outlook: 5% (faster than average)

Getting Started: LPNs must finish a state-approved educational program that can take a year or longer to complete, and they must be licensed.

22. Solar Panel Installer

Median Annual Salary: $45,230

Job Description: Solar panel installers (also known as solar photovoltaic installers) assemble and install solar panels on homes and other structures.

Duties May Include: Setting up, troubleshooting, and maintaining solar panels. Connecting panels to the grid.

Entry Level Education Requirements: High school diploma or equivalent

Job Outlook: 22% (much faster than average)

Getting Started: Some solar panel installers attend courses at a community college or vocational school. Others learn through apprenticeships or on-the-job training. Licensing requirements vary by state.

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The Takeaway

Vocational jobs can offer a competitive paycheck and an opportunity to use your skills to do something you’re interested in — or even passionate about. Another plus: The upfront education costs and time commitment can be significantly less than for a four-year or advanced degree.

Choosing a career that’s fulfilling, secure, and pays well can be a significant step toward achieving the life you want. Of course, it’s also important to develop healthy financial habits, such as building a budget you can stick to, paying your bills on time, and monitoring your credit score.

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What is the best trade to learn in 2024?

Some of the best-paying and in-demand vocational careers for 2024 are also among the most challenging and fulfilling. They include jobs in transportation, construction, and health care.

What is the highest-paying vocational job?

Air traffic controllers are among the highest paid workers with vocational jobs.

What is the easiest high-paying trade?

Many high-paying vocational jobs require high-level technical skills, good communication skills, and/or physical strength and endurance. What can make any job easier is if the person doing it is good at it and feels fulfilled. Many vocational jobs have the potential to check those boxes.

Photo credit: iStock/alvarez

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