Even with student debt reaching $1 trillion, high school graduates are still seeking out traditional degrees in record numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68 percent of the high school class of 2010 was enrolled in college by the following October (that’s 2.2 million wide-eyed freshmen). But in this troubled and radically changing economy, a college education may not be the first must-have step down the path to financial success.
Meet Joe Lamacchia, the owner of a successful landscaping, asphalt, and masonry business in Newton, Mass., and the author of Blue Collar and Proud of It. Even in a struggling economy, Lamacchia’s business has no want for work. Lamacchia, whose company was rated number one on Angie’s List in 2005 and whose Boston Magazine profile is full of rave reviews, speaks around the country at high schools, prisons, and vocational schools promoting the virtues of skilled labor.
“I don’t know how college became grade thirteen,” Lamacchia says, arguing that while a degree is a prerequisite for physicians, lawyers, and engineers, it’s not something everybody needs to get ahead. “I’m happy to have doctors, but we can’t all do that. We’re in a recession, and we can’t find machinists, factory workers, and welders.”
The statistics seem to support his case. Nearly one-third of college students drop out by the end of their first year — and there’s no refund if you don’t get that degree.
“Only a third of the workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher education, with about 21 percent having no more than a bachelor’s degree,” says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute. “In the last 10 years, the inflation-adjusted wages of those with just a bachelor’s degree have not grown — each cohort of new graduates earns less than the previous one.” In 2010 the average student graduated with $25,000 in debt, and though the Obama administration has made strides in student loan reform, Congress is now pushing back. In October, House Republicans proposed a bill that would eliminate Pell grants for about a million students, making it even more difficult for many low-income students to afford college.
And that’s not all. With so many graduates seeking degrees, skilled laborers are in high demand. The Wall Street Journal profiled an Australian miner making more than $200,000 per year, and though the job is rare and involves extracting ore for 12-backbreaking-hours a day in remote parts of the world, the phenomenon of lucrative blue collar jobs is also taking place stateside. In North Dakota, due to an oil boom, truck drivers are making $80,000 a year and more. One trucker, featured on CNN Money, makes about $2,225 a week.
But for Lamacchia, it’s not just about the numbers — it’s the lifestyle. “You work hard all day, and you make an honest buck. You don’t have to go to the gym after work, because you’re exhausted,” he says. “If you want to build a million-dollar company, you can. In an office, it might be three to six months before a project bears fruit, but we build something everyday. It’s instant gratification.”
So what are all these financially and psychically rewarding blue-collar jobs? Click here to see the list.
1. Nuclear Power Reactor Operator
Turns out Homer Simpson’s gig is one of the most lucrative ones around. Nuclear power reactor operators basically make things go, distributing power among generators and keeping electricity flowing from the plant. On-the-job training and a high-school diploma is all that’s officially required — a nuclear power plant operator must have three years’ of power plant experience, usually working as equipment operators — but it’s worth it. The average annual wage is $77K, with the top 10 percent making an impressive six figures. Plus, the BLS expects the industry to grow nearly 19 percent by 2018 — that’s a whole lot of future Homer Simpsons.
No, not a shot and a beer. Skip college and get certified as a boilermaker, installing and repairing large containers that hold liquids and gases. You’ll need an apprenticeship (it’ll give you a better workout than any gym), but that’s it, and can expect to make about $56K, with the top 10 percent earning just over $80K. Plus, the BLS expects the industry to grow to by 19 percent by 2008, with the highest wages in, of all places, West Virginia, where boilermakers get an average hourly wage of nearly $33.
3. Subway and Streetcar Operator
For many, it’s a better ticket to city living than that Ivy League degree in English Literature. Subway and streetcar operators, mostly employed by local governments, earn a median salary of $53K, and the occupation is expected to grow by 19 percent by 2018 (that’s 4,000 additional jobs). Just make sure you have a clean driving record — those with DUIs need not apply.
4. Transportation Inspector
Were you the kid who loved to play with toy cars and trains? Channel that love by inspecting trains, planes, and automobiles and making an average of $63K per year (or much more — the top 10 percent in the industry make an average of $108K!). And the good news? More than 11,000 jobs are expected to open up by 2018.
5. Construction Manager
Do you miss helping your grandpa build wooden birdhouses? Supervise building projects as a construction manager. You’ll need to work your way up, gaining practical experience on construction sites (an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree doesn’t hurt but isn’t officially required), however the payoff is big. The average salary is an impressive $94K, with top earners making as much as $150K. Plus, jobs are expected to grow by 17 percent, or nearly 140,000 new jobs, by 2018.
6. Precision Instrument and Equipment Repairer
If you love taking apart your watch to see how it works, this is the job for you. Repair everything from heavy machinery to electronics to musical instruments — all with just a high-school degree. You can expect an average salary or $51K (even higher if you work in sunny L.A., about 62K). Plus, you can go pretty much anywhere — high concentrations of jobs are scattered around the country, and the BLS expects the industry to grow by 32,000 new positions by 2018.
Turn your how-a-light-bulb-works science project into a career. Electricians install, maintain, and repair electrical wiring, equipment, and fixtures, including everything from streetlights to intercoms. While apprenticeship programs are typically four years, they include mainly on-the-job training (meaning you’ll get paid to learn, not the other way around). An average salary clocks in at just over $50K, but the top earners make more than $80K, and get this — the BLS estimates that there will be 250,000 new job openings (a 12 percent increase) by 2018. If that’s not illuminating, what is?
8. Plumber and Pipelayer
Even when construction slows, repair and maintenance for aging properties and septic systems keeps plumbers employed. Median hourly wage is about $22, and median salary is $50,360, with top earners raking in nearly $80K. For both union and nonunion jobs, apprenticeships involve about 4 or 5 years of paid on-the-job training. But many plumbers also go into business for themselves and become their own boss. In 2008, 12 percent of plumbers and pipelayers were self-employed. With other industries automating and computerizing, this is one job that will likely always need a human touch. According to the BLS, the industry is expected to grow by 16 percent between 2008 and 2018.
9. Avionics Technicians
It doesn’t get much cooler than this. Avionics technicians install, inspect, test, adjust, or repair equipment such as radar, radio, navigation, and missile control systems in aircraft or space vehicles (read: you get to play with spaceships). Get qualified by enrolling in an FAA-approved, 12-to-24-month training course at an aviation maintenance technician school, and expect to make an average of $52K, with the top 10 percent making nearly $70K. The highest concentration of jobs is (not surprisingly) in Dallas, and the BLS expects the number of jobs to grow by nearly 11 percent by 2018, or just over 5,000 jobs.