Best Associate’s Degree Jobs and Vocational Jobs

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Earnings for employees with only an associate’s degree are 28% — or $336 a week — less than what a typical bachelor’s degree holder makes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Unemployment rates for those with an associate’s are also slightly higher.

Still, you might consider skipping a four-year degree to avoid a large student loan debt or to enter the job market faster. But if you do, be aware that some two-year degrees lead to much higher-paying and more stable careers than others.

We looked at 93 jobs that require only an associate’s degree or certification, reviewing three key pieces of BLS data: median annual wage, projected growth of the field, and the anticipated number of future openings. Based on those factors, here are the best of the bunch.

Key findings

  • Air traffic controller is the best job for people who prioritize salary. Median annual earnings in 2018 were $124,540 — $42,210 more than the second-highest earning profession on our list (radiation therapists). Electrical and electronics repairers ($80,200), funeral service managers ($79,180) and nuclear technicians ($79,140) rounded out our top five.
  • Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are projected to be in the most demand, with about 238,400 job openings per year. Other careers with high-ranking annual job growth include nursing assistants (199,700) and medical assistants (99,700).
  • Nursing and medical assistants also lead the way in projected job growth — the BLS expects these two careers to add 135,400 and 154,900 new jobs, respectively, between 2018 and 2028.

Best 5 jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree

Each of these occupations received an “Employment Prospect Score” based on how much they pay, how many such jobs are generally open, and how many new positions are forecast to be added each year. (See Methodology below.) Jobs that pay well and are expected to stick around long-term earned a better score, rising to the top of our rankings.

The following five came out on top.

1. Air traffic controller

Air Traffic Controller Employment prospect score: 52.2
Median annual wage: $124,540
Projected new jobs added over 2018-28: 300
Projected available job openings per year: 2,300

If directing air traffic from a tall tower appeals to you, an associate’s degree and extensive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) training are all that’s needed to start working. Your on-the-job training would take time, though at least it wouldn’t add to your education debt.

Plus, because 9 out of 10 air traffic controllers work for the FAA, any student loans for your associate’s degree could eventually be cleared by Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Keep in mind, however, that the job has a reputation for being stressful and requiring overtime hours. If you’re into nighttime job options, however, that might not be an issue.

You should also be aware that job growth for this field doesn’t have the same bright outlook as some of the others in this survey, with BLS predicting only 300 positions added in the decade ending 2028.

2. Heavy truck / tractor-trailer truck driver

Employment prospect score: 51.4
Median annual wage: $43,680
Projected new jobs added over 2018-28: 99,700
Projected available job openings per year: 238,400

If you’d rather be on the move, consider that truck driving ranked in the top three for both growth and demand. You could find yourself in the driver’s seat after just three to six months of education at a community college or driving school, plus some on-the-job training.

But before studying for your commercial driver’s license test, however, consider that the BLS projections may not fully account for recent trends, including the predicted rise of self-driving trucks and a drop in business due to current trade and tax policies.

3. Nursing assistant

Employment prospect score: 44.2
Median annual wage: $28,540
Projected new jobs added over 2018-28: 135,400
Projected available job openings per year: 190,700

The top health care career on our list of associate’s degree jobs, nursing assistant ranked third, primarily because of its annual job growth.

You might not even need an associate’s degree. Along with orderlies, nursing assistants can find employment after earning their high school diploma and passing a state-issued competency exam.

If you’re can delay your career for one year of education, consider that licensed practical and vocational nurses (which rank sixth on our list) earn a significantly higher salary ($46,240). You might also consider working as a nursing assistant to help pay for your nursing degree and increase your earning power even more.

4. Medical assistant

Employment prospect score: 40.1
Median annual wage: $33,610
Projected new jobs added over 2018-28: 154,900
Projected available job openings per year: 99,700

A medical assistant helps with administrative tasks at healthcare facilities, as well as performing some clinical duties, like nursing assistants do. And although they sound similar, medical assistants outearn nursing assistants by a noticeable margin.

Like their nursing peers, medical assistants could start working with a high school diploma and employer-offered training. A certificate program also paves the way.

With its most recent figures, the BLS anticipates that employment for medical assistants will increase by 23% between 2018 and 2028.

5. Dental hygienist

Employment prospect score: 32.5
Median annual wage: $74,820
Projected new jobs added over 2018-28: 23,700
Projected available job openings per year: 17,900

Despite not making the top five in any of our three data categories, dental hygienists registered steady marks across the board, checking in at fifth overall.

To score a typical dental hygienist’s salary, however, you’ll likely need to complete a three-year program. Associate’s degrees are required for the position and could require you to take on some education debt.

On the plus side, dental hygienists could receive help repaying student loans. Hygienists working in Colorado, for example, could net $6,000 to $12,000 of state aid, depending on how many underserved patients they see per month.

Dental assistants, meanwhile, ranked 38th on our list, as they earn a far lower salary ($38,660); however, this position doesn’t require an associate’s degree.

A wide range of possibilities

Beyond these five, there are other great opportunities for people with the right certificate or associate’s degree — and other, less-great opportunities.

Down at the bottom of our ranking of 93 professions, you’ll find dietetic technicians, barbers, manicurists and pedicurists. That’s not to say those occupations aren’t worth pursuing — just that the income might not be as great as other options or it might be a little harder to find work.

Here’s our full list of the occupations we surveyed, along with their Employment Prospect Score and other data:

Before you pursue a new education and career…

You might see the six-figure salary of air traffic controllers or the appealing stability of a medical career and be tempted to change paths. But before you make any rash decisions, keep the caveats in mind.

Although some positions don’t require a four-year degree, for example, they could call for extensive education of another form. Consider nuclear technicians (ranked 10th overall), which need an associate’s degree — plus six months to two years of company-paid training.

You should also be wary of choosing a position strictly for its high marks. You might like the idea of driving a truck, but balk at the reality of being away from home for days or weeks at a time.

To prepare yourself for the right field, ensure it’s a good fit before you consider the earnings, growth and demand for such work. You might start by reviewing our five-step roadmap to your dream job.

Remember too that the right job must also feature the right path. You could opt for a field that would see you borrow less in federal and private student loans, for example. If you’re further on in your life — and already have education debt — switching to a higher-paying field could also help you qualify for student loan refinancing.

Methodology

Student Loan Hero analysts reviewed median income, position growth and projected job openings as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data was provided for 93 occupations, which the BLS identified as requiring an associate’s degree or postsecondary non-degree award.

Each factor was scored between 0 and 100 based on their relative position between the highest and lowest values among all occupations, and these three scores were then weighted at 50% (median income, 2018), 25% (10-year projected position growth, 2018-2028), and 25% (projected average annual job openings, 2018-2028) to create a final Employment Prospect Score.

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