For most people, the ideal job is high in demand, pays well, doesn’t take too long to train for, and aligns with their interests. Funny enough, most of us barely think of skilled trades when choosing a career path, even though thousands of these jobs tick all of the above boxes. The common misconception is that skilled trades aren’t worthwhile because they don’t pay as well as white-collar jobs.
Skilled trades jobs are worth it because they pay as much if not more in some cases than the average white-collar job even though the training costs less money and a fraction of time of a four year degree . They also have excellent prospects as the demand curve for the sector is expected to keep trending upwards throughout the next decade.
Read on to learn more about skilled trades, why they’re worth it, the various categories, and the best careers in each class based on job availability and remuneration.
What Is a Trade Job?
A trade job refers to any occupation requiring special skills acquired via other forms of formal training besides a college degree. In other words, it’s any job that requires skills you can acquire without attending a 4-year college.
Welding is an example of a trade job. In most cases, a welder’s training only lasts 7 to 14 months, way shorter than it would take you to acquire a degree in many fields.
Some people train for trade jobs through apprenticeship. Even though this is a great way to learn and gain some experience, vocational school training is highly recommended. That’s because these programs offer certificates upon completion, letting potential employers know that you have the skills you claim to possess.
Sometimes, skilled trade jobs may go by the name “skilled trades,” especially in the manufacturing and construction industries. And while most people think “manual labor” when they hear of skilled trades, not all involve that. For instance, dental hygienists barely exert themselves physically in their work.
Six Categories of Skilled Trades Jobs
For easier sorting, skilled trade jobs are often classified according to industry. With these skills needed in virtually every industry, there are several categories, each with numerous job opportunities.
Most commonly skilled trades fall into the following categories:
Since there are many skilled trades available in each category, I’m only going to discuss the top professions in each industry regarding job availability and remuneration and then provide a list of noteworthy mentions where appropriate.
This way, choosing any job from this post will set you on a career path with excellent prospects.
There are hundreds of skilled trade job opportunities in the service industry, but florists, chefs & head cooks, and cosmetologists/barbers/hairstylists are up there with the best in terms of demand.
Here’s how they compare in terms of remuneration and educational requirements:
|Job Title||Minimum Educational requirements||Annual Median Pay|
|Chefs and head cooks||High school diploma or its equivalent||$53,380|
|Cosmetologists, barbers, and hairstylists||A postsecondary nondegree award||$27,630|
|Floral Designers||High school diploma or its equivalent||$29,140|
The construction industry is one of the leading employers of skilled trades practitioners. The most in-demand, well-paying skilled trades in this industry include:
Also known as CAD operators, these technicians use Computer-Aided Design (CAD) to transform elaborate building designs into technical drawings.
Typical duties include:
- Using CAD or traditional methods of drafting to design building plans
- Translating engineer/architect building specifications into plans
- Specifying the quantity and type of materials required for a project
- Providing cost estimates
- Adding/removing some details as needed to ensure compliance with site requirements, building codes, and construction techniques.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, architectural drafters make a median salary of $57,960 per year. You can become one by enrolling in a certificate program in a technical school or pursuing an Associate of Applied Science in Drafting degree in a community college.
You might be a good fit for this career if you’re:
- Detail-oriented and creative
- Great at collaboration
- Okay with learning math and computer skills
- Good at working under strict deadlines
Steamfitters and pipefitters turn blueprints into reality in piping system installation and maintenance projects. The difference between the two job roles lies in what’s transported in the piping systems designed by each expert type.
Pipefitters typically work with low-and-high pressure piping systems commonly used in electricity production, heating and cooling, and manufacturing. On the other hand, steamfitters work with piping systems used to transport gases or liquids at high pressure.
Typical duties in both professions include:
- Threading, cutting, or hammering pipes into place as per the project’s specifications
- Threading/soldering joints
- Coming up with project cost estimates
- Performing general maintenance tasks on piping systems, including cleaning
- Assembling pipe systems and fittings as per the blueprint specifications
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that steamfitters and pipefitters made a median annual salary of $56,330 in 2020.
As for the educational requirements, a high school diploma is the minimum for most employers. The specific job skills may be acquired through a few years of apprenticeship or enrolling in a trade school or community college training program.
As steamfitter/pipefitter job may be an ideal choice if you:
- Have strong problem-solving and analytical skills
- Have decent math skills
- Can function as part of a team
- Are physically fit enough to do moderate lifting and maneuver through tight spaces
Heavy Equipment Mechanics
As the name suggests, these mechanics specialize in inspecting, repairing, and maintaining heavy construction equipment such as cranes, excavators, bulldozers, and other similar machinery used in mining, farming, and construction.
The scope of duties for an equipment mechanic encompasses:
- Inspecting heavy machinery to diagnose underlying issues
- Using power-and-hand tools to repair/replace faulty parts
- Testing repaired equipment for functionality and performance
- Performing ongoing maintenance tasks such as cleaning and lubricating parts
- Keeping updated reports on equipment repairs
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 estimates, the median salary for heavy equipment mechanics is $53,370.
The minimum educational requirement is a high school diploma or its equivalent. However, many employers prefer candidates with postsecondary specializations in heavy equipment mechanics or diesel technology. Both are offered through one-to-two-year programs in vocational schools, community colleges, and some heavy equipment manufacturers.
A career as a heavy equipment mechanic is best suited to individuals who:
- Boast excellent hand-eye coordination
- Love to solve problems through troubleshooting
- Are passionate about engine systems and their components
- Are detail-oriented
Other Noteworthy Mentions
The construction industry has other in-demand skilled trades careers besides the top three we’ve discussed above. Here’s a table showing the most noteworthy mentions in this regard, how much they pay, and the required education level
|Job title||Annual median salary||Educational Requirements|
|An electrician||$56,900||high school diploma, and technical training|
|HVAC technician||$50,590||high school diploma, and technical training|
|Surveying and mapping technician||$46,200||High School Diploma, Technical Training, and Certification|
|Security and fire alarm installer||$ 50,940||High School Diploma, Technical Training, and Certification|
|Carpenter||$49,520||High School Diploma, Technical Training, or Apprenticeship|
|Construction equipment operator||$49,100||High school diploma and a commercial drivers licence|
|Welder||$44,190||high school diploma, and technical training|
|Metal fabricator and fitter||$ 41,780||high school diploma or its equivalent|
|HVAC Technicians||$50,590||high school diploma, and technical training|
|Elevator Mechanic||$88,540||high school diploma, and technical training|
If you’re looking for successful careers with advancement potential, all of these fields need construction managers. While it is possible to work your way up through the ranks with just your trade skills, most managerial positions require professional development. This can be obtained through online courses at technical colleges or organizations like the Associated General Contractors of America.
Healthcare isn’t exactly what springs to mind when most people think of industries with high demand for skilled trades. However, the truth is that it’s one of the major providers of skilled trade jobs. Most of these jobs require the completion of different associate’s degree programs. Many of which can easily be obtained through community colleges and online trade school programs without the cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree.
Three of the most in-demand skilled trades with great pay in healthcare include:
A dental hygienist is a crucial member of a dentist’s preventive oral care team. This is the person who cleans your teeth whenever you make that dreaded trip to the dentist. However, their scope of duties goes beyond just cleaning teeth.
Other primary duties of a dental hygienist include:
- Taking X-rays
- Advising patients on best oral care practices
- Screening patients for oral cancer
- Creating impressions of patient’s teeth
- Applying sealants and other protective substances to patients’ teeth
- Setting up appointments and keeping updated records of each patient’s treatment plan
Note: some states have laws that regulate the scope of duties for dental hygienists.
The median salary for dental hygienists in 2020 was $77,090. An associate degree is the minimum educational requirement, and training programs take about three years to complete.
To succeed in this field, you need to:
- Be detail-oriented
- Have good interpersonal skills
- Have a knack for problem-solving
- Generally have a calm, reassuring demeanor
Sonographers are why expectant mothers can see ultrasound images of their unborn babies. Their job is to create images of various body parts for diagnostic purposes using high-frequency sound waves.
The median wage for sonographers is $70,380. An associate’s degree is required, and some employers also require professional certification. While not mandatory, good interpersonal skills, attention to detail, and a passion for operating sophisticated machines are crucial to success in this field.
An MRI technician scans patients using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment to provide diagnostic images.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for these technicians is $63,710. To become one, you need an associate degree and either American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists (ARMRIT) or American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) certification.
Personal traits like the ability to work on your feet, communicate effectively and work in a fast-paced environment come in handy in this field, so you may be a good fit if you have them.
Other Noteworthy Mentions
Other in-demand skilled trade jobs in the health care industry with good pay include:
- Licensed practical nurses (LPN/LVN)
- Registered dietician
- Radiology tech
- Diagnostic medical sonographers
- Cardiovascular technician
- Respiratory therapists
- Occupational therapy assistant
- Laboratory technician
- Radiation therapists
- Physical therapy assistant
- Medical records and health information technician
- Dental assistant
- Medical assistant
- Pharmacy technician
- Certified nursing assistant
Some of these positions may also overlap with the service industry.
The best-skilled trades jobs in transportation are mainly mechanic positions. Here’s a table summarizing the top three.
|Job title||Job description||Minimum educational requirements||Annual Median pay|
|Aircraft mechanic and service technician||Repair and maintenance of aircrafts.||High school diploma or its equivalent, plus certification from an FAA-approved institution.||$66,440|
|Diesel service technician and mechanic||Repair and maintenance of all diesel-powered vehicles and equipment.||High school diploma or its equivalent.||$50,200|
|Auto Body technician||Performing vehicle body repairs, maintenance, and upgrades.||High school diploma/its equivalent||$ 45,350|
Generally, ideal candidates for the above three positions require the following personal traits:
- A decent level of physical fitness
- Passion for working with their hands
- Great interpersonal skills
Positions like an auto body technician do overlap with the service industry, as auto body technicians may need to interact directly with customers on a regular basis.
Other jobs commonly found in the automotive industry are Engine and Machine Assembler, Automotive Glass Installer, Automotive Service Technician, Automotive Machinist Motorsports and Powersport Technician.
The best-skilled trade jobs in the energy sector include:
- Solar Photovoltaic Installer
- Wind turbine technician
- Power plant operator
Here’s a table showing how they stack up against each other.
|Job title||Job description||Entry-level educational requirements||Annual Median pay|
|Power Plant Operator||Monitoring and maintaining power generation equipment||High school diploma and Technical Training||$ 84,650|
|Wind Turbine Technician||Installing, repairing, maintaining, Wind Power generating equipment||High school diploma and Technical Training||$56,230|
|Solar Photovoltaic Installer||Assembling, installing, and maintaining solar energy systems||High school diploma and Technical Training||$46,470|
Other trades commonly needed in the Energy Sector are Iron Workers, Electricians, Mason’s, Rodbusters, Riggers, Crane Operators, and Fiberglass Technicians.
Three of the best paying, in-demand skilled trade experts in manufacturing include:
- Electrical and electronics engineering technician
- Electromechanical technician
- Industrial engineering technician
Here’s a table showing the median pay, the required level of education, and the personal traits you need to thrive in each specialty.
|Specialty area||Job description||Entry-level educational requirements||Annual Median pay|
|Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technician||Work with Engineers to help design, develop and test prototype electronic equipment.||An associate’s degree||$67,550|
|Electromechanical Technician||Testing, maintaining and operating robotic/automated electromechanical machinery.||An associate’s degree||$59,800|
|Industrial Engineering Technician||Repairing and maintaining equipment in industrial and commercial facilities.||An associate’s degree||$57,320|
Other noteworthy skilled trades in the manufacturing industry include:
- Machinists and tool and die makers. These experts set up and work with machine tools to fabricate precision metal tools, parts, and instruments. A high school diploma is the minimum educational requirement, and the median pay stands at $47,040 per year.
- Industrial machinery mechanics. Their job is to set up, repair, and perform ongoing maintenance on factory/industrial equipment. The educational requirements in this field are similar to those of machinists and tool and die makers, but the median annual pay is slightly higher: $54,920.
Are Trade Jobs Worth It?
Trade jobs are worth it because the demand for skilled labor is expected to grow rapidly in the next decade. This is particularly true for the energy and healthcare sectors.
The US Bureau of Labor statistics ranks wind turbine service technicians and solar photovoltaic installers first and third in its list of fastest-growing occupations.
Another key selling point for a career in skilled trades is that it takes less time to complete education and training, despite many specialty areas paying as much as (sometimes more than) the average white-collar job. Add to that the lower educational costs associated with skill trades, and the value of blue-collar jobs becomes more apparent.
That’s it for today’s post. Hopefully, I’ve given you a new perspective on skilled trades and possibly helped you choose an ideal career path. When making that choice, be sure to prioritize how a specialty suits your personal traits over how much it pays.
Everyone is different, and success in most fields requires leveraging personal characteristics and passion to delivering the best results. There are plenty of good jobs available for skilled workers in many different industries. As more and more of the baby boomer generation retire, the number of job openings for trade school graduates is expanding at a rapid growth rate
By Bryan Greene