High earning workers who don’t have a bachelor’s degree

High earning workers who don’t have a bachelor’s degree

Theresa Cosca

What makes a job good? To many people, it’s earnings. For them, the good news is that over 9 million, or I in every 6, full-time salaried workers age 25 and older who didn’t have a bachelor’s degree in 1993 earned $700 or more a week. That’s close to the median for college graduates. However, it is necessary to go beyond wages in determining whether a position is the right one for you. Job characteristics, such as the nature of the work and working conditions, are also important.

Still, everyone agrees that high earnings are better than low earnings.

Furthermore, earnings can be measured, but many other factors cannot. The following pages discuss occupations in which many highly paid workers do not have a college degree and point out other factors that make for a good job.

Many people are concerned that high-paid jobs are no longer available for those without a bachelor’s degree. Employment has declined in manufacturing, telephone communications, and some other industries that traditionally provided high-paying jobs. For men without a 4-year degree, earnings adjusted for inflation have fallen over the past 15 years, due at least in part to these declines. Rising entry requirements for some professional, managerial, and other jobs have made entry without a degree more difficult. Despite these trends, many people without college degrees, including many people under 35, still have high earnings. In fact, I of these workers in 20 earns $1,000 or more a week.

What the Numbers Say

There is no accepted definition of high earnings. Among the more objective measures available is the median earnings of all workers, the median being the point at which half the workers earned more and half earned less. The median earnings of workers with a bachelor’s degree is another possible yardstick.

In 1993, the median for all workers was about $500 a week. More precisely, median weekly earnings for all full-time, year-round workers age 25 and older were $493, or about $25,600 annually. The median for those with at least a bachelor’s degree was $716, or about $37,200 annually. The low figure is almost three times higher than the minimum wage ($4.25 an hour) and the high figure is more than four times higher.

In 1993, 21.4 million workers without a 4-year degree earned $500 or more a week, and 9.3 million earned $700 or more. (See chart 1.) In other words, 2 out of 5 workers without a college degree earned more than the median for all workers. (See chart 2.) As the charts show, earnings were even higher, at $1,000 or more a week, for many workers. In a few occupations, more than 10 percent of the workers without college degrees earned over $1,000 a week. Consider the top earners–the most motivated, best prepared, or most fortunate workers–in these occupations:


weekly earnings

of the

top 10 per-cent



Mining, manufacturing, and wholesale $1,051

sales representatives

Production occupation supervisors 1,000

Registered nurses 961

Police and detectives 889

Administrative support occupations,

supervisors 888

Engineering and related technologists

and technicians 856

Carpenters 801

Truckdrivers 800

To some extent, earnings reflect the innate skill and talent of the worker. Other factors, such as geographic region, urban or rural environment, industry, size of the facility, and unionization also effect earnings. And men, on average, earn more than women. Three other factors significantly affect the proportion of workers who have high earnings: * Occupation * Age * Education and training.

Occupation. Tables 1 and 2 list all occupations that have more than 50,000 full-time wage and salary workers 25 and older who usually earn $700 a week or more. For this reason, some small occupations in which workers have high earnings are not listed; among these are elevator installer and air traffic controller. Table 1 lists the occupations and the number and percentage of workers who do not have a bachelor’s degree. Table 2 lists the, occupations by the percentage who usually earn $700 a week or more. Tables for all workers would show somewhat lower earnings because part-timers and workers under 25 typically make less. Also, in seasonal occupations, annual earnings may be lower than implied by weekly earnings.


Age. Generally speaking, earnings increase with age, as workers gain experience and seniority. (See chart 3.) This progression usually peaks between the ages of 45 to 54. For the same reasons, the number of high wage earners is concentrated in the 35- to 44- and 45- to 54-age groups. Some may argue from this that highly paid workers without bachelors’ degrees entered the job market years ago, when entry standards were lower and more high-wage manufacturing jobs were available. However, some workers without a bachelor’s degree achieve high earnings at a relatively young age, and obviously did so since “the good old days.” For example, 2.2 million workers without a degree, age 25 to 29, earned $500 or more a week; and 725,000, $700 or more.

Education. Lack of a 4-year degree doesn’t mean one has no postsecondary education or training. In fact, research done for the Occupational Outlook Handbook indicates that training other than a bachelor’s degree is the most appropriate preparation for some high-paying jobs. In general, workers with more training are more likely to have high earnings. Some high-wage occupations are difficult to enter without training, and within occupations, workers with the most training tend to have the highest paid and supervisory jobs. A 1991 study of job training, discussed in the Winter 1992-93 OOQ, also found that workers who said they needed some kind of training for their jobs earned substantially more than those who said they didn’t.

High wage earners develop the skills they need in many ways–associate’s degree programs, college courses, post-secondary vocational schools and technical institutes, apprenticeships or other formal employer training, informal on-the-job training, and armed forces experience. Earnings data are not available for all these types of training, but chart 4 shows that earnings increase steadily with education.

What’s Good Besides Earnings?

As was said above, many people equate high earnings with good jobs. But jobs with relatively low wages in certain areas of the country may be better than the salary indicates because living costs are also likely to be lower. And there is more to work than wages. Other important concerns when evaluating an occupation include the following: * Benefits * Projected growth and openings * Unemployment rate * Advancement potential * Nature of the work and working conditions. Depending on the importance you give each of these factors, a good job might be one with lower than average earnings.

Benefits. Employee benefits, once a minor addition to wages and salaries, are an increasingly important factor in defining a good job. In 1993, benefits averaged about 29 percent of total compensation costs. Some benefits, such as health and life insurance or subsidized child care, are virtually the same as cash, because they would otherwise have to be paid for out of earnings. Paid holidays and vacation leave improve the recipients’ quality of life. Most employers also provide other benefits that add to the quality of a job, such as sick leave. Some employers, like airlines, provide free or subsidized travel, while retailers may provide discounts on merchandise.

Projected growth and openings. The projected growth rate and number of job openings serve to gauge how easy or difficult it will be to find a job in an occupation, and, perhaps, also to be promoted. These projections are discussed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook and in “The 1992-2005 Job Outlook in Brief,” in the Spring 1994 OOQ. In some cases, information on competition for jobs is also given. Some high-wage occupations available without a college degree, such as the precision production occupations, are not expected to grow. Others are expected to grow about as fast as the average for all workers, including engineering and science technicians; construction workers; and mechanics, installers, and repairers. Registered nurse and most health technician and technologist occupations are projected to grow much faster than average.

More job openings result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations, retire, or stop working for some other reason than from growth. For example, employment of secretaries is projected to increase by 386,000 jobs by 2005, but net replacement needs are expected to provide more than twice as many openings. Even occupations with little or no projected job growth have some openings. For example, precision production occupations are expected to have 68,000 job openings annually due to net replacement needs.

Unemployment rate. Some occupations have high unemployment rates. This does not necessarily disqualify them as high-paying jobs. Those that provide high hourly earnings and unemployment compensation can still yield a high annual income. Furthermore, many workers in these occupations do have steady year-round jobs. High unemployment rates are common in many construction occupations, such as carpenter and electrician, as well as manufacturing jobs, such as assembler and machine operator.

Unemployment rates actually reflect two kinds of unemployment: Cyclical and long-term. Recessions and seasonal changes in production create cyclical unemployment in many occupations. During slack periods, workers may face temporary layoffs but can expect to be reemployed when conditions improve. On the other hand, long-term unemployment or even permanent job loss may be caused by restructuring or plant closings. Jobs in organizations or industries with good long term prospects are obviously more desirable. Even if you lose your job, you are more likely to find another one in such an industry.

Advancement potential. Some occupations offer a natural progression of career advancement, such as from electrician apprentice to journey level electrician to electrician supervisor or contractor. Workers in other occupations may need to carve their own paths to success, following less orthodox routes. Still other occupations or jobs offer few if any chances for advancement.

Often, promotion potential varies from employer to employer. In general, fast growing occupations and organizations offer better promotion prospects. Large employers offer better prospects, at least without the need to change employers, but small organizations may offer broader responsibilities and opportunities to learn a wider range of skills. In any job, it is important to be ready to act on opportunities as they arise.

Nature of the work. For most people, a good job is one that they find interesting, that fully uses their skills, or that satisfies their needs in other ways. Almost everybody appreciates a job where they can see the results of their work and feel a sense of accomplishment. Others seek a job related to an interest, such as cars, music, or children. Helping others is often the central satisfaction for those in health, teaching, or social work occupations. Satisfying aspects of a job may include analyzing data or information, coordinating events and activities, teaching or mentoring, selling to or persuading others, operating or fixing machinery, or designing or creating new ideas, concepts, or works of art.

Other characteristics that define a good job include the level of physical exertion necessary, cleanliness and safety of the workplace, level of contact with people, ability to decide how work is to be done, and the level of stress. For some, no amount of money is worth the grueling hours and stress that many physicians live, with, or the physical exertion, danger, or dirt faced by coal miners and some construction workers, or the boredom of assembly line work. Others find job pressures exciting, don’t mind the danger or dirt, or welcome the stress. “Matching Yourself With the World of Work in 1992,” in the Fall 1992 OOQ, classifies occupations by characteristics such as these. Reprints of the article are for sale by the Government Printing Office; price: $1.

For many, working with people that they like and respect and having a good supervisor are essential elements of a good job. They may also want an employer whose goals and policies they agree with. Likewise, some workers seek the security of a salaried job with a well-established, stable organization, but others find stimulation in risk-taking–running their own business, working for a fledgling organization, or selling on commission.

Where a job is located may also be important. Some people do not want a long commute or a geographic relocation. For them, a good job is one that is available where they live.

Finally, the steady hours that high pay demands may be just the opposite of what a worker wants. Some only want part-time work, due to family responsibilities, school, or other pursuits.

Will You Be Ready?

Despite the public’s perception that the economy is creating mostly lower skill, low wage jobs, examination of the data reveals that there are many good jobs for those who do not have a bachelor’s degree–not only jobs with high wages, but also jobs that are good for other, less tangible reasons.

Any job is a complicated medley of positives and negatives. One factor seldom makes a job good or bad. Get to know all you can about occupations you are considering. It is extremely important to research the entry requirements and other characteristics so that you will know what to expect out of the job. Above all, remember that it is important to make a career choice that is good for you. The demand for skilled workers will remain strong. Will you be ready?


COPYRIGHT 1994 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group