Six-Figure Jobs, No College Necessary

Not all six-figure jobs require college degrees.

Jan. 26, 2009 — -- Maybe you don't want to spend all that time taking classes in obscure subjects while hoping to find your calling and piling up student loan debt. Maybe you don't really care so much about college. You just want to work and make money.

You can do it, but there aren't many fields where it happens very often. In our list of 14 potentially six-figure jobs that don't require a four-year diploma, only two have a median wage of above $100,000. For the rest, you'll have to be in the top 10% of earners, and even then you may find yourself working 50 to 60 hours a week.

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Dr. Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at, says that most of these jobs share a few qualities. (Payscale's research provided the numbers that made this list possible. The company measured the average earnings for people with eight or more years in their field.)

No test can tell an employer how good you might be at some of these lines of work--real estate broker or fashion designer, for example. That's why a degree is less important to a potential employer than field experience and demonstrated past success. Either you're good at it or you're not.

Many of these jobs rely on variable pay (commission and overtime) to break six figures. Good plumbers, ultrasound techs and construction managers generally do a lot of overtime. It's far more valuable to a company to pay them extra than to hire an additional employee, Lee says. And that means workers can break past what they would earn if confined to 40 hours a week.

Stress is pretty much a given in all these occupations. A high price for failure is not uncommon. Cost estimators can't estimate too high on a project or they'll risk losing it to a competitive bidder. They can't go too low or their company won't make money on the deal. Radiation therapists and ultrasound technologists have to worry about the danger of malpractice suits. Court reporters mustn't miss a word in the courtroom. Air traffic controllers know that hundreds of lives ride on their actions.

Almost all these positions produce revenue that can give them a clearly defined monetary value. An executive chef at a hotel can pull in guests or send them fleeing. An ultrasound technologist or radiation therapist paid $100,000 a year can bring the hospital several times that. A sales manager's value can often be pinpointed in dollars and cents at the end of the year. Also, a few of these jobs--air traffic controller, police supervisor, court reporter--have unions to thank for their good pay.

Lee says now is as good a time as any to start on the path to one of these jobs. The market may be in bad shape, but companies will still need competent workers. When better to find out if you're truly good at something than when it's most difficult?

He says of people who make more than $100,000, "At the end of the day, the largest percentage of them are degree-holders." But you definitely can get there this way--not that it's easy. "You learn on the job. You pay attention. You move your way up."

Could it be time to design your five- or 10-year path to six figures?