The Best Jobs for High School Dropouts

The Best Jobs For Those Without A High School Degree

Despite what teachers may say, high school dropouts do have career options, they just aren’t always very lucrative ones. Workers without a high school degree earn an estimated $973,000 in their lifetimes, roughly $330,000 less than they would with a high school diploma and only a fraction of the $2.3 million one earns with a bachelor’s degree, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That means high school dropouts, on average, earn $24,000 a year or $11.40 per hour. While the average salary may be low, the Georgetown study found more than two dozen professions that hire high school dropouts and pay more than $1 million in lifetime earnings, closer to what one would make with a high school diploma. To find this out, Georgetown’s researchers analyzed median wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by education and occupation and used this to extrapolate what one might earn if they worked full-time from 25-64. Many of the occupations that rank at or near the top of the list are in the construction and manufacturing industries, which tend to employ more workers with less education but a marketable skill set. Unfortunately, with these industries still ailing from the housing crunch, the hiring prospects for many of these positions are mixed. So MainStreet rounded up a range of jobs from Georgetown’s list with the highest salaries and strong employment prospects in the coming years. For every one of these professions, though, workers would earn even more by having a degree. Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan

Construction Manager

Working as a construction manager or supervisor could be a dream job for someone without a high school degree, at least in terms of salary. Construction managers earn an estimated $1.5 million in their lifetime with less than a high school education – though they could earn nearly twice that amount with a bachelor’s degree – and first-line managers of construction and extraction workers actually earn an estimated $1.7 million on average throughout their career.  Best of all, according to the BLS, this occupation’s employment is expected to increase by 17% between 2008-2018. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.5 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 34.8% Photo Credit: gregor_y

Bus and Truck Mechanics

For those high school dropouts who enjoy fixing up cars, the most lucrative job available is to work as a mechanic for larger vehicles like buses and trucks. These workers earn an average of $1.5 million in their careers, nearly half a million more than what one makes by working as a general automotive mechanic. What’s more, the majority of those in this profession have never been to college, so high school dropouts won’t have to worry quite as much about competing with someone who has more education to get ahead in the industry. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.5 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 63.3% Photo Credit: Getty Images

Office and Administrative Support Managers

These supervisors keep an office running smoothly by setting deadlines and overseeing day-to-day tasks in the office. Not only does this career pay more than most that are available to someone without a high school degree, but the BLS predicts that employment opportunities in this field will increase by 11% between 2008-2018. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that unlike with bus and truck mechanics, most of those who work in this occupation do have college and even master’s degrees, so the competition might be tougher to land one of these jobs. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.4 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 26.8% Photo Credit: wbaiv

Wholesale and Manufacturing Sales Representatives

Working as a retail salesperson may be a popular option for students and those without higher-level degrees, but the real money is working as a sales representative for wholesalers and manufacturers. Where retail salespeople deal primarily with selling to the consumer in stores or online, wholesale and manufacturing sales reps focus more on trying to sell their company’s products to other businesses. The pay is decent in this profession as is the hiring outlook for the coming decade, though as the BLS notes, “Job prospects will be best for those with a college degree, the appropriate technical expertise, and the personal traits necessary for successful selling.” So while you may be able to land a job in this industry now, you may need further education later to stay competitive. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.4 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 19.6% Photo Credit: Getty Images


For those with less education, the best bet for success is to have a marketable skill that you have either cultivated through your work experiences or picked up at a vocational school, as demonstrated by the next few careers on the list. What’s particularly striking about electricians is that the peak earners are not necessarily those with more education. Lifetime earnings range from $1.4 million for those with less than a high school degree to as much as $2.1 million on average for those with a two-year associate’s degree, but then drops back down to $1.8 million for those with a bachelor’s degree. In a very real sense, this may be one profession where more education actually makes you less desirable to potential employers. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.4 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 46.7% Photo Credit: Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives


Most of those who work as machinists have never been to a four-year college, though many do attend vocational schools to hone their skills. In the long term, the number of jobs in this profession is expected to decline slightly by 5% between 2008-2018, but as the BLS notes, “Despite the projected decline in employment, job opportunities for machinists should continue to be good, as employers value the wide-ranging skills of these workers.” Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.4 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 58.9% Photo Credit:

Maintenance and Repair Workers

The benefit of being a repair worker, besides the salary, is that you are employable in a wide range of professions, since virtually every business has maintenance needs. Having a greater level of education can boost your salary somewhat – those with associate’s degrees earn an average of $1.7 million in their career – but according to the BLS, many of those who work in this field simply “learn their skills informally on the job.” Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.2 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 56.1% Photo Credit: Getty Images

Secretaries and Administrative Assistants

At one point in time, the main task of a secretary might have been to take dictation, but today these professionals handle scheduling, coordinate projects, conduct research, plan office events and generally help to keep a workplace running smoothly. As the BLS points out, there are more job openings in this profession than most and that number is expected to grow by 11% between 2008-2018. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1.1 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 33.2% Photo Credit: Getty Images

Food Service Managers

Careers in the food services industry are notoriously low paying, but this is one of the few exceptions. Food service managers are tasked with overseeing a restaurant’s entire operation, from ordering supplies to keeping customers happy. While most industries are slow to bring on employees right now, this one is hiring right now, and long-term hiring prospects for this particular position are strong. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $1 million % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 38.4% Photo Credit: basykes

Nursing, Psychiatric and Home Health Aides

Home health aides may earn less than the other professions on this list, but it has the extra benefit of being the third fastest growing occupation in the country, driven largely by the fact that the nation’s population is getting older and will require more medical assistance. So while you may not earn the big bucks in this position, you can at least have the benefit of knowing you’re doing valuable work that comes with a greater amount of job security than most professions. Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $900,000 % of Occupation With High School Diploma or Less: 54.2% Photo Credit: ulrichkarljoho

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