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Vocational Careers: Highest-Paid Jobs Requiring an Associate's Degree
You want a career path with a reasonable salary that will require the least amount of education for an entry-level position.

Job Availability

Present number of jobs nationwide
Percentage of growth in 10 years
Projected new jobs in 10 years

Advancement Potential

Advanced job titles in career track
Associate's degree required
Additional certification/education available

Schedules Available

Frequent overtime
Day shift
Swing shift
Graveyard shift
Weekend shift
Work holidays

Interaction with Others

Work in teams
Work solo
Interaction with customers/patients

Physical Requirements

Must wear protective gear
Must sit at a desk for long periods
Be able to see detail at close range
On feet most of the time
Uniform required
Colorblindness a problem
Be able to lift 50 lbs. or more

Basic Office Skills Required

Spelling, grammar, punctuation skills
Basic math skills
Typing, data entry and 10-key
MS Word
MS Excel
MS PowerPoint
MS Outlook
Verbal communication and phone skills
Plan ahead/meet deadlines
English proficiency

Vocational Careers

Why a Vocational Career Path?

Whether you are just starting out in your career or you are going back to school to pursue a career change, vocational careers, will get you working and earning money more quickly. These career paths involve completing an associate's degree and sometimes certification.

Many education programs for vocational careers qualify you more quickly for an entry-level job than a four-year degree. Advancement opportunities are often available once you gain work experience. You may also consider continuing your education and certifications while you work, which will provide you additional advancement opportunities.

The cost of education is more affordable in vocational careers that involve an associate's degree, not only because you have a regular paycheck coming in, but because many hiring businesses and institutions provide at least partial reimbursement (usually around one-third) for education expenses. Others may cover their employees' costs for recertification related to the work they perform.

Individuals may begin a coursework towards vocational careers as early as high school. Some high schools provide the training within school curriculum, or students can enroll in college-level courses for part of the school day. Students who are put on this track may not be expected to pursue a four-year degree, or family circumstances require them to work as soon as they turn 18. Other students may have been home-schooled throughout their elementary and secondary education at an accelerated pace, leaving them enough time to pursue vocational coursework before they graduate. The certification they receive then can be a means to provide employment later on when they pursue a four-year degree.

Because of the economic recession, a growing number of individuals who pursue a vocational career path are those who seek to change careers. These individuals may have experienced lay-offs, and as they re-enter the job market, they find that they are no longer qualified to get a job that will pay them the salary they need. This happens for a number of reasons. Getting a job has become more competitive in many industries where companies are downsizing the number of jobs they have for a particular field. As a result, only the most qualified are getting the jobs. Advances in technology are another reason why workers need to update their skill sets.

Vocational Careers: What to Look For

In our vocational careers review, we include some of the highest paying jobs you can get with an associate's degree, such as computer programmers, licensed practical nurses and respiratory therapists. And although salary was included in our review criteria, we also considered other factors in our rating process. The following is a description of each of our review criteria.

Although we often choose a job based on a number of factors, such as an aptitude for working with numbers, a natural attention to detail or an interest in serving people, salary is a major factor in selecting any career path.

The average income for an individual with an associate's degree is $32,840 annually, according to the U.S. Census. We use annual salary figures on this site, but to break that down to an hourly figure, divide by 52 weeks and then by 40 hours. Our income range data was obtained from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the standard in labor-related statistics in the United States. Beyond qualifications and experience of workers, salary within a specific job classification will vary depending on region as well as whether you pursue a job in a rural versus an urban location. Jobs in the city generally pay higher than jobs in the country, and this is because the cost of living is higher in the city. Cost of living indexes such as those provided by Salary.com or CNN Money will provide more specific comparisons from city to city. For example, some of the most expensive places to live in the United States are New York City and San Francisco, but if you lived there, you would likely have a salary to match your expenses.

In our side-by-side comparison, we provide three points within the income range for each job classification established by the BLS, including the lowest 10th, 50th, (median) and the highest 90th percentiles. From there you can estimate your starting salary as well as income potential within the various career tracks. For the purposes of comparing the careers, we estimated that an average starting salary would be the average between the 10th and the 25th percentiles. 

Job Availability
Certain industries anticipate growth over the next five, 10 or 20 years, while others may decline. Job availability is influenced by a number of factors, such as advancements in technology which may automate tasks that presently need to be completed by a human being. For example, some entry-level jobs in computer programming are getting outsourced to countries such as India or China. On the other hand, other jobs are increasing in demand. This is true of any job in the medical field which will be meeting the needs of the aging baby boomers over the next few decades.

Advancement Potential
Certain industries have more opportunities for advancement than others with just an associate's degree. Job qualifications that have additional levels of certification or opportunities to specialize within a particular niche provide a better initial investment because of the ability you will have to build upon your initial education. Some job classifications, such as a computer programmer, require a bachelor's degree for advancement, often in addition to work experience. However, we considered the ability to build upon your existing skills as a factor in this criterium.

Informational Criteria
We provided other information about jobs in the side-by-side comparison on this page. This information, including schedules available, interaction with others, physical requirements and basic office skills required, was not included in the ranking process, since factors such as being on your feet most of the time or sitting at a desk all day could be viewed as either positive or negative according to your preference.

Schedules Available
Certain professions provide varied work shifts which offer a flexible schedule. For example, having the option to work part-time or on a swing shift some of the time frees up your schedule to pursue additional education or to meet the needs of your family. Jobs that cater to the needs of others around the clock such as medical assistants or vocational nurses often require entry-level employees to work weekends and holidays. More experienced staffers often work days or have the option to work another time slot.

Interaction with Others
In some jobs you will work in teams, and in others you will work solo. Others will provide a mix of the two. In some jobs you will have interaction with clients, patients or customers, where in others you will only interact with fellow staff.

Physical Requirements
Certain jobs are more physical than others. For example, vocational nurses and pharmacy technicians are on their feet most of the time, where computer programmers and paralegals must focus their eyes on computer screens all day. Some jobs require the frequent use of protective gear such as latex gloves or face masks because of contact with biohazards. Uniforms are required for some jobs and not others, although certain dress codes may still apply. For example, paralegals who work at law firms often must wear formal business attire such as a dress shirt and tie each day.

Basic Office Skills Required
Although not necessarily something you learn in your vocational training, certain basic office skills are needed in certain jobs you pursue. Some of those skills include spelling, grammar and punctuation skills; basic math skills, typing, data entry and 10-key skills; proficiency in the MS Office Suite, verbal communication and phone skills, English speaking proficiency; and the ability to manage multiple tasks, plan ahead and meet deadlines.

Within this website, we included a review of each job we evaluated. Each job review provides a description of the type of tasks involved, resources regarding the type of initial degree and/or certification, as well as additional education and certification available for advancement within the profession. We will include information about how technology affects this job, such as certain kinds of equipment you will use.

In addition to the reviews, this site includes a sample job description for each career. It also includes what we call a typical work day for each career, which features a fictional person employed in one type of job you may pursue within each field. In addition, this site includes articles on vocational careers, including two resource center articles, including "Myers-Briggs Test Assists with Career Choices" and "Government and Private Financial Aid Resources."

Few web-based resources provide such a comprehensive comparison ofvocational career paths, from educational beginnings to job advancement.