You’re familiar with skilled trades jobs like electricians, plumbers, welders and machinists, but the term ‘skilled trades’ is broader than you probably imagined, covering hundreds of positions that call for any number of specialized skills.
Regardless of their specialization, however, skilled trades jobs carry with them tremendous earning potential and the chance to carve out a profitable niche for yourself in any number of in-demand industries.
Here, we’ll cover the basics of skilled trades jobs, including which ones pay the most, which are the easiest to break into, and which promise to be the most in demand over the next decade.
What jobs are considered skilled trades?
It’s often said that getting a college degree is the way to go if you want to make more money. However, what’s not often discussed is how much you’ll have to fork over up front.
The cost of college has doubled over the last 20 years, with the average student spending $32,889 to obtain their bachelor’s degree, And that’s just the average–the price tag for private colleges and out-of-state schools can be much, much higher.
Skilled trades are a great alternative to jobs that require a traditional four-year degree, and in many cases you can earn as much or more annually doing them.
So what exactly is considered a skilled trade? A skilled trade is a line of work that requires a specialized expertise or ability, which can be learned through on-the-job training, by attending a trade school, or some combination of both.
Skilled trades do not require a traditional college degree, although there are many programs at two- and four-year colleges that will allow you to learn a trade in addition to obtaining your associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Some of the most common examples of skilled trades jobs include construction, manufacturing, and repair work, but occupations like home health aides, janitors and service technicians can also fall under the skilled trades umbrella.
How much do they tend to pay?
Like other lines of work, the pay for skilled trades jobs can run the gamut from minimum wage to several times that figure depending on the specialty of your skill set and your level of experience. Construction workers, for example, earn an average of $16 an hour, while HVAC technicians make $22 an hour.
According to a report from Workopolis, some of the highest paying skilled trades jobs are as follows.
$75,800 a year or more. Carpenters follow blueprints and building plans to construct buildings and other items, like furniture and cabinetry. The highest-paid carpenters typically supervise teams of workers, like on a job site.
$88,700 a year or more. Ironworkers install the iron and steel components that form and support structures like buildings, roads and bridges.
$90,000 a year or more. Electricians wire and rewire equipment and buildings, inspect electrical components, and troubleshoot electrical problems like outages.
$130,800 a year or more. A steamfitter, also called a pipefitter, installs, maintains and repairs the mechanical piping systems that carry liquids and gases in residential, commercial and industrial settings.
What trades are most in demand?
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these skilled trades careers will experience some of the highest levels of demand over the next decade.
WIND TURBINE TECHNICIAN
A wind turbine technician, also called a windtech, installs, inspects and maintains the giant turbines that generate electricity from wind. This requires specialized knowledge and often involves traveling to turbine sites and climbing the high towers where the turbines and other equipment are located.
Employment of wind turbine service technicians is expected to explode by a massive 61% by 2029, making it one of the fastest-growing jobs available. This coincides with the growth of the renewable energy sector as a whole; according to the U.S. Department of Energy, total wind energy capacity is expected to double in the United States over the next decade, giving windtechs excellent employment prospects.
OIL AND GAS ROTARY DRILL OPERATOR
Rotary drill operators in the oil and gas field set up and operate a variety of drills used to access underground fuel reserves following drilling plans mapped out by petroleum engineers.
They carefully monitor the equipment to ensure its safe and effective function and keep careful records of the locations, footage and nature of layers drilled.
Natural gas production and exports have been on the rise in the U.S. for many years, with growth expected to remain strong in the coming decade. As such, the job market for rotary drill operators is projected to grow by 27% between now and 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.
INDUSTRIAL MACHINERY MECHANICS
Industrial machinery mechanics maintain and repair factory equipment and other machinery used in industrial settings, like conveyor systems, production gear and packaging equipment.
You’ll find this type of employment most frequently in the manufacturing field, with night, weekend and overtime work being common.
Because every minute of downtime in an industrial workplace costs the company money in the form of lost productivity, there’s a high demand for fast and effective workers with industrial machinery repair skills. Jobs in the field are expected to grow by 13% by 2029.
What are the easiest skilled trades jobs to get into?
Looking to get into a skilled trade fast? You’re in luck, because many of them have a rapid learning period and can have you up and running in a full-time position in a matter of weeks. The following skilled trade jobs are some of the easiest to break into.
Frequently employed in the construction and manufacturing fields, production welders use different welding tools and techniques to join pieces of metal for various applications.
Production welders typically work in a high-volume environment, like on an assembly line, completing a number of welds to a specific set of criteria.
Some trade schools offer accelerated production welding programs that allow you to obtain your welding certificate–which will help you land a job–in as little as four to six weeks.
An entry-level job as a production welder is a solid foundation from which to build the more advanced skills you’ll need for a lucrative welding career.
COMMERCIAL TRUCK DRIVER
Those big tractor-trailers you see hauling loads of goods on the interstate? All of them are operated by a specially licensed driver who’s been specifically trained in commercial driving.
While some turn their nose up at truck driving being a “skilled trade”, the level of specialization and training you need to become a true commercial truck driver qualifies as a skilled, or at least semi-skilled, trade.
Getting your commercial driver’s license, or CDL, will allow you to legally operate large and heavy vehicles transporting potentially hazardous materials, and get paid to do so.
Most CDL courses are designed to accommodate people who are also working full time and thus, take a few months.
But you can obtain your CDL-A in as little as three to six weeks if you’re able to commit to a full-time program. Such programs run for eight-plus hours a day, five days a week.
Skilled tradespeople can build highly profitable careers as licensed electricians. The more you’re looking to earn, the more advanced skills you’ll need to perfect, but you can pick up the basics and get your first job in the field in a matter of months.
In a three-month electrician training program, you’ll learn the fundamentals of electrical technology and get hands-on practice in the skills you need for a job in electrical maintenance, new construction or power plant field work.
For workers who aren’t afraid to go out on a limb and get their hands dirty, there are many skilled trades jobs to be had that don’t require any formal training. Painting, roofing, and day labor, for example, can all be learned on the job and will help you get your feet wet in a trade while bringing money in the door.
Is it easy to transfer from one skilled trade to another?
The great thing about a career in the skilled trades is that the skills you’ll learn are highly transferable. One trade career path often dovetails into another, oftentimes helping you work your way to more responsibility and higher pay.
Take welding, for example. You might start out as a welder helper and work your way up to welder as you fine-tune your skills. After a few years working in welding, you might study to become a welding inspector and transition that knowledge into a career in nondestructive testing.
This is just one career progression example; if you spend a bit of time talking to anyone who works in the skilled trades, you’ll hear about similar theoretical career paths you can take in nearly every line of work.