Hot Careers Requiring a 2-year Degree or Less

Spotlight on Some of the Best Jobs in Healthcare, Technology and Creative Fields

In 2013, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that 55 million jobs would be added to the American economy by 2020, and 30 percent of those roles would require an associate degree or some college. Workers with these types of qualifications – which also include certificates and diplomas – will be competitive for 16.5 million new roles in the coming years. Learn more about salaries and growth potential for these hot jobs and see what our expert says about the future of these careers.

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What Makes These Jobs Hot

According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, workers with an associate degree make an average of $1.4 million throughout their working lives, or approximately $400,000 more than those with only a high school diploma. It’s also important to note the expanded number of roles for which an individual with an associate degree, certificate, or diploma is qualified. As the workforce continues shifting due to technological advancements, these educational paths can help workers stay in high demand. Some of the things that are making the jobs in this guide all the rage these days include:

  • Wages

    It used to seem like only those with a bachelor’s or graduate degree could ask for big salaries, but the emergence of more science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) jobs means employers are far more interested in technical skills than advanced educations. While jobs in these fields do sometimes call for years of higher education, there are lots of positions now available that pay graduates of associate degrees, diploma and certificate programs anywhere from $30,000 to more than $100,000 annually.

  • Job Growth

    Because many positions in industries like healthcare, medicine, technology and science didn’t exist a decade ago, the need for qualified professionals to fill roles is significant. For instance, jobs for wind turbine technicians, a role that typically requires an associate degree and offers a median salary of $51,000 annually, are set to grow by 108 percent in the next few years. Although the current job growth average across industries is 7 percent, many roles in industries seeing extraordinary change are set to grow between 20 to 40 percent by 2024.

  • Job Openings

    Going hand-in-hand with growth is the number of newly created roles expected to exist in the coming years. Professionals in these fields no longer need to rely on employee turnover to find work; instead, hundreds of thousands of positions that previously didn’t exist are now coming on the market. This increase in openings also means that individuals who want to move to a different region or a different company have the freedom to do so, as new positions are being created throughout the country and in many different areas of the field.

  • Demand

    Rather than being at the whim of employers, professionals with the skills and qualifications to take on these hot jobs often have the upper hand in negotiations. Whether seeking the ability to work from home, adopt flexible hours, or complete continuing education credits paid for by an employer, it’s a good time to possess the skill sets most in demand.

  • Growth Opportunities

    Some industries or positions will require higher education credentials for upward mobility. But that’s not true in every case. There are a lot of positions coming on the market that allow hard-working and focused employees the opportunity to take on managerial or leadership positions resulting in higher salaries and more responsibilities. Career expert Julie Ginn of MassBay Community College in Boston notes that the field of hospitality is an excellent example of an industry where employees can grow without additional education. She notes, “It’s still very common for employees to start out as a front desk clerk and then make their way up in the organization over time and with hard work.”

  • Quick Starts

    For many people, taking four years to complete a bachelor’s degree before they can start earning a livable wage simply isn’t an option. Jobs requiring an associate degree, certificate or diploma allow these individuals to finish their educations within one to three years and thereby make it possible for them to move into a profitable career more quickly – and almost always with less student debt.

The Hot Jobs List

Aside from selecting a career that provides an excellent salary, growth potential, and stability, students pursuing one of these roles also need to consider location. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that states seeing the greatest increase in new jobs within these sectors are California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. All told, nearly 1.6 million roles fitting the 10 job descriptions below will be added to these five states in the coming years.

Pharmacy Tech

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Education

Students need to complete a pharmacy technology program, which is offered as a certificate or an associate degree by vocational schools and community colleges.

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Job Paths & Specializations

Working under the supervision of licensed pharmacists, pharmacy technicians can be found in a variety of settings and roles. While those who work in hospitals frequently prepare pills or intravenous medication, pharmacy technician roles at retail locations are also very common. As individuals gain more experience, doors open to positions as team managers, university educators or even jobs with the military.

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Typical Training

The certificate path allows learners to meet requirements within one year, while most associate degrees take two years to complete. In both programs, students learn about different medications and how they are used, how to properly record and dispense medicines, and ethical and legal concerns. Clinical experiences allow students to gain hands-on training before entering the field. Because regulations for pharmacy technicians vary by location, those interested in this career should contact their state’s Board of Pharmacy to learn more.

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Salary & Job Growth

Aside from the joy that comes from helping others, pharmacy technicians enjoy good wages, opportunities for progression and job stability.

  • The median pay in 2015 was $30,000 (BLS)

  • Those in the top 10 percent of earning bring home $45,000 annually (BLS).

  • This role is expected to grow by nine percent between 2014 and 2024 – the equivalent of nearly 35,000 jobs nationally (BLS).

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Medical Assisting

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Education

While most states still don’t have formal requirements for education, employers are increasingly hiring those with a certificate, diploma or associate degree.

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Job Paths & Specializations

The opportunities for medical assistants typically fall into three categories: clinical, administrative, and specialized. Clinical MAs are focused on primary care in hospitals, long-term care facilities, or group homes. Those in administrative positions are tasked with responsibilities such as maintaining records, setting appointments, handling the front office area and billing or record keeping. Specialized MAs who complete additional certifications can be found supporting doctors in areas of optometry, podiatry, geriatrics, pediatrics, oncology and OB/GYN.

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Typical Training

Students who select the diploma or certificate route typically complete their studies in one year, while those on the associate degree path spend about two years in school. Throughout their educations, learners delve into topics such as medical terminology, pharmacology, diagnostics and testing, medical office procedures, and laboratory procedures. Students also undertake an on-site clinical experience at a hospital or care agency to gain further skills.

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Salary & Job Growth
  • Positions for medical assistants are set to rise by 23 percent – or the equivalent of nearly 140,000 roles in the coming years (BLS).

  • MAs can also expect to make decent living wages, which currently sit between $27,000 for recent graduates and $44,000 for seasoned professionals (BLS).

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Paralegal

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Education

Associate degrees gained from community colleges are the most common path to this career.

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Job Paths & Specializations

Though most people outside the field may think of paralegals solely working in law offices, there are lots of other specialized areas they may pursue. Thousands of corporate paralegals can be found reviewing contracts and researching regulations at large companies, while real estate paralegals work with individuals or companies on the legal side of buying property. Other common areas include family law, immigration, intellectual property, litigation, and estate planning.

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Typical Training

Throughout their two years of full-time study, learners cover topics ranging from legal research and writing to corporate and international law. While certificates are also available, these are more commonly completed by individuals with bachelor’s degrees in an unrelated subject who want to enter the field.

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Salary & Job Growth

In addition to being a broad ranging field where individuals with varied interests can find their niche, paralegals also enjoy substantial salaries and opportunities for growth.

  • The median salary in 2015 was nearly $49,000, while those in the upper echelons took home nearly $80,000 (BLS).

  • After being in the role a few years, some paralegals elect to take on managerial positions.

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Registered Nurse–Associate Degree

Education

Although lots of registered nurses now hold a bachelor’s degree, plenty are still completing associate degrees in nursing (ADNs) or diplomas to enter the field.

Job Paths & Specializations

The options for nurses with diplomas or associate degrees are truly staggering, with placements available in areas ranging from ambulatory care and midwifery to summer camps and the military. Whether a nurse wants to travel to faraway places providing much-needed care or work with new mothers struggling to lactate, these roles and many more are available.

Typical Training

Typically completed in two to three years of full-time learning, students in diploma and associate degree paths study foundational topics such as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, patient care and nursing skills alongside general education topics. Programs require students to gain clinical experience to qualify for graduation.

Salary & Job Growth

The sheer number of opportunities make it appealing to many who may want the freedom to work in different settings throughout their career. Registered nurses interested in completing further education after a few years also have lots of opportunities for upward mobility via roles as nurse practitioners.

  • According to Payscale, newly minted RNs can expect to make approximately $60,000 in their first year, while those who have been in their positions 20 years or more bring home $72,000.

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Interior Designer

Education

Like most creative industries, degrees in interior design are by no means an absolute but they are becoming increasingly more common. Associate degrees are a standard path to gaining entry-level roles.

Job Paths & Specializations

Because interior design is an intricate art requiring knowledge of different spaces and materials, there are lots of specializations available. While some designers elect to focus on bathrooms or kitchens, others work to incorporate green products or provide calming spaces for healthcare centers.

Typical Training

Most two-year curriculums require students to take a range of topics related to drawing, color theory, design concepts and computer aided design (CAD) software. While not always required, learners who complete an internship with a local interior designer will gain valuable hands-on experience.

Salary & Job Growth

A career for the creative eye, interior designers enjoy working with lots of different types of spaces and people, thus ensuring the work never gets old.

  • The average salary in 2015 for interior designers was nearly $50,000, with those at the height of their careers making more than $91,000 annually (BLS).

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Web Developer

Education

The most common education held by web developers is an associate degree, though many individuals also enter the field with high school diplomas, certificates or bachelor’s degrees as well.

Job Paths & Specializations

Web developers have lots of options when it comes to deciding how they want to spend their days. While front-end developers work on the parts of websites frequently seen by visitors, back-end developers oversee things like servers, security, and data management. Other common titles include full-stack developer and app developer.

Typical Training

Associate degrees in web design take approximately two years to complete and cover topics such as interface design, web user experiences, interaction, and web development.

Salary & Job Growth

Web developers often have lots of flexibility in their jobs, with options to work with lots of clients via a design firm, a single client as an in-house developer, or even start their own freelance development company.

  • The median salary for this position is currently $65,000 annually (BLS).

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Dental Hygienist

Education

Available at community colleges, career/technical schools, and even a few universities, associate degrees in dental hygiene are the most common educational path for this career.

Job Paths & Specializations

Roles for associate degree-level dental hygienists are typically divided into three categories: clinical, corporate or public health. Clinicians typically work in dental practices, clinics or hospitals, while those in corporate roles are focused on things like sales and administration. Public health hygienists work with government or nonprofit agencies in a variety of positions.

Typical Training

Because associate degrees in dental hygiene include instruction via the classroom, clinic, and laboratory, most take three years to complete. Faculty are tasked with covering anatomy, pathology, periodontics, nutrition, radiography, and patient records. All states also require dental hygienists to be licensed.

Salary & Job Growth
  • The current median pay is more than $72,000, while those established in their roles command salaries in excess of $98,000 (BLS).

  • It’s also a growing field, with 37,400 new roles expected to be added in the coming years (BLS).

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Dental Assistant

Education

Most states require individuals to complete a non-degree program, such as a diploma or certificate, to enter this field.

Job Paths & Specializations

In addition to supporting general dentists, dental assistants may also complete further certifications to work with specialized dentists, including orthodontists, endodontists, periodontists or oral maxillofacial surgeons.

Typical Training

Whether studying at a community college or vocational school, students complete one year programs that cover foundational studies of dental terminology, nutrition, cavity classification, infection control, radiology and dental materials.

Salary & Job Growth
  • Dental assisting provides a stable income of between $36,000 to $51,000, depending on how long an individual has been in their career (BLS).

  • With the role set to grow by 18 percent between 2014 and 2024, dental hygienists also have great job security (BLS).

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Personal Trainer

Education

Although these roles traditionally have not required education outside high school, increasingly professionals in this field are gaining certifications or associate degrees in areas of exercise science, kinesiology or physical education.

Job Paths & Specializations

Whether a personal trainer wants to work for a gym, corporate fitness program, sports club or for themselves, the wealth of positions available mean personal trainers can choose from many paths. Aside from location, trainers can also elect to specialize their training in areas of corrective exercises, nutrition, group training, weight loss or senior fitness – to name a few.

Typical Training

These one-to-two-year programs cover topics including anatomy, physiology, nutrition, health and wellness, methods of teaching and fitness assessment.

Salary & Job Growth
  • Personal trainers often enjoy great flexibility in their days, be they coaching an individual client or leading a group session.

  • The median pay for personal trainers in 2015 was $36,000, with those at peak performance earning more than $70,000 each year (BLS).

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Radiology Technician

Education

Most professionals in this field complete an associate degree program that’s accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology.

Job Paths & Specializations

X-ray technicians and radiologic technologists can select from lots of different advanced certifications after gaining their initial licensure, including options in bone densitometry, mammography, sonography or even quality management for individuals who want an administrative role.

Typical Training

Radiologic technology associate degrees cover topics ranging from radiographic procedures and imaging techniques to anatomy and pathology. In addition to classroom learning, students also spend time in laboratories and in clinical rotations.

Salary & Job Growth
  • Aside from providing lots of different career options, x-ray technicians are in high demand. Nearly 21,000 new roles will be added in the coming years and offer a median salary of more than $58,000 annually (BLS).

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Comparing the Careers

Where to Train for Careers Requiring Less Than a 2-Year Degree

Community colleges, vocational schools and trade/technical schools most commonly offer the types of associate degrees, certificates and diplomas required for the hot careers discussed in this guide. Although a few four-year colleges and universities sometimes offer similar qualifications, they typically cost more at these types of institutions.

  • Community
    Colleges

    Also called junior colleges, these two-year schools are approved to provide associate degrees, diplomas and certificates. Individuals who attend community colleges are more likely to transfer to a four-year program upon graduation, and community colleges make this possible by requiring students to take a range of general education courses unrelated to their selected area of study. Learners who plan to transfer will need these credits to be admitted to a school conferring bachelor’s degrees.

  • Vocational
    Schools

    Recognizing that some students are far more focused on gaining the skills for a specific job than taking unrelated courses, vocational schools exist to provide them with skills and knowledge directly related to their chosen vocation. These programs emphasize real-world experience, practical curricula and an accelerated learning schedule. Depending on the chosen path, most learners at vocational schools complete their programs in one to two years.

  • Trade &
    Technical Schools

    These institutions typically sit in the middle of community colleges and vocational schools. Learners aren’t required to take the same number of general education or liberal arts courses as those at community colleges, but topics like basic mathematics or writing are often taught alongside the hands-on portions of the program, no matter the degree.

From the Expert

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Julie Ginn is the Director of Career and Internship Services at MassBay Community College, which offers associate degrees and certificates in more than 70 programs. Julie has served as an educator, assistant dean, program developer, college/career access coordinator, strategist, and director of career services and experiential learning. She has worked at or helped create social, educational, and economic change at organizations and institutions including the Cambridge Housing Authority, Waltham High School, Boston Public Schools, Brockton High School, the YWCA of Greater Lawrence, and Pine Manor College. Julie earned her M.S. in Education from Suffolk University and B.S. in Management from Johnson and Wales University.

Why would a student elect to complete an associate degree, certificate, or diploma instead of a bachelor’s degree in terms of potential?

Depending on your field of interest, earning an associate degree or certificate is a smarter, more cost-effective way for students to quickly gain new skills and entry into a fulfilling career. For instance, jobs in early childhood education are abundant in a high-need field, and students interested in a career in this field can get started with a certificate or an associate degree in Early Childhood Education. Hospitality is another field where you do not necessarily need a bachelor’s degree to get started and move up within the field. Many of the computer and technology-related associate degrees and certificates are skills-based programs that can propel students into a job immediately upon graduation.

Is it possible for students to make as much money with one of these credentials?

Absolutely. It is possible for students to make a good living with these credentials. In a state like Massachusetts, it translates to a starting salary of about $40,000 to $60,000 a year. The pay obviously depends on the student’s chosen career field – for instance, a student who has completed an associate degree or certificate in a STEM field will start at a higher rate of pay, whereas a student in human services will make comparatively less money. Engineering technicians who have the required associate degree in mechanical engineering can make a starting salary of $50,000 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). With an associate’s degree, you can earn almost $10,000 more a year than with just a high school diploma.

How can students with associate degrees, certificates, or diplomas best leverage their educations?

Students can best leverage their educational training by taking advantage of professional development opportunities within their fields. For instance, most child care providers will offer and pay for continuing education credits for their employees. This helps them grow in their organizations and take on additional roles. Experience and a willingness to learn is key in many fields that don’t require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Completing an associate degree also shortens the time it will take a bachelor’s degree in the future, if you decide that is the right path for you.