You don't need a college degree to land a high-paying trade job On average, a worker with a bachelor's degree will earn more than a worker who doesn't have one. But new research shows there are a lot of exceptions.

You don't need a bachelor's degree to land a high-paying job

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The higher your degree, the more money you'll make. That's something high school students hear all the time. But now a new study suggests it may not always be the best advice, as NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When I reach Isis Harris on the phone, she's still thinking about work, running some low-voltage wire underneath the floor at her latest job site.

ISIS HARRIS: It's a new construction, so it's been from the ground up. It's going to be big. I mean, it is big. (Laughter) It is big already.

NADWORNY: Harris is a few months away from completing her training as an electrician in Portland, Ore.

HARRIS: The walls are pretty much standing, but the inside of the building is still requiring work.

DOMINANCE: (Unintelligible).

HARRIS: Hold on just a minute, baby.

NADWORNY: That's Dominance, her 2-year-old son, you hear in the background. Isis Harris did not know back in high school when she was imagining her life that she'd work in the electrical field. Back then, everyone around her was super focused on college.

HARRIS: It was definitely, like, college was the thing that was, like, the big thing. You know, like in high school, that was, like, what the big excitement was around.

NADWORNY: After meandering for about a decade with some college and lots of different jobs, Harris took a course designed to sample different types of jobs in the construction industry. One of the activities they did was wire a light bulb.

HARRIS: I did it correctly. When the light came on, I was like, this is it. Like, the light came on for me. That was the trade for me.

NADWORNY: Her current wages calculate out to be about $80,000 a year. When she becomes a licensed journeyman electrician in December, she'll be in a job that pays $100,000 a year or more. That's a lot more than the median bachelor's degree holder makes in the U.S., which between 2017 and 2019 was $65,000. A new study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce finds a growing number of people without a bachelor's degree, like Isis Harris, are now out-earning those with one. Now, nobody's saying bachelor's degrees are a bad investment or that you should stop learning after high school. You can just be smarter about the choices you make.

TONY CARNEVALE: The level of education matters less.

NADWORNY: Tony Carnevale directs the Center on Education and the Workforce and was one of the report's authors.

CARNEVALE: Where you go matters less, which makes this whole experience and the set of decisions students have to make a lot more complicated.

NADWORNY: He points to a student's field of study, the type of job they're training for as factors that affect earnings more than type of degree.

CARNEVALE: Your specific education has value, and the value varies enormously. That's why somebody who can do air conditioning will make more than somebody who becomes a schoolteacher.

NADWORNY: And it's not just air conditioning. Air traffic controllers, construction inspectors, respiratory therapists all earn more than or about the same as the median bachelor's degree holder. To find jobs that pay well and don't need a bachelor's degree, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a tool called the Occupational Outlook Handbook. It sorts career options based on average pay, the level of education needed and how much the profession is expected to grow over the next 10 years. When Isis Harris in Portland thinks back to high school, she could have used a tool like that or more support from a school counselor.

HARRIS: I think there was always a misconception about trades workers and skilled trades and the viability of that career.

NADWORNY: No one ever mentioned apprenticeships back then. That's how Harris got her training to become an electrician, a career she says that helps her feel fulfilled both physically and mentally.

HARRIS: You get to create what needs to happen in this room. And at the end of the day, you look back and you've completed this apartment unit, or you've completed this office space, or you've installed this fire alarm system.

NADWORNY: Having the job security that comes from working in an in-demand field with wages that allow her to support herself and her 2-year-old son means Harris can do some financial planning. She can save, be prepared for emergencies. That's a much better life, she says, than living paycheck to paycheck. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

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