A good salary and a rewarding career doesn't have to mean a four-year slog through college. There are plenty of jobs that pay nicely with less education, ranging from certificate courses just a few months long to two-year community college programs.
Education costs for most of these careers are modest -- you might even pay nothing at all. If you're from a low-income family and between 18-24, you may qualify to receive up to three years of free job training, housing and support services through the federal program Job Corps (http://www.jobcorps.gov/home.aspx). National program director Esther Jacobs says Job Corps serves roughly 100,000 students a year.
"We're the best-kept secret in this country," she says.
Otherwise, state-sponsored technical and vocational schools will usually be a cheaper option than private training companies, and many offer financial aid. Most training programs will help you with job placement when you're done, too.
Here's a look at some of the best-paying jobs you can get into fast, listed with their salary for someone with three to five years' experience, according to PayScale.com.
If you enjoy tinkering with computers and wireless-network routers, consider this field. The business slowdown may have damped demand a bit, but it'll rebound fast as the economy picks up.
Median salary: $49,801 per year.
Law-and-order types who enjoy working with people might consider a quick career change into law enforcement. Basic training only takes about four months, and costs roughly $2,000.
Median salary: $47,485 per year.
This one's a great recession-proof career for those who enjoy courtroom drama. It offers job security as the courts must continue to function in good times or bad, notes Laurence Shatkin, co-author of 300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree.
Median salary: $47,275 per year.
Science lovers who watch CSI might like this line of work. Clinical lab techs examine tissue and body fluids under a microscope and test them for diseases. This field is expected to grow as new diagnostic methods continue to be developed. Entry into the field requires at least a two-year training course from either a technical college or hospital.
Median salary: $47,081 per year.
If you enjoy working with your hands, this job's got that, along with the satisfaction of knowing you're helping people stay comfy indoors. You can earn the required certificate to get started in as little as nine months.
Median salary: $44,814 per year.
In areas of the country that still have a strong manufacturing base, there's demand for people who can program the robots that do much of today's assembly-line work, says Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wis. "You need strong analytical decision-making skills, where you can diagnose a problem in a machine," he says.
Median salary: $44,629 per year.
This and many other "green" jobs are hot now, as the recently signed federal stimulus bill put billions into alternative energy and energy conservation. A boom in installing solar panels is expected.
Median salary: $44,460 per year.
Working in prisons can be stressful and hazardous – so it pays well. Corrections can also be a good option for those who want to work the night shift, as prisons must be staffed 24/7. Local and state prisons may accept high school graduates without further training.
Median salary: $42,795 per year.
Demand for security systems, Webcams and fire alarms is increasing, author Shatkin says, because the price of these systems is falling. The National Alarm Association of America says training can be done in less than two weeks and costs under $1000.
Median salary: $41,417 per year.
People who enjoy tinkering with their cars – and live near an airport – might consider this field, which pays better than automotive repair. Unless Americans suddenly give up their love affair with cheap travel, this field is expected to see continued steady growth. Roughly 170 schools nationwide are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to offer the needed training, which usually takes between 18 months and two years.
Median salary: $39,584 per year.