Their jobs may be low on glamour, but tradespeople do the important stuff. They build roads and skyscrapers, fix broken-down machinery, and keep America moving over roads and waterways. Careers in the trades offer a chance to work with your hands, and often let you earn while you learn through apprenticeships or on-the-job training.
Right now, federal green initiatives are driving up demand for workers in many traditional trades including electrician, pipefitter and sheet-metal worker, says John Gaal, vice president of the trade and industrial division of the Association for Career and Technical Colleges. These new-economy jobs mean tradespeople often need additional skills, and are flocking to new certification courses in green technology. The demand for more highly-trained trade workers is keeping pay rates high despite the general construction downturn, Gaal says.
Here's a look at some of the best-paid jobs in the trades:
1. Commercial diver-- $74,100
This is a great career for folks who love to be in the water. Demand should be high for years to come, especially for workers near the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, notes Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis for online salary database PayScale.com.
-- Find diver jobs.
2. Plumber, pipefitter, or steamfitter -- $63,500
The differences between these three roles lie in the location where work is done – plumbers tend to work in homes, while pipefitters work in commercial buildings, and steamfitters work mostly in commercial plants where gas, steam or water are under pressure. Along with electricians, plumbers command higher pay because they must be state licensed. Today's plumbers also need to learn electrical and sheet-metal skills to work with today's more high-tech plumbing products.
"When's the last time you bought a heater and it didn't have an electrical panel on it?" Gaal asks.
-- Find pipefitter jobs.
3. Sheet metal worker -- $52,300
Metal fabricators are playing a vital role in building and installing clean-energy equipment such as wind turbines and solar panels. To earn more, Lee says, look for work on the commercial/industrial side, rather than on home installations.
-- Find sheet metal worker jobs.
4. Captain, mate, or pilot of water vessels -- $51,200
Many workers in maritime trades get started in the U.S. Navy. Most jobs outside the military are with state or private ferry, touring, tugboat or shipping companies, says Lee. If you don't want to be separated from friends and family long, he adds, be a harbor pilot – there's demand for people who know local currents, tides and waterways to guide boats into port.
-- Find water vessel jobs.
5. Millwright-- $50,900
A job with an old-fashioned title, millwrights are essentially the trade equivalent of a mechanical engineer, says Lee. This is the trade for people who love to tinker with and repair machinery. Most millwrights work in factory settings.
-- Find millwright jobs.
6. Certified electrician -- $50,400
For better pay as an electrician, seek out commercial work, be state licensed, and belong to a union, notes Lee. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes job prospects are best for workers with new-technology skills including expertise in video wiring, voice, and data lines.
-- Find electrician jobs.
7. Kitchen & bath installer -- $46,900
Contractors in this field are well-paid because of the wide variety of jobs they handle -- installing vinyl flooring and tile, hanging cabinets, and updating light fixtures and plumbing. They need expertise for installing countertops made of stainless steel, marble, tile, concrete or modern surfaces such as Corian.
-- Find installer jobs.
8. Fire inspector/investigator -- $44,600
Fire inspectors make sure homes and commercial buildings comply with fire codes, checking that fire exits are clear and required fire alarms are in place. Then, Lee notes, after a fire, investigators determine the cause and figure out how to prevent future problems.
Business reporter Carol Tice contributes to several national and regional business publications.
Source: All salary data is from PayScale.com. The salaries listed are median, annual salaries for full-time workers with 5-8 years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions or profit sharing.