Construction Career Guide

With 44.2 million Americans struggling to pay over $1.44 trillion in student debt, more young people are looking for a way to enter the job market without taking loans. The days of going to college straight out of high school are starting to change, and with good reason. High school graduates don’t want to blindly sign on for a liberal arts education that may or may not land them a job that can pay off four years of debt.

Carpenter taking measurements

There are a few ways to start working without an undergraduate degree, but there’s one that’s particularly effective and often overlooked, construction. Commonly perceived as physically demanding, dirty, and low-paying, construction jobs actually offer a diverse range of opportunity and good compensation. High school graduates can get paid apprenticeships to learn a specific trade, gaining valuable skillsets and work experience while exploring potential career paths.

A few years of construction experience can open a number of doors to higher-paying salaries and job opportunities. The first few years in construction follow a fairly standard path, but after these initial steps the available options become much more diverse. Here’s a brief overview of what the first few years in construction might look like:

Level

Required Experience

Responsibilities

Apprentice

0 Years

As a paid apprentice, your responsibilities are primarily to show up to work on time, put in the effort to learn, and take classes. As you progress in your skills, pay, and benefits will increase.

Journeyman

3-5 Years

Apprenticeships typically last 3-5 years depending on your speciality, at which point you will become a journeyman. This level comes with more opportunity for work, higher pay, and more independence.

Foreman

5+ Years

If you like your speciality and continue to show initiative, you can move up to foreman. Foremen supervise all the laborers within one speciality on a construction project.

With a few years of experience and the income comes with it, you’ll be in a position to take your career in a number of directions. If you like the field you’ve chosen, you can continue to work your way up the ranks from foreman to superintendent and beyond. Or, you can save your income to attend college debt-free, allowing you to pursue any other field you may be interested in.

The most unique part about construction is the number of specialities you can pursue. Below we cover some of the most popular, check them out to get an idea of what a career in construction would be like.

Construction Career Profiles

Use the following profiles to understand some of the different construction specialties, their salaries, and their employment prospects. All data is according to the most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Carpenters

Carpenter in woodshop

A carpenter’s responsibilities span a wide range, with the primary focus of building a structure’s framework according to the specifications of the architect. They work with a variety of materials and tools to ensure accuracy and aesthetic quality in their finished products. Carpenters are commonly divided into three categories:

  • Residential: Specializing in homes, condos, and apartments, residential carpenters frame interior and exterior walls, build decks, and install doors and cabinets, along with a number of other tasks.

  • Commercial: Commercial carpenters do many of the same things as residential, but on a larger scale with materials meant for larger structures. They typically work on offices, hospitals, schools, and other large buildings.

  • Industrial: Carpenters working in an industrial setting focus on creating and setting forms for the support structures of major civil engineering or industrial projects.

Salary Data Median annual income: $43,600
Top 10%: $79,480 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Alaska: $69,960
Hawaii: $68,960
Illinois: $62,380
New York: $61,900
New Jersey: $60,380

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 60,400 new carpentry jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 6%.

How to Become One

Carpentry typically requires a high school diploma, as the trade requires a degree of mathematical understanding. Most carpenters complete an apprentice program lasting 3 to 4 years, though on the job training is also an option.

Useful Resources United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
Home Builders Institute Training Programs

Construction and Building Inspectors

Home inspector looking at foundation

Construction and building inspectors ensure that structures are safe according to local codes, regulations, zoning, and ordinances. They work at all stages of a construction project to verify that the plans and actual construction meets the necessary requirements to make it usable or habitable. There are a number of specialities for inspectors. Some of the most common are:

  • Building: These inspectors monitor structural integrity and general safety of buildings.

  • Electrical: It’s the responsibility of electrical inspectors to ensure the safety of any wired system in a structure.

  • Mechanical: Proper use and installation of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems all fall under the scope of mechanical inspectors.

  • Public Works: Public works inspectors have the immense responsibility of ensuring large-scale infrastructure projects are sturdy and safe.

Salary Data Median annual income: $58,840
Top 10%: $94,220 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Washington D.C.: $87,670
Alaska: $86,470
California: $ 83,690
Nevada: $74,660
Washington: $73,340

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 8,100 new building inspector jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 8%.

How to Become One

Construction and building inspectors generally have coursework in engineering, architecture, or inspecting, as well as years of experience working in construction. They also require specific licensure or certification that varies by state.

Useful Resources American Society of Home Inspectors
International Association of Certified Home Inspectors

Construction Equipment Operators

Excavator moving dirt

Most construction projects require the use of heavy machinery, and this equipment requires people specially trained to operate it. Construction equipment operators are responsible for maneuvering and using their equipment safely, as well as understanding how to recognize problems and perform basic maintenance.

Salary Data Median annual income: $45,040
Top 10%: $79,700 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Illinois: $74,990
New York: $73,260
Hawaii: $73,050
New Jersey: $69,780
Alaska: $69,670

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 43,200 new equipment operator jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 10%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma or vocational school training is typically required to become a construction equipment operator. Many people also gain on the job training by starting with lighter equipment and working up to heavier equipment under supervision. Special licensure requirements vary by state.

Useful Resources International Union of Operating Engineers Training Programs
National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators

Construction Managers

Three people looking at construction plans

Construction managers oversee the successful execution of construction projects including budgeting, timing, and quality. Construction managers are present on all types of construction and will often manage more than one project at a time. They work closely with every member of the team to ensure success.  

Salary Data Median annual income: $89,300
Top 10%: $158,330 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

New Jersey: $141,500
Alaska: $127,810
New York: $121,030
Rhode Island: $112,300
Delaware: $111,170

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 17,800 new construction manager jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 5%.

How to Become One

A bachelor’s degree is not required to be a construction manager, but it is quickly becoming the new standard. It’s important for construction managers to have experience in all aspects of construction, so previous work in construction is typically suggested before pursuing a degree. Certification isn’t required, but is available to demonstrate expertise.

Useful Resources Construction Management Association of America
American Council for Construction Education

Electricians

Electrician in front of wires

The installation and maintenance of electrical and communications systems is the main responsibility of electricians. Electricians must be able to understand technical specifications and properly wire a structure's electrical components in accordance with all safety standards and regulations. Additionally they are trained to use specialized tools for testing and diagnosing these systems.  

Salary Data Median annual income: $52,720
Top 10%: $90,420 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Alaska: $81,600
Hawaii: $74,770
Illinois: $73,160
New York: $73,010
Washington D.C.: $71,960

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 85,900 new electrician jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 14%.

How to Become One

Electricians must have at least a high school diploma, and the majority of them complete a 4-5 year apprenticeship program to learn the details of electrical theory, mathematics, and building codes. Most states require licensing or certification to work as an electrician, though laws vary by state.

Useful Resources National Electrical Contractors Association
IBEW-NECA Electrical Training Alliance

Ironworkers

Iron worker on bridge

Ironworkers assemble the steel and iron that supports major structures. They are trained in specialized equipment to align, cut, bolt, and weld metal according to blueprints and other build documents. Also known as erectors, these specialist must be skilled at communicating with crane operators to ensure that materials move safely across a jobsite.

Salary Data Median annual income: $47,600
Top 10%: $89,980 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

New Jersey: $87,880
Illinois: $86,640
New York: $85,890
Washington: $73,960
Hawaii: $72,280

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 7,100 new ironworker jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 9%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma and some form of vocational training is typically required of ironworkers. Many choose to go through an apprenticeship program where they learn the skills they need on the job. Certifications aren’t required but often lead to higher pay.

Useful Resources American Welding Society Certification
International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers

Masonry Workers

Masonry worker laying bricks

Masons assemble structures, such as walls and walkways, from brick, stone, and concrete. They use plans from the architect to calculate, prepare, and assemble materials to the specifications. There are several specialities within masonry:

  • Brickmasons: These specialists build and repair structures made from brick, terra cotta, concrete and other materials.

  • Cement Masons: Cement masons focus on pouring and finishing concrete, and must be experts at monitoring weather and temperature to ensure its effective use.

  • Stone Masons: Focusing on natural and artificial stone, these masons create stone structures using specialized tools adapted for the unique properties of stone.

Salary Data Median annual income: $41,230
Top 10%: $74,170 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Massachusetts: $77,540
New York: $73,990
Illinois: $73,430
Washington: $73,180
Minnesota: $69,390

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 37,300 new masonry jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 15%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma with some technical courses is the most common qualification to enter masonry. Apprenticeships offering on the job training are another popular option. Licensure and certification is typically not required.

Useful Resources International Masonry Institute
Mason Contractors Association of America

Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters

Welder working on pipe

The installation, repair, and inspection of pipes that carry liquid and gas is the primary domain of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. Plumbers tend to focus on water, drainage, and gas pipes in residences and businesses, while fitters typically focus on pipes carrying chemicals, acids, and gases for industrial and commercial uses.

Salary Data Median annual income: $51,450
Top 10%: $90,530 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

New York: $76,750
Illinois: $75,530
Oregon: $73,960
Washington D.C.: $71,120
Alaska: $71,030

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 49,100 new plumbing and fitter jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 12%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma and and a 4-5 year apprenticeship are the typical entry requirements for plumbers and fitters. Plumbing codes and regulations are often complex, and many specialities also require studying math, chemistry, and physics. Licenses are typically required to work in this field.

Useful Resources United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, and Service Techs
Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association

Why Choose Construction?

Gaining professional experience and an income before attending college can set many individuals on a more stable path than simply going straight to higher education. It can give you time to choose a career path, help you save money to pursue your chosen career, and make you more competitive on applications.

Construction is one of the few fields that will pay you to learn a skill. Construction is also something that will always be in demand, and you’ll be able use your skills for the rest of your life. It makes a great option for people who want to enter the job market with little overhead cost and significant return.

If you have a story to tell about how construction was the right career choice for you, let us know in the comments. Be sure to subscribe to our blog to be updated on new pieces, and check out some of our other construction articles!