Construction Career Guide -- Specialties, Salaries, and Prospects (Updated 2021)

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.

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.

Interested in getting started? Read our companion post on securing a construction job.

Here’s a brief overview of what the first few years in construction might look like:

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

a carpenter's workshop

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: $49,520
  • Top 10%: $87,410 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • Hawaii: $80,810
  • Illinois: $69,490
  • New York: $67,120
  • Alaska: $66,040
  • New Jersey: $65,500

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts good job prospects with 89,000 new openings every year.

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

Construction and Building Inspectors

construction inspectors inspecting a home for FEMA

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: $62,860
  • Top 10%: $101,170 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • California: $91,510
  • Alaska: $90,260
  • Connecticut: $87,280
  • District of Columbia: $87,190
  • Washington: $79,310

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts 3,900 new building inspector jobs by 2029, a growth rate of 3%.

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

Construction Equipment Operators

a backhoe moving dirt on a jobsite

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: $49,100
  • Top 10%: $86,300 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • New York: $85,700
  • New Jersey: $82,200
  • Illinois: $81,290
  • Hawaii: $81,120
  • California: $78,420

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts 19,200 new equipment operator jobs by 2029, a growth rate of 4%.

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

Construction Managers

a construction meeting to review blueprints in an office

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: $97,180
  • Top 10%: $169,070 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • New Jersey: $152,250
  • New York: $140,700
  • Delaware: $132,930
  • California: $128,050
  • Hawaii: $122,080

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts 40,400 new construction manager jobs by 2029, a growth rate of 8%.

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

Electricians

an electrician at a circuit breaker box

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: $56,900
  • Top 10%: $98,720 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • Illinois: $81,650
  • New York: $81,340
  • Hawaii: $79,280
  • District of Columbia: $79,030
  • Oregon: $76,040

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts 62,200 new electrician jobs by 2029, a growth rate of 8%.

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

Ironworkers

ironworker working on a 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: $52,210
  • Top 10%: $88,380 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • New Jersey: $87,030
  • Illinois: $84,110
  • Washington: $84,000
  • Massachusetts: $82,700
  • Hawaii: $82,060

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts 4,500 new ironworker jobs by 2029, a growth rate of 5%.

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

Masonry Workers

a mason 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: $47,710
  • Top 10%: $79,640 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • Hawaii: $86,730
  • Illinois: $68,350
  • New York: $66,900
  • Washington: $65,370
  • Massachusetts: $60,330

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts 10,000 fewer masonry jobs by 2029, a growth rate of -3%.

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

Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters

a welder welding a large 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: $56,330
  • Top 10%: $98,990 and above

Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

  • Alaska: $88,150
  • Illinois: $87,880
  • Massachusetts: $80,860
  • Minnesota: $76,080
  • New Jersey: $75,840

Employment Opportunity

  • The BLS predicts 20,900 new plumbing and fitter jobs by 2029, a growth rate of 4%.

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

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.

For more on the labor market, be sure to check out our tips for getting a construction job, post on gender diversity in construction, and discussion of the industry's image crisis.