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July 02, 2024 by Service Direct

An Alternative to College: Best States for People that Work in the Trades

For decades, college was a part of the American dream for many young people. To some extent, it still is. College is a way to propel your career and access opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have. However, it’s become increasingly unattainable as tuition rises every year. 

Since 1963, for-profit universities and colleges have raised tuition by more than 747%, making it nearly impossible for most Americans to pay for secondary education without the help of student loans. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average student loan debt out of 42.2 million students was $39,981

More young people than ever are interested in a cheaper, alternative option: the trades. Becoming a skilled trade worker, as an electrician, HVAC technician, plumber, or roofer, is often significantly cheaper, as you don’t have to attend college to become certified. 

Instead, you take courses such as a Continuing Technical Education (CTE) or a vocational educational course. Often, a state public education institution or a trade school will provide these courses. From here, you can enlist in an internship or apprenticeship and gain certification before applying for a trade position. This process is significantly cheaper than the traditional four-year institution — over 50% less, according to Zippia. In addition, many skilled tradespeople start their own businesses, allowing them to boost their financial earnings and career success. 

That said, not every state offers the same financial opportunities and support for people who want to enter the trade workforce. As a result, it’s crucial to analyze each state for its potential to boost your career in the trades.

A person in the trades using a saw on metal, which causes sparks.
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Factors That Affect How Much You Can Earn Without A Degree

Various factors affect your ability to become a trade worker and how financially successful you will become. For one, many states have varying economic conditions that can affect how much you earn. The cost of living—which includes expenses like groceries, housing, transportation, childcare, etc.—can also affect your “take-home pay.”

Essentially, even if you earn a significant amount of money from your work in the trades, if you work in a state that’s expensive to live in, your money may not go far.

Some states may have more job opportunities for trade workers than others due to their population size and customer pool. Many states may also have more significant export industries for skilled trade workers to take advantage of, while others may specialize in different exports that skilled trade workers can’t. Many states may also have higher unemployment rates, meaning it’s difficult for trade employees to find available jobs and must apply for government unemployment services.

The way you become a trade worker can also affect your potential career. Not all states offer grants or resources for people to earn their certification. So, if you don’t have the financial resources to pay for certification courses, it may be best to look at other states that provide these opportunities.

How We Did Our Research

By looking at these factors, we were able to rank each state based on which one is best suited for trade workers. To do this, we collected the average income of “Construction and Extraction Occupations” from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2023, which included most trades such as construction, manufacturing, farming, and transportation

We then collected the 2023 cost-of-living index for each state. The cost of living index is a parameter that judges how expensive groceries, transportation, housing, childcare, etc., are compared to the rest of the country. As a baseline, the United States cost of living index is 100; therefore, any state with a cost of living index below this number is cheaper to live in than the national average, and any state above this number is more expensive. By dividing the average salary of a skilled trade worker in each state by the corresponding cost of living index, we created a ratio total that indicates the earning potential for each state.

We then ordered the states with the highest earning totals. In cases where the earning totals were within .1 difference of one another, we used the state’s unemployment and CTE certification success rates to determine the order. We obtained unemployment rates from the BLS for each state’s economic review or from state websites. For CTE success rates, we used data from Advance CTE on the percentage of students who earned a certificate or a postsecondary credential for their vocation after taking CTE courses or vocational-technical courses in each state.

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The Best States For Workers Without Degrees

With the data mentioned above and the ranking system, we were able to find the following as the best states to build a trade career:

1. Illinois

Illinois is at the top of our list for good reason. Illinois offers nearly perfect economic conditions for anyone wanting to build a trade career.

Financial Overview

According to the BLS, the average income of trade workers was $76,930 in 2023. With a cost of living index of 92.1, below the national average of 100, we created an earning ratio total of 835. With this sum, Illinois easily tops the list. Even though Illinois may not offer the highest income out of all the states listed, it has a high enough income for workers to take home more financial gain after paying for essential needs like groceries, housing, transportation, and childcare. 

Job Market Analysis

Since Illinois is home to Chicago, they’re also a hub for major manufacturing plants, which can be an excellent employment opportunity for technicians, industrial electricians, and industrial mechanics. Illinois also has several other target industries to grow its economic vitality and build jobs for trade workers, such as agribusiness and transportation distribution. 

However, Illinois's unemployment rate is 4.4%, higher than the national average of 4%. This rate has been slowly declining in the past year, so more people are finding jobs in Illinois and will continue to do so as 2024 progresses. 

learning and earning

Illinois is among the best states for its educational stance on vocational technical work. According to Advance CTE, 78.2% of CTE students earn a certificate or diploma or receive further education. This is vastly higher than the average of all states listed here, about 63%, so if you start a CTE education in Illinois, you’re more likely to become certified than if you complete your education in other states.  

The CTE program in Illinois includes high school education and apprenticeship connections in various trade industries, including agriculture, architecture and construction, manufacturing, and transportation distribution and logistics. From here, students can build their experience and be fully prepared to start their careers soon after graduation.

2. Minnesota

Minnesota may have cold winters, but it will feel much warmer for anyone wanting to build a trade career due to its low cost of living, low unemployment rate, and high earnings.

Financial Overview

Again, Minnesota doesn’t have the highest average income for trade workers at $70,580. However, with a low cost of living at 94.1, the state’s ratio totaled 750, making Minnesota the second-leading state for trade workers. 

Job Market Analysis

Minnesota is also notable because its unemployment rate is only 2.7%. If you find a job as a trade worker in Minnesota, you’re more likely to keep it or find another one quickly if you lose it. Minnesota claims its economic stability due to its wide array of industries, including advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, and food and agriculture. These industries are rife with trade jobs such as wind turbine technicians, dam operators, manufacturing technicians, and farm welders. 

However, Illinois's unemployment rate is 4.4%, higher than the national average of 4%. This rate has been slowly declining in the past year, so more people are finding jobs in Illinois and will continue to do so as 2024 progresses. 

learning and earning

Over 52% of students in Minnesota’s CTE programs go on to earn a certificate in their trade of choice. Although this may be on the lower side, 90.2% of students find positions within six months of completing their education. 

Most of this education's funding comes from the Perkins V Act, a federal act that provides financial aid to states to educate students on vocational interests. The Minnesota CTE program also features work-based learning, high-quality facilities, and leadership programs that can help students build their business chops simultaneously.  

3. Missouri

There may be no better metaphor for Missouri’s commitment to trade than the St. Louis Gateway Arch, one of the most iconic Missouri landmarks. At 630 feet, the arch is one of the tallest manufactured monuments, symbolizing the wonders Missouri workers make with the proper support. Let’s look at some factors that contribute to the wonder of the Missouri landscape. 

Financial Overview

Missouri is one of our top states due to its low cost of living. Its cost of living index is 88.5, far below the national average of 100. With the average income of trade workers at $62,340, Missouri’s earning potential tops out at 704. Even with a moderate income compared to other states, you can still make more than a modest living in Missouri. 

Job Market Analysis

In addition to Missouri’s earning potential, it has a low unemployment rate of 3.4%. To improve this unemployment rate, Missouri bolsters various industries:

  • Agribusiness
  • Renewable energy
  • Manufacturing
  • Construction

Construction may be beneficial for a trade person to enter, as Missouri is investing more in its growing cities and buildings.

learning and earning

Missouri has a highly interconnected CTE program with over 518 high schools, community colleges, and state agencies to encourage students to build their working experience in trade industries. Although this program has a lower CTE score of students going on to earn a certificate in their trade, only 38.1%, over 97% of students who attend Missouri-funded CTE programs graduate. Therefore, many students are most likely to start and pass CTE courses but may not decide to make it their entire career. 

4. New Jersey

Within our analysis, we continually ranked East Coast states lower because of high unemployment scores and high living costs. However, New Jersey was the only East Coast state that managed to rank higher for multiple reasons. Let’s find out why. 

Financial Overview

Like other East Coast states, New Jersey has a higher cost of living at 113.9. However, this index score is still low enough for their high average income of $77,840 to make a difference for trade workers. With a ratio sum of 683, New Jersey trade workers can enjoy the privileges of East Coast living while simultaneously building their income more than other East Coast states. 

Job Market Analysis

Due to New Jersey’s prime location by the Atlantic Ocean, the manufacturing industry is influential within its economy thanks to all the ports that ship out products internationally. This industry alone contributed $54 billion to New Jersey’s Gross Domestic Product in 2019, and to compensate its employees for this output, manufacturers paid employees over $20 billion in 2019. 

In addition, New Jersey’s extensive and interconnected rail network and transit systems require trade workers to maintain them. Despite the growth of these industries, New Jersey has a higher unemployment rate of 4.7%. However, since New Jersey is such an extensive hub of other industries, including leisure and hospitality, it’s difficult to say where this unemployment comes from. 

learning and earning

To further propel economic growth, the state created a CTE and apprenticeship program for young people to build careers in various industries. Titled the New Jersey Apprenticeship Network (NJAN), this program provides grants for students or potential trade workers to achieve internships and apprenticeships. This network also connects newly certified employees with resources and hiring employers to help them start their trade careers. 

Within this program, over 44% of students achieve certification, and 99% graduate, indicating a prosperous future for New Jersey’s trade students.

5. North Dakota

As the fourth least densely populated state in the United States, you may not think of North Dakota as a great place to build a career. However, this population may change over time after looking at the statistics that make this state profitable for trade workers.

Financial Overview

With an average income of $64,250 for trade workers and a cost-of-living index of 94.6, we calculated an earning ratio of 679. This moderate ratio allows North Dakota trade workers to focus more on their quality of life rather than making ends meet.

Job Market Analysis

A contributing reason North Dakota is ranked so highly on our list is the plethora of trade industries in which people can work. Since North Dakota is the second largest producer of fossil fuels, there are plenty of trade positions in the following industries: 

  • Oil drilling and gas extraction;
  • Petroleum refining; 
  • Natural gas distribution.

Even with oil prices fluctuating as more people look toward greener energy solutions, North Dakota still aims to keep up by creating jobs in wind power, electric power transmission, and other green energy solutions. With these industries leading the forefront of North Dakota’s economic condition, North Dakota has one of the lowest unemployment rates at 2.2%, nearly half the national rate of 4%. 

learning and earning

For education, North Dakota has an “Education and Workforce Initiative.” Within this program, students receive ongoing career counseling and coaching and receive a CTE education where they can build career-ready skills and find access to certification study tips and other resources.

Over 45% of students participating in this program receive certification and 96% graduate overall. Again, this discrepancy indicates that although some students may not receive their certificate immediately upon graduation, that doesn’t hinder their success. In fact, 82% of students completed apprenticeship or employment after graduation instead. 

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6. Wisconsin

There’s a reason Wisconsin is often referred to as the Cheese Capital of the United States. They produce over a quarter of the U.S.’s dairy, providing plenty of opportunities for trade workers.  

Financial Overview

Similar to North Dakota, Wisconsin also has a moderate average income and a low cost of living index, ultimately making the state prime for trade workers who want to take home more pay rather than pay for housing, transportation, groceries, childcare, etc. With an average income of $64,120 and a cost-of-living index of 95.1, we calculated Wisconsin’s total earning ratio to be 674. 

Job Market Analysis

As mentioned, Wisconsin is primarily known for its dairy production, among other foods and agriculture. As such, there are plenty of opportunities for farmers, farmhands, agricultural workers, farm managers, and more. In addition, Wisconsin is the leading employer in manufacturing, helping to build its $72 billion industry. Wisconsin also employs people for forest products and energy production, both of which have opportunities for dam operations, wind turbine technology, lumber mills, and more. 

With all these industries, Wisconsin boasts an unemployment rate of 2.9%, below the national average of 4%. 

learning and earning

Wisconsin has a state-wide CTE and apprenticeship program that provides on-the-job training for students and adults. At the end of the program, students take certification tests to help qualify them for full-time positions after apprenticeship. According to Advance CTE, over 70% of students in this program complete their certification, and 91% obtain a position afterward. 

7. Indiana

It’s no wonder we’ve featured Indiana as the top 7th state for trade workers. As the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the state is committed to maintaining its reputation as an auto manufacturing hub where trade workers can prove their mettle. 

Financial Overview

Indiana has one of the lowest incomes out of the top 10 states, with only an average income of $61,310. However, with a low cost-of-living index, Indiana has an earning ratio of 674, surpassing the other 43 states listed. 

Job Market Analysis

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was initially created to test automobiles manufactured in and around the area. To this day, Indiana remains one of the top manufacturers of motor vehicles. In addition, the state is one of the largest manufacturers of iron and steel, making anyone involved in the manufacturing process, from assembly line technicians to welders, in high demand. As such, the state has a low unemployment rate of 3.6%.

learning and earning

Indiana has one of the best-scoring CTE programs in the country. In fact, 100% of its students achieve certification after completing Indiana’s CTE program. This program primarily uses funding from the Perkins V Act for apprenticeship and training in high schools to educate and prepare students for high-wage and high-demand trade occupations in the area. 

8. Michigan

In Michigan lies the heart of the auto industry: the Motor City, Detroit. Although Detroit and the surrounding Michigan area saw a fall in production due to assembly line inefficiencies, the city and state itself remain a hub for trade employees and other manufacturing industries. 

Financial Overview

Michigan has one of the lowest cost-of-living indexes featured on this list, scoring 90.6. Even though their average skilled trade income is also low at $60,600, the cost of living compensates by providing a ratio of 669, allowing employees to make plenty of use of seemingly small funds. 

Job Market Analysis

As mentioned, Detroit once was the heart and soul of the auto industry. However, with the introduction of the assembly line, many auto companies looked elsewhere for manufacturing hubs. Despite a previous decline, Detroit has been rising in 2024 with the development of electric vehicles. With new corporate entities and political and philanthropic action, Detroit now has $6.5 billion in funding for electric vehicle manufacturing, according to Brookings. 

Since Detroit has plenty of facilities and workers with traditional auto manufacturing experience, the city can use this funding and experience to further its economic growth. Trade workers may expect more postings for assembly technicians, machine tool operators, mechanics, and production managers to only grow with the increase in electric vehicle production. This development will also help Michigan’s primary industries, electric power transmission and auto parts manufacturing, to grow. 

This economic growth will also alleviate any discomfort the state experiences with unemployment. Although the rate is 3.9%, slightly below the national average, the state could experience lower rates as more manufacturers receive funding for increased production.

learning and earning

Like other mid-western states, Michigan could improve its education for students interested in developing a trade career. Only 41% of students go on to complete a certification after graduating. However, the fact that nearly 96% of students graduate indicates that the educational material in this program shouldn’t be blamed, but rather, the lack of the connections and resources to help students find future job positions. 

That said, they offer a comprehensive vocational training program with various courses on automotive technology, woodworking, electronics, and welding — all of which the state desperately needs to support its manufacturing and construction industry.

9. Washington

Washington is one of the first Western states featured on this list. Since most Western states have a high cost of living, trade workers would need an equally high salary for compensation — compensation that many employers aren’t willing to provide. However, Washington does rise above the rest with more moderate conditions than other Western states.

Financial Overview

Of our top 10 states, Washington has the highest average income for trade workers, at $77,320. Although this high income does reflect the work that the trade industry requires, many employers provide a high income to compensate for the high cost of living, which is 116. Although this is high, it’s low enough for Washington to compensate for their average income, giving the state an earning ratio of 667. 

Job Market Analysis

Washington is also highly invested in the clean energy movement. Nearly 75% of the state’s power comes from hydroelectric sources like dams, and the state hopes to entirely rely on additional clean energy sources from wind, hydrogen, tidal, and biomass by 2045. With this influx of clean energy comes technicians and professionals specializing in it.  

In addition, Washington has plenty of lumber, so it requires plenty of loggers and sawmill workers to help produce lumber products such as doors, paper, furniture, and more. 

Despite these lucrative industries, Washington has one of the highest unemployment rates in the top 10 states at 4.8%. However, this rate has improved in the past year, indicating economic stability for trade workers hoping to find a stable position.

learning and earning

Like other states previously mentioned, Washington also has a comprehensive CTE program funded by the Perkings V Act that teaches technical skills to middle and high schoolers. In addition to work-based learning, the program also connects students to paid apprenticeships and job shadow opportunities. Nearly 94% of students successfully complete these programs, and 49% go on to receive certification, leading to potential employment. 

10. Nevada

Finishing our list, the Silver State of Nevada shows that its mining history continues today, providing opportunities for those who want to specialize in construction and gold, silver, and petroleum mining. 

Financial Overview

Nevada has a highly moderate income-to-cost-of-living ratio. With an average income of $65,540 and a cost of living index of 101, Nevada indeed hugs the national average, which is a $61,500 salary and a 100 cost of living index. As such, Nevada’s ratio is 649 — something we might expect for the national average, if not a little higher. 

Job Market Analysis

Nevada has a rich history of mining that predates the 19th-century gold rush and continues today. Some of Nevada’s most prominent mining exports are silver, gold, and other metals. To this day, the state is one of the most lucrative in precious metals. As such, the state requires plenty of extraction employees, construction mechanics, miners, and other construction employees to manage some of the Earth’s finest resources.  

As the driest state, Nevada has also invested heavily in water technology to supply its population and agricultural needs. Not only does it have the historical Hoover Dam Project, but Nevada also has several wastewater treatment plants to meet these demands. All of these projects require certified technicians and operators qualified for the job. 

In addition, Nevada has plenty of opportunities for those interested in the following sectors

  • Agriculture;
  • Clean energy; 
  • Manufacturing.

Despite the plethora of opportunities, Nevada has the highest unemployment rate at 5.1%, which is one reason it’s at the bottom of our list of the top ten states for trade workers.

Learning and Earning

Nevada has a highly interconnected CTE program that provides funding for students who want short-term training in high-demand industries such as skilled trades and connects students to resources like community colleges, four-year universities, technical schools, and other state-wide programs. 

Nearly 48% of students graduate from these programs, and over 92% graduate from them, indicating that students may have earned a well-rounded education but have yet to act upon it in a career sense. 

Remaining 50 States

After we ranked the first ten states, we were able to finalize our ranking with the following states:

The data for the remaining 50 states on the best places to work in the trades without a degree


Based on our findings, we concluded that even though some states may have a higher average income for trade workers, they may be less advantageous to work in due to a high cost of living, unemployment rates, and education potential. For example, Hawaii has one of the highest average incomes on the list, at $79,770, yet we rated it as the lowest state because of its 180.3 cost of living index, nearly twice the national average. 

Regionally speaking, we also found that many states in the Midwest are often ranked higher mainly because of their low cost of living and industrial output. Most of our top states shared these common characteristics. 

We also didn’t find a strong relationship between states with higher average incomes versus those with a higher CTE success rate. Earning a certificate in your vocation doesn’t guarantee a high salary. Many people may earn a certificate and build their career elsewhere due to earning potential or lifestyle preferences.


Despite our ranking, we understand there are limitations in the data we collected and how we organized this data that could skew results. For one, the BLS category of “Construction and Extraction Occupations” encompasses a wide range of occupations that may not reflect the average of individual trade occupations.

For example, steelworkers are under the same umbrella and earn a higher income on the spectrum, while carpentry assistants are also under the same category and earn less than half of the income of steelworkers. 

In addition, we considered CTE certification success rates as the best way to gauge how well-positioned CTE students would be to take on a trade job. However, we didn’t put as much weight on figures of people who earned an income as interns and apprentices and may not have certification.

Although the BLS considers apprentices as trade workers, we didn’t rank states based on apprentice CTE data since trade apprentices may not earn as much as their certificated counterparts. Still, this factor may affect results nonetheless. 

In addition, the BLS data factors in yearly salary, which may also vary depending on whether you work in a trade or a state heavily dependent on seasonal slowdowns. So, if you were an HVAC technician in California, your income could fluctuate more than that of a plumber in Washington.

Future Trends

These results are also not stagnant. More and more states today invest in the future of their trade industrial employees by providing more grants and public education courses to encourage students to invest in a technical vocation.

The BLS also predicts that many job openings for most trade workers will open up in the next decade as most of the workforce retires. Each year, 646,100 openings will need to be filled by willing and qualified individuals

In addition, many trades expect to experience changes in the industry itself. For example, both the plumbing and HVAC industries will likely need more technicians with experience or knowledge of sustainable technologies as more people look for greener solutions. So, if you’re interested in a trade, we recommend considering future needs as you earn a certificate in your desired field. 

In sum, the trade industry is not dying. If anything, it’s growing, especially as more young people are looking for cheaper, better alternatives to college. If you’re in the same camp, take this list to heart. With you, you can decide which states may be best to build your education in trade and where you should move to build your career.

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