The traditional working world was once made up of two types of workers — blue collar and white collar. But a third category — new-collar work that promises high pay without a degree — is gaining steam. And that’s great news for anyone who doesn’t want to spend four years in college to start a new profession.

“The demand for new-collar work is exploding,” says Pam Roy, a California-based counselor and blogger, who educates students about emerging career options. “Traditional colleges have a role for some students, but they can’t deliver the workers that we need in today’s economy.”

New-collar

What is new-collar work and how does it differ from traditional blue- and white-collar jobs?

Traditionally, white- and blue-collar designations were physically descriptive. They spoke to the starched white shirts you’d wear in an office, versus the colored clothing you’d typically wear when you were a tradesperson, likely to get dirty in the course of the work day. 

However, in time, the term “white-collar” became synonymous with highly-paid professional jobs, most of which required at least a four-year college degree. Blue-collar work swept in manual laborers and tradespeople who could learn their professions through experience.

New-collar work is a hybrid of the two. It generally requires training, but not necessarily college. By and large, new-collar jobs are in high-paying professions that you can learn either on the job, through an apprenticeship, or via a certificate program.

Indeed, fifteen big companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and accounting giant PwC recently pledged to revamp some job descriptions to eliminate the requirement for a college degree. 

Skills training

Other big firms have made a commitment to training. For instance, IBM launched a $1 billion effort to train hundreds of thousands of school children and adults in new technologies. The training is being provided through high schools, junior colleges, apprenticeships and online.

The federal government is also providing a matching service to connect apprentices with viable training programs. And dozens of colleges, universities and online training camps have sprung up to deliver “nano” degrees through targetted training in topics like artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

Early career training

The cornerstone program for high-school students is something called P-Tech, which is short for Pathways in Technology. This program enlists high schools and colleges to work with industry groups. Together they provide specialized classes, mentors and on-the-job experience.

Typically, the student takes college-level classes within their specialty all through high school. The student then graduates with both a high-school diploma and a college-level associates degree. The entire course can take from four to six years, starting in the eigth or ninth grade.

What specialties are covered through P-tech? Manufacturing, business, computer science, construction technology, cybersecurity, early childhood education, energy management, health care, mechanical engineering and networking technology, among others.

Income expectations

Salary expectations after completing these courses are generous. The average pay in cybersecurity ranges from $75,000 to $95,000 annually, for example.  Energy managers earn between $55,000 and $120,000. Mechanical engineers earn between $53,000 and $98,000, according to PayScale.

The only field in the P-Tech arena that PayScale said would land you a near-minimum-wage job was early childhood education. However, this assumed you’d be an aide, rather than the director of a program. Given the scope of the P-Tech training, you would most likely qualify to be a school director, rather than an aide. That changes the earnings expectations dramatically. Those who set up early education programs through online platform Wonderschool,  for instance, earn an average of $67,000 annually, according to Indeed.com. 

Notably the earnings of these “new-collar” jobs are comparable to the average earnings of college graduates. And yet college graduates start their careers three or four years later, often after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get degrees.

Does that undermine the notion of going to college at all? Not necessarily. College provides personal enrichment and remains a good path to a better job for some people. (About 25% – 30% of jobs require college degrees.) But it’s no longer the only path to a six-figure salary. 

Mid-career training

For those who have long since graduated from high school, there are a host of mid- and even late-career training options.

They require no pre-requisites nor a technological background. In fact, many experts in these new fields came from unrelated professions. A Coursera course on data analysis even launches with a segment about what current data analysts had studied and the work experience that led them to their current data analysis positions. None of them studied data analysis.

That gives adults who find themselves unhappy in their current career the ability to train for new economy positions that may offer higher pay and more opportunity. And it won’t take years. There’s a certificate program for cyber security that takes 11 months, for instance. Most of the Coursera programs are self-study and can be completed in as little as a few months.

Where do you find this training? There are several options.

Apprenticeships

The federal government started an apprenticeship program two years ago that brags that it has already connected more than a half-million consumers with industry-recognized apprenticeship programs, for instance.

To find an apprenticeship program near you, simply fill in the type of work you’re looking for and your geographic location. The government’s apprenticeship finder will kick back a list of choices.

Nothing available in the job description you tried? Use another phrase to describe the job or jobs you are looking for. The apprenticeship finder’s search engine is a bit clunky. The broader your job description, the more likely you are to find multiple matches.

Certificate programs

IBM also sponsors a digital badge program, which offers educational modules through online learning platforms such as Coursera. Coursera charges a monthly fee to get credit for the courses you take through digital badges. However, if you simply want to learn or test the program before paying, you can audit the classes for free. Classes are done at your own pace. The faster you progress, the less it costs.

College programs

Community colleges, four-year universities and even state governments have also gotten in the act, says Roy. Some of these programs are highly affordable. Others are expensive and of dubious value.

When evaluating options, Roy suggests you look at what real-world projects the program participates in and whether it promises one-on-one mentoring. Also check the program’s job-placement results.

“These alternative pathways are not a consolation prize for those not going to college,” Roy says. “They are being created to fill a severe shortage of skill-specific workers that are needed to address rapid technological change.”