Tech's new blue collar: Good-paying jobs that don't require a 4-year degree

Traditional manufacturing work may be mostly offshored, but there are plenty of tech-industry jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree and can provide a middle-class life

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Where the jobs are

For years, you've heard the same story: the days when low-skilled manufacturing jobs could lead to a middle-class lifestyle are long gone, and the key to economic success lies in getting advanced degrees in STEM subjects. But that picture's not entirely true: there are many career paths, beginning to be labelled as "middle-skill" jobs, that are in technical areas but don't require a bachelor's degree. The so-called "hidden STEM economy" is entered through associate's degrees, trade schools, and apprenticeships.

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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

But where are the workers?

One of the mismatches in our economy comes because our education system doesn't track people into these kinds of jobs; indeed, many young people might not even know they're an option until they've racked up thousands of dollars of student loan debt for a four-year degree. There are efforts to fix this mismatch -- Step IT Up America, a program routinely touted by Vice President Biden, has been working with inner-city girls in Detroit, for instance -- but more people need to get the word. In this slideshow, we'll walk you through some of the kinds of solid, good-paying tech jobs that make up the new flavor of blue collar.

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Telecom equipment installation and repair staff

All those dozens of computers, routers, and access points in every office building in factory have to be connected to the Internet and to each other by someone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged the median pay for telecommunications equipment installers and repair staff at around $54K a year in 2012. Entry into this field generally requires a specialized certification, but not a collegiate degree.

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Network and computer systems administrators

Once those computers and cables are installed -- well, somebody has to be in charge of them, right? Sysadmins and network admins have been around since the dawn of the IT age, but the job isn't necessarily considered particularly glamorous: a true blue-collar IT job, albeit one with a median salary of $72K a year. Any you might not have to take out a slew of student loans to get there: You may be surprised to learn that more than 40 percent of sysadmins do not have a bachelor's degree.

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Computer support specialists

These jobs are the foundation layer of corporate IT: the people who hold down the fort at the help desk and support IT within their organization. Some (but not all) of these jobs can be had with a two-year degree or specialized certification, and the median pay is a decent $49K a year. A warning from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though: "Many do not work typical 9-to-5 jobs. Because computer support is important for businesses, many support specialists must be available 24 hours a day." Help desk or entry-level computer support jobs account for over half of middle-skill IT jobs in New York state, according to a recent survey.

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Computer software engineers

You might think of computer programming as a job that requires a bachelor's or even a master's degree, but in fact many entry-level programmers come in with associate's degrees or certificates from technical training schools. And while they start further down the ladder, the rewards can still be impressive: a computer software engineer with a two-year degree can expect to earn $3 million over his or her lifetime; by contrast, a writer or editor with a four year degree can only expect to make $2 million.

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Computer-controlled machine tool operators

The move towards automating manufacturing jobs has meant that the operation of machine tools -- the tools that make individual components or workpieces of finished products -- can now be mostly run by computers. But of course, those computers have to be run by someone, and while you need comfort and skills with computers to be that someone, you don't necessarily need a four-year degree. Computer-controlled machine tool operators, as the somewhat clunky name goes, are an important part of the mid-skill workforce, and can get started in their career with only a high school diploma.

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Clean room technician

Mike Rowe, who's been pushing to get more people interested in middle-skills careers, calls his show Dirty Jobs. But one middle-skill path will take you to one of the least dirty workplaces imaginable: clean rooms where delicate computer equipment is manufactured. Chip manufacturers hire clean room techs with associate degrees and start them at $40K to $60K a year.

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Web development

If you're a fogey like me, you remember the '90s, when being able to put together a Web page was a high-end skill that was your ticket to quick riches. The profession has become commodified, but corporate America's appetite for Web developers is still going strong -- and you don't need a high-end degree to start out, either. Nearly half of all working web developers do not have a bachelor's degree.

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jfruh selfie

Internet publishing and broadcasting

Wait, what? Yes, it's true, Internet publishing and broadcasting has been one of the fastest growing tech sectors in the past decade -- and it's one where proven writing skills can trump the need for a specific credential. As this slideshow should demonstrate, I'm an expert in the Internet publishing game (and the accompanying selfie here actually illustrates me writing the slideshow), and while I have a master's degree, it's in ancient history and has definitely not helped me create the masterpiece you've been reading. The world of Internet content is your oyster, so get writing!