An electrical engineering technician raises an "eggbeater" antenna on an antenna measurement system. (The Associated Press)
The authors of "300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree" looked specifically at which of those had the highest populations of veterans. Earnings are the median for all workers as of May 2011; growth is the annual national average for the occupation, projected through 2010; openings are for a given year.
1. Nuclear medicine technologists
Earnings: Earnings: 69,450
2. Diagnostic medical sonographers
3. Transportation inspectors
4. Radiologic technologists
5. Cardiovascular technologists and technicians
6. Mechanical drafters
Source: Laurence Shatkin, co-author of "300 Best Jobs without a Four-year degree"
When Sgt. Patrick Fairbanks left the Army in fall 2011, he didn't rush right into the job market. With his experience as a vehicle commander in charge of Stryker maintenance and his three Iraq tours, he might have landed a job in automotive technology. fresh out of the gate. But he wanted to come into the game with some added credentials.
"When it comes to how tough this job market is, any edge you can get is worth it," said Fairbanks, who is just wrapping up an associate degree at Universal Technical Institute in Avondale, Ariz.
A four-degree can bring a lot of academic muscle to the table, but it's not the only way to go. In a wide range of careers, the two-year college experience can open doors to productive, often lucrative, employment.
"Two-year degrees are very hands-on. Students are learning directly about the types of things they will be doing in the workplace," said Alexis Petri, who directs a career-coaching project for veterans at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
As compared to a bachelor's track, "you get into the workforce sooner, you get on with your transition sooner," she said. For veterans, the two-year degree can reap big rewards, according to Laurence Shatkin, co-author of "300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree" (Jist Works, October 2010).
In great part, it is the increasingly technical nature of the work world that is putting new value on the two-year diploma.
"It used to be that to be a construction manager [one] would work his way up and eventually become a foreman," Shatkin said. "But now the construction projects are getting so complicated, you'll often need a two-year degree, as opposed to just the vocational training. And then that can be a step toward a management role."
Weighing the options
The idea of the two-year degree as a stepping stone carries a lot of weight. It may be the foot in the door that leads to greater opportunity, or it may be an incremental step toward an eventual bachelor's degree.
Another advantage to the two-year degree is that a service member with some time in uniform already may be well on the way to having earned the degree, even before stepping into the civilian world.
Through the American Council on Education, military personnel can claim academic credit for their military experiences. Those credits can accelerate the route to the associate degree.
Of course, there are faster ways to earn career-worthy paper. In fields such as repair, construction, automotive or HVAC, certification is all that is needed to get into the workforce. But there can be pros and cons to certificate programs.
While quicker to earn, a certificate won't deliver the college credits that make a two-year degree a possible springboard toward a bachelor's. A certificate typically won't deliver the broad-based coursework in the humanities that make the associate a better-rounded credential. A certification also may not carry as much weight in the professional sphere.
A bachelor's degree, on the other hand, takes longer than an associate and typically costs more.
Which degree will depend on a range of variables: "What do I want to accomplish, how long do I want to take to get there, and do I need to make money along the way?" says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
"It comes down to how fast you want to go and the extent you want it to be career-related. The more career-related, the faster it is going to go," Carnevale said.
Getting there faster doesn't have to mean taking second-best when payday rolls around. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the fastest-growing careers for two-year degrees deliver a handsome reward.
* Construction managers: $75,000 or more
* Nuclear technicians: $55,000 to $74,999
* Aerospace engineering and operations technicians: $55,000 to $74,999
* Electrical and electronics engineering technicians: $55,000 to $74,999
* Geological and petroleum technicians: $35,000 to $54,999
Add to these the explosive medical field, whose two-year degree holders are in hot demand and draw big salaries:
* Dental hygienists: $55,000 to $74,999
* Diagnostic medical sonographers: $55,000 to $74,999
* Occupational therapy assistants: $35,000 to $54,999
* Physical therapist assistants: $35,000 to $54,999
* Cardiovascular technologists and technicians: $35,000 to $54,999
Looking beyond the numbers, the ultimate value of the associate degree lies in the hands-on learning it can bring — the practical education that enables students to hit the ground running.
"A lot of our curriculum is based on what the manufacturers tell the school," Fairbanks said. "They are teaching us the things that industry is asking us to learn."