Occupational Licenses with the Biggest Bang for Your Buck

1.8 million Americans were laid off or discharged from their jobs each month in 2019, on average, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

People who lose their jobs often confront a difficult choice: should they take a new job that pays less, or should they make a costly investment in gaining new skills so that they can compete for another similar job—or an even better one? 

If they do decide on retraining, which programs and occupational licenses are worth their while? 

ZipRecruiter crunched the numbers for you to find the occupational licenses that give you the biggest bang for your buck. We used data on wages from our employment marketplace and data on occupational licensing requirements (e.g., mandatory training and experience hours and licensing fees) from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Five occupational licenses with the biggest bang for your buck

In general, the highest-paying jobs tend to have the most difficult education/training and experience requirements. But that is not always the case. Here are three examples of jobs that pay well, relative to their training costs.  

  • Drone Pilots: If you want to become a drone pilot, all you need to do is be above 16 years old, pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s Remote Pilot Certificate exam (which requires about 15 to 20 hours of studying), and pay a $150 licensing fee. Pay for drone pilots averages $56,426 per year, and jobs are growing rapidly across a range of industries. For example, companies like UPS are making substantial investments in drone delivery and will need to hire thousands of drone pilots in the coming years.  
  • Home Inspectors: If you need a job that makes about $60K per year, you might want to consider becoming a Home Inspector. Both Home Inspectors and HVAC Contractors earn about $61K per year, on average, but getting a state HVAC Contractor license typically requires about 4000 hours of training and experience (those systems are becoming ever more complex), whereas a Home Inspector license only requires 360 hours of training and experience, and much of the training can be gained free of charge on the job.
  • Massage Therapists: On average, Manicurists/Pedicurists are required to complete more hours of training than Massage Therapists (700 hours versus 500 hours), but Massage Therapists earn almost twice as much, on average ($54,639 versus $32,509).
  • Radiologic Technologists: Licensing requirements for cosmetologists have become so onerous candidates now need 2700 hours of training and experience, on average. That’s not much less than the requirement for becoming a Radiologic or MRI Technologist (3300 hours)—a job which is growing considerably faster than average, is more recession-proof, and pays twice as much ($56,162 versus $28,608).
  • Dental Hygienists: Among jobs that require a two-year associate’s degree, some pay substantially more than others. The average state licensing fee for becoming a Dental Hygienist is a hefty $1600, but the pay bump you’ll receive will likely make up for it ten times over in the first year. 


Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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