How to Launch Your CAD Career Without a Four-Year Degree


Many students aren’t aware that they can start a great career out of high school.

If you have an eye for detail, you like working in design software, and you don’t want to pursue a four-year degree, a career in computer-aided design (CAD) could be a great move for you. Not only can you avoid paying for a four-year college education, but you can start earning a good salary pretty quickly.

In this article, we explain how to start your CAD career, what the average salaries are for common CAD jobs, and much more. We’ve also created an infographic that displays exactly what you need to do starting your freshman year in high school to land a CAD job without a four-year degree.

What does a CAD drafter do?

Using computer-aided design software, CAD drafters convert the designs created by engineers and architects into technical drawings. These technical drawings are then used to build structures and manufacture products. The drawings are very detailed — specifying dimensions, codes, materials, and production methods.

In many cases, CAD drafters choose one of the following specialties:

  • Architectural drafters prepare structural designs for new buildings, specifying building type, materials used, and structural features.
  • Civil drafters create topographical maps for infrastructure projects like bridges, highways, flood-control projects, and piping systems.
  • Mechanical drafters prepare designs that indicate dimensions, fastening methods, and other requirements needed for machinery and mechanical device assembly.
  • Electrical drafters produce wiring diagrams that construction workers use to install and repair electrical equipment and wiring in power plants, electrical distribution systems, and residential and commercial buildings.
  • Electronics drafters create wiring diagrams, assembly diagrams for circuit boards, and layout drawings used in manufacturing and for installing or repairing electronic devices.

A CAD career as a drafter typically requires working full-time in an office. You might be required to go onsite for a specific job, but most of your time is spent at a computer producing designs, adjusting designs, responding to feedback, and working with engineers and architects.

READ MORE: The ultimate engineering interview prep guide

How do I become a CAD drafter?

There are two general CAD career paths you can follow to become a drafter. To get started, you should finish high school or get your GED, and it helps if you have taken higher level math, science, and engineering classes. Many CAD drafters then opt to get their two-year associate’s degree at a technical or community college, with course work including math, science, drawing, and design. During this time, it’s also beneficial to purse a software certification or a professional credential, like those provided by the American Design Drafting Association (ADDA).

Some drafters choose a CAD career pathway that doesn’t involve achieving an associate’s degree. If you’ve gained CAD experience in high school — and participated in extracurriculars like FIRST Robotics — you might qualify for an apprenticeship with an organization. Most common in the manufacturing industry, apprenticeships will teach you what you need to know to be a successful CAD drafter at that company.

READ MORE: The skills students need when entering the workplace

What’s the difference between a CAD drafter and a CAD designer?

The terms “CAD technician” and “CAD drafter” are two names for essentially the same role, but CAD designers do differ from drafters/technicians. When you’re figuring out what CAD career you’d like to pursue, an easy way to look at it is to think of CAD drafters as generalists and CAD designers as specialists.

CAD drafters produce schemas and technical drawings that serve as visual guidelines to detail the correct dimensions, procedures, and materials for making an object. They leverage CAD software and are responsible for making corrections to drawings that have been reviewed by the design professional. CAD drafters might also print and collate all drawings.

CAD designers are more specifically skilled drafters. They might have extensive knowledge in finite subjects like mechanical systems, circuit layout, electrical lighting, or architecture. Sometimes referred to as a “CAD coordinator,” CAD designers will have knowledge of the codes and regulations that their designs must comply with. They often coordinate drawing sets to make sure all the information is correct.

A traditional CAD career path often requires CAD drafting experience prior to becoming a CAD designer. But if you have the right credentials and education, you can strive for a CAD designer position straightaway.

READ MORE: Start preparing for a CAD career by enhancing your design skills

How much do CAD jobs pay?

If you’re interested in a CAD career, here’s a quick breakdown of the average annual salary for each high-level CAD career (Scan2CAD):

  • CAD drafter: $50,000
  • CAD designer: $60,000+
  • Architect: $70,000+
  • CAD engineer: $80,000-$90,000

These average salaries are heavily impacted by a few key factors (Scan2CAD):

  • Qualifications: Most CAD drafters and technicians require no more than an associate’s degree. However, someone with a bachelor’s or master’s degree will be eligible to make more money.
  • Licenses and certifications: Relevant industry credentials can not only help you launch your CAD career but can also increase your knowledge and earning potential.
  • Internships: While they might not be required for your CAD career, they provide important on-the-job experiences that can translate into a higher salary.
  • Length of career: If you’re just starting out in your CAD career, you’ll likely make about 9-10% less than the average CAD salary. However, after 5-10 years of experience, you’ll probably be making at least 6% more than the average salary, and that number goes up by about 5-10% with every 5-10 years of experience.
  • Location and industry: Some states tend to offer high salaries to adjust for an increased cost of living. Furthermore, some engineering industries, like metal ore mining, pay more because they tend to have fewer candidates available.
READ MORE: Increase your salary potential by becoming a Certified SOLIDWORKS Associate

Is CAD a good career choice?

CAD careers are incredibly rewarding and challenging. You have the opportunity to work with a team of dedicated professionals and be part of creating something great. Plus, CAD careers are here to stay — every engineering and architecture team must have skilled CAD professionals and drafters. We’ve provided a high-level view of the job outlook for a few different CAD careers (Scan2CAD) that don’t require a four-year degree.

Electrical/electronics drafter

  • $59,520/year average salary
  • 5% projected job growth from 2014-2024
  • Audio & Video Equipment Manufacturing is the top paying industry at $80,760 average/year

Mechanical drafter

  • $53,520/year average salary
  • -7% projected job growth from 2014-2024
  • Pipeline Transportation of Natural Gas is the top paying industry at $76,990 average/year

Civil/architectural drafter

  • $50,710/year average salary
  • -3% projected job growth from 2014-2024
  • Scientific Research & Development Services is the top paying industry at 75,390 average/year

While some CAD industries are expected to eliminate a few drafting positions over the next several years because of the increased efficiency of software programs, the industry isn’t going anywhere! There are still thousands of jobs available each year and plenty of room to continue building your skills and advancing your career.

How do I start a CAD career?

A CAD career can be incredibly rewarding — and you can start earning a great salary without getting a four-year degree. If you’re interested in a CAD career, your preparation work really starts in high school. From taking challenging math, science, and engineering classes to getting involved in design-related extracurriculars, there are plenty of ways to boost your CAD resume early. Check out our infographic that shows you can launch a successful CAD career without needing to get a four-year degree.

Kelly Mantick
About the Author

SolidProfessor academic content writer and amateur hula hooper