Switch to a fast-growing career in as little as 2 years

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Looking to make a career switch? You could pursue one of these careers in as little as two years.

By Andrea Duchon

When you think about making the jump to a new career, you might picture mounds of textbooks and endless years of sleepless nights. But what if we told you that preparing for a new career doesn't have to take forever? In fact, you could make the switch to a new career with an associate's degree - which you could earn in as little as two years.

Here's some even better news: We've narrowed down six careers that are all slated to grow by at least 18 percent from 2010 to 2020 - approximately 4 percent more than the average for all occupations - according to predictions by the U.S. Department of Labor. Keep reading to find out what they are.

Career #1: Dental Hygienist

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Growth Rate from 2010-2020: 38 percent, or 68,500 added jobs*

Have you always wanted to work in a dentist's office, but can't possibly commit to dental school and a gruesome post-school rotation schedule? Prepping to pursue a career as a dental hygienist in as little as two years could get you in the office door, without logging the hours to earn your D.D.S. And just like other arms of health care, this is a career that's on the climb through 2020.

Dental hygienists might clean teeth, examine for oral disease, educate patients on good oral health, and take x-rays, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Why It's a Good Switch: There's a broad expectation that dental hygienist opportunities and salaries will continue to grow much faster than the economy as a whole, says Aaron Michel, CEO at PathSource, a comprehensive career exploration company that helps people determine their life direction.

"In part, this is driven by an accelerating use of cosmetic services such as teeth whitening. This is one of America's best-paying jobs, especially given that it only requires two years of education."

Next step: Click to Find the Right Dental Hygiene Program.

Education Options: An associate's degree in dental hygiene is typically needed to pursue this career path, according to the Department of Labor. Additionally, you'll be required to have a license in every state before stepping on the floor as a dental hygienist. The Department notes that requirements vary by state.

Career #2: Preschool Teacher

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Growth Rate from 2010-2020: 25 percent, or 113,600 added jobs

Maybe you've always loved children, but thought there was too much competition in the education system to pursue a teaching career. If that sounds familiar, good news! The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the demand for preschool teachers is on the up and up. And with the minimal schooling needed to pursue this career path, you could make a quick career switch.

The Department of Labor says that preschool teachers are typically responsible for preparing kids for kindergarten by planning and carrying out curriculums, organizing learning activities, and keeping records of student progress.

Why It's a Good Switch: Mike Echols, executive vice president of Strategic Initiatives for Bellevue University, says that besides the short-term schooling, the other factor that makes this a good career to switch into is that good teachers will always be in demand.

"The good news is that two years invested in an associate's degree makes a candidate competitive in this field, where 53 percent of the incumbents currently in the role have taken some college credits but do not have a degree," Echols says.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Early Childhood Education Program.

Education Options: It depends where you may want to teach, but the Department says preschool teachers in childcare centers are generally required to have at least a high school diploma and a certification in early childhood education. If you'd like to teach in a Head Start program, you must have at least an associate's degree. However, the Department notes that by 2013, 50 percent of those pursuing a career as a preschool teacher must have a bachelor's degree.

The Department reports that public school teachers are typically required to have a bachelor's degree in early childhood education or a related subject.

Career #3: Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

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Growth Rate from 2010-2020: 44 percent, or 23,400 added jobs

Are you fascinated by the advanced use of technology in the medical field, but convinced it would take years to master? Think again! A career as a diagnostic medical sonographer might put you in the driver's seat of medical tech - in as little as two years. Plus, it's also one of the fastest-growing careers on our list.

The U.S. Department of Labor says that sonographers use special equipment to do different types of procedures, such as  ultrasounds, sonograms, and echocardiograms. They might also be responsible for preparing patients for these procedures and recording their findings to help with diagnoses.

Why It's a Good Switch: Echols says that this career pays well in the rapidly growing health care field, because it requires precision and intense focus on the details. Michel adds that diagnostic medical sonographers are highly sought after because of the increasing popularity of ultrasound technology.

"You can't just walk off the street and start doing this job. It requires specialized training, such as an associate's degree," he says. "And as the technology becomes more widely used to diagnose a range of diseases, diagnostic medical sonographers who specialize in using this type of equipment will continue to see their pay and number of job opportunities rise quickly."

Next step: Click to Find the Right Medical Sonography Program.

Education Options: The Department of Labor says you'll need formal education, such as an associate's degree or postsecondary certificate, to pursue this career path. Many employers also require professional certification.

Career #5: Occupational Therapy Assistant

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Growth Rate from 2010-2020: 43 percent, or 12,300 added jobs

Have you always had a knack for nursing people back to health? A career as an occupational therapy assistant could help you flex your caring side in a meaningful way - not to mention you could prep to pursue this career in as few as two years. Want more great news? This career is hot and getting hotter - it's second only to sonographer on our list of the fastest-growing careers from 2010 through 2020.

The U.S. Department of Labor says that occupational therapy assistants help patients develop, recover, and improve the skills they need for day-to-day life. This might involve helping patients with therapeutic activities, like stretches. They might also teach patients to use special equipment while recording their progress. 

Why It's a Good Switch: Just as the case with registered nurses, demand for occupational therapy assistants is expected to rise significantly over the coming decade in response to the health care needs of the aging baby-boomer generation, and a growing elderly population, Elizabeth Lasher, a Penn State career counselor, says.

"Occupational therapy assistants will be needed to assist occupational therapists in caring for older individuals. And occupational therapy will also continue to be used for treating children and young adults with developmental disabilities, like autism," she adds. "If you're looking for a growing career field where you can help out and make a difference, this switch makes sense."

Next step: Click to Find the Right Patient Care and Therapy Program.

Education Options: In order to pursue this career, an associate's degree is required, according to the Department of Labor. Occupational therapy assistant programs are commonly available in community colleges and technical schools. Additionally, the Department notes that most states require these professionals to be licensed.

* Projected job growth rates from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 edition.

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