Newbies: How to Break Into the IT Industry
The road map to a successful career in information technology is as varied as the people and job roles in the industry. From technicians to CIOs to professors, the path to an IT career includes twists, turns, redirections and fresh starts.
Daniel Stevans, senior computer service technician for BancTec in northern New Jersey, started tinkering with computers when he was 12.
“I always had access to second-hand computers,” he said. “I enjoyed the troubleshooting, and I was very, very good at it. It’s second nature to me.”
For Wade Johnson, IT came after more than a decade working in the construction industry.
“I started doing some PC assembly and repair as a part-time thing to help out a nonprofit and found that the aspects of helping and working in IT to be rewarding,” he said. “It was at that time I realized, through IT, I could make a tremendous difference for many people in bigger ways than I ever thought possible and still manage to earn a living at it.”
Today, Johnson owns his own company, Couri Technology, in Westminster, Md.
Sandra Daniels, associate professor of IT at New River Community College in Dublin, Va., made several stops before reaching her career destination.
“I had been an elementary teacher, an insurance adjustor, an employment company manager and a few other things,” Daniels said. “I ended up where I am because I took advantage of each opportunity as I found it. Every job contributed to my understanding of business and technology. Each job helped me develop my people skills.”
Although there’s clearly no single path that every newbie looking to break into IT needs to follow, there are some characteristics and traits the IT professional will encounter on the career path. If education has its Three R’s, students interested in technology careers must master the Four P’s: passion, preparation, patience and, for the IT worker of the 21st century, people skills.
Computer, Tech Jobs in High Demand
In today’s high schools, colleges and training centers, there’s another “P” that instructors must overcome: perception. Many people incorrectly assume technology is a dead-end career. But in reality, technology is the most important factor driving the global economy, and its importance will continue to grow.
Overall, IT employment in the United States climbed a little more than 4 percent in 2006. More than 3.6 million people work in IT. Technology is at the forefront of several job categories projected to see significant growth in the next seven to 10 years. In fact, computer-related occupations account for five of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only health care, with 12 occupations, holds more spots in the top 20 list. The most in-demand computer jobs are:
- Network systems and data communications analysts (ranked No. 2).
- Computer software engineers/applications (No. 5).
- Computer software engineers/systems software (No. 8).
- Network and computer systems administrators (No. 11).
- Database administrators (No. 12).
There’s more good news on the horizon for the next generation of technology workers. Jobs in the information sector also are among the fastest-growing, including software publishers; Internet publishing and broadcasting; and Internet service providers, Web search portals and data-processing services. Employment in these industries is expected to grow by 67.6 percent, 43.5 percent and 27.8 percent, respectively.
The information sector also includes telecommunications and broadcasting. Increased demand for residential and business land-line and wireless services, cable service, high-speed Internet connections and software will fuel job growth among these industries.
Yet, despite these positive trends, many IT instructors say they still must convince many students that technology offers opportunities for a rewarding career.
“We’re still faced with the obstacle that many students think these jobs have gone overseas,” said Clyde Cox, professor of computers and internetworking technologies at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. “We’re overcoming that by telling them that the jobs we are preparing them for are not the jobs that are being outsourced. We’re preparing them for the jobs that businesses of all sizes need.”
Scott Horan, resource teacher and IT internship coordinator for Jefferson County Schools in Louisville, Ky., agrees.
“We just had a 550-seat repair center open up for BestBuy in Louisville,” Horan said. “If you’re looking for hands-on stuff on-site, you can’t do that from India.” One way the College of DuPage turns around misperceptions about IT as a career is through an introductory class on how to build and repair a personal computer.
“I ask them why anyone would want to fix a PC when you can buy a new one for a few hundred dollars,” Cox said. “They finally realize that the investment is not in the physical PC but in all the applications and data the PC allows you to create. What business or industry doesn’t use computers? This is everyday, mainstream stuff that’s needed by every business and industry. The next step is getting them to understand how computers communicate in a network, and from there, why security of computers and networks is so important. When they leave the class, they realize there is a need and a demand for these skills.”
Charles Willard, career cluster manager for IT in the Department of Education to Careers for the Chicago Public Schools system, said his students respond to the visual aspects of technology.
“They see technology as a viable career choice when it relates to things they can touch and feel,” Willard said. “They know that technology touches music, video, Disney-like graphics and gaming. It whets their appetite and gets them to the table. Kids today are very visual-oriented. The Flash gets them.”
Another challenge IT instructors have is getting their students to realize that a career in technology doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be working for a tech-product manufacturer or solution product. In fact, more often than not, they’ll be holding a technology job in another industry.
“Everything has technology — the local hospital, the bank, the advertising agency,” said Salvador Contes Jr., director of instructional technology, professional development at Brooklyn Technical High School. “We try to show that to the teachers and the students, but it’s a challenging issue for us.”
Once you’re convinced an IT career is right for you, what’s the best way to prepare? The consensus among IT professionals now in the business is to combine education and a foundation-level professional certification, with a broad array of experiences mixed in.
Contes said students need to constantly strive for more education.
“That’s the biggest part to get across but also the hardest part to get across to students: Students need to seize opportunities when they come around,” he said. “If you want to be a game designer, don’t spend all your time playing games. Find a niche that may be related, for example, as a graphics designer for the school newspaper, yearbook or Web site.”
Patrick Brown, network analyst for the Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond, Ky., agrees. “Not everything that you learn about computers or networking is going to come from a book or sitting in a classroom,” he said. “Try to get as much hands-on experience as you can. See if your school offers a co-op program where you can get some experience.”
Daniels recommends students try to get a feel for multiple types of IT career opportunities.
“Sample as many facets of IT as you can through college study, interviewing IT workers and reading trade journals,” she said. “And get experience through volunteering, job shadowing, se