Strata: Steppingstone to an IT Career

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The paradox appears on a regular basis in the business news headlines.

Unemployment in the United States jumped to double digits in October for the first time in more than a quarter century, reaching 10.2 percent.

Yet hiring managers continue to find it difficult to fill positions requiring certain high-tech skills.
According to the latest Yoh Index of Technology Wages, a poll of more than 9,000 hiring managers in more than 15 metropolitan areas across the U.S., companies continue to struggle to find workers with Java and .Net/C+ development skills, as well as IT security engineers, network engineers, software engineers, quality assurance professionals and project managers.

And the gap between tech job openings and qualified people to fill them appears to be growing, not shrinking.

Global IT research firm International Data Corporation (IDC) and Microsoft Corp. released a study in early October 2009 that suggests the IT industry will create 5.8 million new jobs over the next four years. That projected growth rate of 3 percent a year is more than three times as fast as the growth of total employment.

Now for paradox two.

Young people today are the most tech-savvy generation ever. Yet many continue to shun careers in high tech, even at a time when 21st-century employers desperately need new workers with technology skills.

Connecting these two groups is the challenge that will define the future. It’s a challenge that must be addressed with new solutions.

Strata Rolls Out
Last year, the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a trade association for the global IT industry, took a major step to address this challenge with the introduction of its CompTIA Strata certificate program.

Rather than focusing narrowly on specific computer applications, CompTIA Strata is designed to offer a broad introduction to technology — the core terminology, uses and types of technology deployed today. The exams do not certify technical skills, but demonstrate that an individual has knowledge of IT terms, equipment and functions.

Why the emphasis on broad, fundamental technology skills? There are two reasons.

First, the service technician, help desk, support role, which requires a broad set of basic skills, remains the best avenue to begin an IT career.

Second, employers of all sizes and across many industries have identified this job as one they are looking to fill immediately.

According to the latest Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Index and Skills Report, a survey of more than 1,400 CIOs from companies across the U.S., when asked which technical skill sets are most in demand in their IT departments, 64 percent of respondents cited desktop support. Help desk and technical support and networking are the two job areas experiencing the most growth, with 18 percent of the response each.

Get on the Information Superhighway
CompTIA Strata is designed to be an on ramp to a career in technology, something students or adult career changers can use to gauge their aptitude and interest for IT. With a basic understanding of PC and networking fundamentals, these individuals will have the confidence to pursue more advanced skills certifications and will have a credential to prove to prospective employers that they’re ready to enter the IT workforce.

“We’ve been looking for a level one technical course for a while, and this suits our needs as it’s vendor-neutral,” said Stuart Philip, IT curriculum leader at Highlands College, Jersey, U.K. “It provides a good all-round platform to more technical qualifications.”

The CompTIA Strata Fundamentals of IT Technology exam is designed to show that the successful candidate has the knowledge to identify and explain technology basics, including the characteristics and functions of laptops, desktops and smart phones. Individuals must be able to understand the functions of internal and external storage devices, such as CDs, DVDs, USBs and hard drives. The exam also covers green IT: Individuals will have to know how to use and dispose of equipment in an environmentally friendly way.

Topical Discussion
Topics covered in the exam include:
•    Technology and computer hardware basics (40 percent of exam content).
•    Compatibility issues and common errors (13 percent).
•    Software installation and functions (11 percent).
•    Security risks and prevention (16 percent).
•    Green IT and preventative maintenance (20 percent).

The CompTIA Strata IT Technology exam (FC0-U41) is a 60-minute test that includes 70 questions. A passing score of 70 percent or higher is required. Individuals who pass the exam will receive the CompTIA Strata certificate of completion.

The recommended number of hours needed to prepare for the exam varies based on each candidate’s existing level of knowledge and the type of exam prep they’re engaged in. For example, commercial training could be completed in four days. At the college level, about 48 hours of classroom or lab experience is the norm. For high school students, one semester of instruction (five hours per week for 18 to 19 weeks) is the recommended preparation time before sitting for the exam.

A second exam, CompTIA Strata IT Technology for Sales (FC0-TS1), is designed to show that successful candidates have the knowledge to engage a customer on a professional basis using proper communication skills, qualify the type of technology user, provide appropriate solutions based on a customer’s needs and coordinate with technical staff throughout the sales process.
This test assesses a candidate’s knowledge in areas related to ongoing customer care and engagement and ensuring proper customer satisfaction. This test is intended for candidates considering or currently in a technical sales role with the potential for future sales, project management or technical training.

Domains in the CompTIA Strata IT Technology for Sales exam include:
•    Technology and computer hardware basics (48 percent).
•    Compatibility issues and software compliance (16 percent).
•    Preventative maintenance and green IT (18 percent).
•    Sales and communication skills (18 percent).

The exam is a 60-minute test that includes 70 questions. A passing score of 70 percent or higher is required.

CompTIA Strata exams are delivered at Pearson VUE and Prometric testing centers around the world. Courseware is available from Axzo Press and Element K.

Employment Takeaway
For individuals, CompTIA Strata is a way to prove to employers or potential employers that they can handle an IT-related job. It’s also good preparation for CompTIA A+ or other advanced IT certifications.

For employers, CompTIA Strata can ensure that employees have baseline knowledge of computers and how to use them. This can help reduce unnecessary troubleshooting requests and increase the bandwidth of IT staff.

Now more than ever, companies value employees who can think strategically and communicate effectively, as well as those who possess strong business fundamentals. IT workers who understand how to use technology to meet business goals, and who can articulate this understanding, are golden in the eyes of employers.

A certificate such as CompTIA Strata makes an individual more marketable. Unless the employer is familiar with the school the job candidate attended or the organizations the candidate worked for, the hiring manager has no independent means of knowing how rigorous the program or experience is. When a job candidate comes to an employer with a recognized and accepted professional credential, it gives the employer more to go on.

For workers new to the employment market without a great deal of past experience, an industry-recognized credential puts the worker in a stronger position when looking for a job.

Individuals who are securing jobs in today’s tech workplace are equipped with greater versatility and a broader skill set than was required in the past. People who want to be in IT need an edge, a means of proving they can do the tasks assigned. CompTIA Strata is a step toward that proof.

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