How to Break the Experience Barrier in IT Careers

In today’s economy, many young people and career changers are looking to information systems jobs as a stable place to set up shop.  The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) reports that employment in information systems management is projected to grow 17 percent from 2008-2018.  Even more appealing, the median salary for information systems management positions are well into six figures (BLS).  However, the BLS also reports that for information systems managers, “experience in a variety of technical fields is needed.”

New graduates of computer science-related programs may feel intimidated to compete against job applicants who have years of field experience. However, many of these applicants frequently do not have a degree or certifications to back up their field experience.  Employers, it seems, can take their pick when it comes to hiring for available information systems management positions. Recent graduates find themselves caught up in the age-old catch 22—“How do I get experience when it seems like all employers are requiring experience?”  Worry not! A degree in computer science, coupled with IT specializations or certifications, is still the best way to position yourself for your dream career.  Here are a few tips to break into the field:

IT personnel

Certifications

Today’s computer training market is saturated with educational programs promising to help you attain certifications which will, in turn, translate to more job prospects.  Alhtough industry certifications prove to employers that you have technical proficiency, employers are becoming increasingly skeptical of stand-alone certifications.  “Certifications are less meaningful than experience,” says BJ Havlik of SRC Technologies, an IT solutions contractor.  “It’s good to have both but I’d choose experience first.”  In many cases, all the certification proves is that a candidate can study and complete an exam.

A good certification program will not only prepare you to take a test, but provide you with some hands-on configuration experience—either with real equipment or realistic simulations.  Enrollment in these programs is certainly no magic bullet, but it may be a step in the right direction toward getting the experience you need. 

Start Small

If you are interested in pursuing a high-paying, prestigious network administrator position, just remember that nobody starts out on top.  Most companies are structured with a multi-tiered support system and hire lower-level positions externally.  These are the positions employers are more likely to bend on experience requirements, should they find the right candidate.  Don’t be disheartened if the first job offer you get is for an entry-level help desk position.  Employers like to promote from within—and today’s level-one help desk associate with a degree and certifications is tomorrow’s network administrator.  The field of IT has one of the fastest advancement tracks.

What if the employer only offers a six-month contract for a support position or project? Don’t shy away from it.  This is the employer’s opportunity to “try before they buy.”  If they like your performance, they are likely to retain you full-time.

If you’re having difficulty cracking the corporate ranks, there are other places to start.  Investigate your local temp employment agencies, and find out which ones handle technical positions.  Many large companies have seasonal needs, and will use temp agencies to recruit capable extra hands.  Once in the door, temporary workers can impress employers and find potentially long-term jobs.

One more often-overlooked place to start is inside your local computer support scene.  Almost every community has an independent computer store that services computers and networks in-house and on-site.  They are typically not as stringent in hiring requirements, and the experience gained in this type of environment is absolutely invaluable.  Patrick Gray, manager of Cyberworks in Green Bay, seeks value in personal experience.  “For us, we’re looking for people that are passionate about computers and technology and IT in general, not just if they have a degree,” says Gray.  “IT is definitely a growing field, and there’s no shortage of need for someone with technical aptitude.” Scavenge your local newspaper and Craigslist to see what opportunities lie right in your neighborhood.  Some of these shops will even sub-contract to A+ certified workers on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Volunteer

Virtually every non-profit business, homeless shelter, church, food pantry, and charity has computers and network equipment.  All too often, these organizations find themselves long on issues and short on support.  Regularly volunteering your time to support these organizations not only benefits your community; it provides you with an opportunity to enhance your resume.  Mike LeMay, General Manager of Q90 FM Christian radio station of Green Bay, has firsthand of these types of relationships.  “We have a young man who is really smart in IT.  He’s a quick learner but never pursued the degree he needed.  He came to us four years ago to volunteer because he knew he didn’t have the resume,” relates LeMay.  “He’s now a full-time employee and he’s really done a great job.  We could never afford to pay someone six figures like some of the people in the field might make.  It’s a tremendous benefit to us, but it’s really helped him build his corporate resume.  It’s my goal to get him to a place where he could walk into a large company and get a high-paying job.  If someone were to call me today, I’d give him a glowing recommendation.”

Do It Yourself

Unlike many careers, IT professionals have the unique opportunity to practice his or her craft at home.  Networking equipment and computers are upgraded so frequently that businesses, schools, and consumers often give away outdated equipment.  Scavenging used equipment can provide great material for practice and experimentation.  Additionally, free open source operating systems, router firmware, and security software are readily available for your use.  Take advantage of all the free materials you can get your hands on without the fear of damaging an expensive investment.  Once you’re comfortable with basic configurations on your own equipment, expand to your friends and neighbors.  Upgrade the antivirus program on your neighbor’s PC.  Set up a wireless router for your aunt’s hair salon.  Practice your craft wherever you can—and remember to document the technologies you’ve used.  Patrick Gray agrees.  “Primarily, I’m looking to see if the person has worked on computers for themselves, their friends, their families. I give them the opportunity to talk about the things that they have a passion about, what they’re excited about and what they love.  I want to hear that outside of the professional environment they’re doing something with technology. I look to see if their eyes light up when they talk about the computer they built six months ago.”

Spell it Out

When it comes to crafting your IT resume, remember to be specific with how you communicate your background.  Have you installed Linux?  Configured DHCP?  Managed a Cisco switch?  Include a ‘Past Experience’ section and itemize specific technologies you have used.  No need to go into great depth—save this for an interview question.  The fact of the matter is, some hiring managers scan resumes for keywords; others use software that does the same.  The more industry buzzwords you can honestly place on your resume, the more likely you’ll be to seal the deal.

You may not have the wealth of experience under your belt that other job candidates have.  But remember, experience is only one attribute that today’s IT employer is looking for.  If you demonstrate professionalism in appearance and communication skills, provide a degree coupled with industry certifications, and a can-do attitude, following the steps above will assist you in knocking down that experience barrier. According to BJ Havlik, attitude is everything.  “First time job seekers in information technology should sell themselves on attitude and aptitude, which are the first two things I look for before education and experience.  If they have the attitude and the mindset to get the job done, I’d hire them before someone that has years of experience.”

 

Sources:

"Computer and Information Systems Managers." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 17 Dec. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2010. <http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos258.htm>.

Computer and Information Systems Managers." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 14 May 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes113021.htm>.

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