A cabinetmaker in business since 1986, Paul Downs expertly handles almost all the tools in his workshop. But in a 2010 New York Times blog post, he admitted there are eight key tools that flummox him: his business computers. To keep his four Macs and four PCs operating smoothly while running up-to-date programs that meet his needs, Downs requires the help of an information technology (IT) support professional.
IT support professionals are thoroughly knowledgeable about all aspects of computing, and can effectively communicate and work with people using computer technology.
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Help desk technicians assist individuals with day-to-day computer use, including installation, maintenance and troubleshooting of software, hardware, networking, and other aspects of personal computing.
As the first-tier level of support, help desk techs answer telephone calls and electronic messages from people experiencing issues with the operation of one or more computers. They may be employed by a private enterprise and serve specifically the employees of the company, which requires deep familiarity with the company's chosen operating systems and any proprietary software applications.
Alternatively, help desk techs may be employed at a consumer call center with specialized troubleshooting goals. Occasionally, help desk techs run remote diagnostic tools to detect the trouble, but often their job is to listen carefully, ask precise questions, and determine the nature of the issue from the user's responses.
When acting as computer support specialists, help desk techs respond to requests for assistance by visiting the location of the computer about which the request was made. They may run diagnostic software, troubleshoot hardware connections, or demonstrate the appropriate use of software programs. Similar to phone-and-email-based help desk techs, support personnel in the field may be employed internally by a particular company or may be available to the consumer world at large.
Technical support specialists, also known as computer support specialists, provide direct assistance to computer and network users, often in support of specific pieces of hardware or software packages.
Like help desk techs, support specialists may be based in a call center, where they handle cases escalated by the first tier of help desk techs. These cases often require more technical knowledge or expertise than is found at the help desk level. Alternatively, tech support experts may be deployed to a location to work directly with a user and their equipment.
Some tech support specialists operate as private contractors, performing light repair and system diagnostics at a brick-and-mortar storefront location, or making house calls to work with customers.
Companies with extensive computer use among employees will frequently keep one or more tech support specialist positions on staff. In this environment, tech support specialists may be referred to as help desk operators. In larger companies, the help desk may be administered by a senior technical officer who manages assistance requests and dispatches tech support specialists according to their availability.
Computer repair technicians are the "auto mechanics" of computer systems. They are skilled professionals who are familiar with the use of physical and software diagnostic tools, and are able to follow a well-rehearsed troubleshooting protocol in order to discover the source of a problem, and make the appropriate repair.
In many cases, computer repair techs are employed by manufacturers to meet the obligations set by service contracts. They might install computer equipment when it arrives at the client's business, or follow up with subsequent visits for preventative maintenance. In most cases, one technician in an organization is always on call in case any part of the system fails. These professionals often perform diagnostic tests with specialized equipment to determine the nature and extent of the problem at hand.
They are usually equipped to handle a variety of repairs: replacing hardware components such as network and video cards and circuit boards; swapping out peripherals; rewiring internal components and more. If a tech is unable to repair a machine in the field, he or she might take it back to his or her employer's home office for further analysis or more complicated repairs.
Computer repair techs might also work in specialized repair shops, for large companies taking care of in-house repair and maintenance, as individual contractors or in other settings. Job descriptions can also vary, but in general, all computer repair technicians need to be comfortable tackling the following tasks:
- Dealing with and replacing defective parts
- Answering questions and finding solutions for people learning how to use a computer or that are adjusting to an unfamiliar system
- Swapping out computer subsystems like hard drives, adapters and other components
- Being available during weekend, holiday or evening hours to keep all sorts of computer systems running
- Computer Technician Training
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The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Information Network classifies information technology as a field best suited for people who like to spearhead projects, make decisions that are sometimes risky, are detail-oriented and skilled at working with data, and who can both think through problems and use tools and machines.
The College Board reports that most information technology programs lead to an associate's or bachelor's degree, and include courses such as:
- Computer networking
- C++ programming
- Professional and technical communications
- Web technologies
These and other classes can be categorized according to the "five pillars" of an undergraduate IT curriculum named in the Association for Computing Machinery and IEEE Computer Society's 2008 IT curriculum guidelines: programming, networking, human/computer interaction, databases and Web systems.
The variety of coursework needed to earn an IT degree is necessary because of the diverse tasks that an IT professional might be called on to do -- everything from picking out the right printers for an organization to updating its website to making sure that its computers are secure from hackers. That said, some schools offer specialized programs that prepare students to work in specific industries or areas of IT, such as healthcare or database management.
IT specialist degree levels and formats
It's possible to earn an IT degree at the associate, bachelor's or even master's level through a traditional on-campus program, an online program or through mixed online and in-person classes. Online programs in IT are worth considering because they offer flexibility in terms of when and where students do their coursework, allowing them to raise a family or work full-time while acquiring new knowledge and skills.
Mid-career workers looking to enhance their chances of a promotion or boost job security might consider information technology training to prepare for the modern economy. Those just entering the workforce might get information technology training to qualify for what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich labels "digital technician" jobs. Describing these careers to the New York Times, Reich said, "Most of them will not be pure technology jobs, designing computer software and hardware products, but they will involve applying computing and technology-related skills to every industry."
According to a report by the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), 84 percent of help desk techs employed in the United States in 2010 had attended at least some college, with 18 percent holding associate degrees and 29 percent having completed a bachelor's. Computer science and related fields are the most likely courses of study to prepare a student for a career as a help desk tech, although nearly any degree can suffice if a candidate has sufficient expertise with computer hardware and software.
Industry certifications are also available to aid help desk techs in landing a job. Credentials that are well-regarded by industry leaders can often increase an applicant's value in the eyes of a desirable employer, but aptitude, education and industry experience will serve an aspiring help desk technician just fine.
Computer support positions with a high level of responsibility may require a bachelor's degree or higher in computer science, information systems, or computer engineering, but many paths exist to get into the technical support field. An associate degree with a focus on computer science is sufficient for many technical support specialist positions, and employers will often accept applicants with a bachelor's degree in any field if they prove the necessary technical expertise.
Communication abilities are also a plus for aspiring technical support specialists. Informing users about the nature of their issue and how to stop it from happening again is an important part of effective tech support, and breaking technical terms and jargon down into plain speaking might take a little practice. What's more, much of the communication between technical support specialists and employers or clients will take place electronically, so the ability to write clear and concise email messages can really come in handy.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), falling prices and new trends in computer manufacturing have radically changed the way that major employers budget for computer repair. Failing components often merit replacement instead of fixing, making some traditional repair jobs obsolete. However, a growing number of specialty roles still require professionals who can combine targeted computer repair training with industry expertise and certifications.
For instance, the exploding number of automatic teller machines across the country remain in service because of a growing force of on-site repair technicians who must combat the combined forces of weather, vandalism and everyday use. Likewise, point-of-sale systems contain highly secure components that must pass certification against strict banking industry standards. Office systems often require more complex networking and display setups than home computers, encouraging companies to explore on-site repair options whenever solutions cost less than full replacements.
What skills can be learned in computer support courses?
With computer support training, recent graduates and established professionals alike can explore opportunities in a growing industry. Depending on the focus of the studies, computer support courses may teach students a variety of skills:
- Operating systems: The Microsoft Windows family contains the most widely used operating systems on the market today, which makes close knowledge of them important for support personnel. In enterprise environments, support pros may work with diverse OS platforms, including open source technologies
- Web design and development: Computer support courses offer basic knowledge of HTML, XHTML, CSS, Web security and e-commerce concepts to provide well-rounded training to students
- Database technology and network infrastructure: Enterprise computer support training typically contains at least some emphasis on relational database management systems, or RDBMS, and network components such as DNS and DHCP
Many other types of computer support training also exist, such as hardware repair and wireless networking. Targeted coursework can prepare aspiring techs to seek their path in the IT world.
Professional certifications can help applicants through the hiring process, but are often required only for highly specialized roles in a vast support structure. Many technical support specialist positions will feature on-the-job training, which can last anywhere from one week to a full year. Average training time is about three months.
The BLS suggests that employers often look for techs with an associate degree in electronics technology or similar training from a vocational school, the military, or IT vendors. After completing computer repair training programs, students can qualify for jobs as in-house technicians or outsourced consultants. The highly specialized nature of computer repair has forced all but the largest of companies to rely on independent service providers to handle routine maintenance and emergency calls. Custom hardware vendors and value-added resellers also handle on-site repairs, dispatching systems engineers to handle more complex tasks. Though highly compensated computer repair professionals often work in the field, entry-level jobs have cropped up in a variety of retail storefronts offering basic repairs and troubleshooting for consumer systems.
Computer repair training can help professionals with security backgrounds gain the technical skills necessary to transition into less stressful work involving financial industry technology. For instance, technicians working around ATMs and merchant tools must often pass background checks and qualify for professional bonds and liability insurance policies. Likewise, repair technicians working in hospitals must earn specialized certifications for medical technology while mastering industry privacy and security practices.
Many career centers, colleges, and universities offer computer repair training programs as offshoots of broader help desk certification plans. Understanding a computer's operating system and common networking issues can help field technicians rule out software problems before embarking on time-consuming repairs. Experienced software troubleshooters can build upon their past experiences, completing hardware certification exams to supplement their skills.
What's the best course of training for those interested in computer repair?
Because IT support can be a competitive field, it makes sense to obtain formal computer repair training and certification. The College Board suggests employers often look for techs with an associate degree in electronics technology or similar training from a vocational school, the military or vendors.
Given the importance of computer technology in almost every area of contemporary life, it's not surprising that the BLS reports that demand for IT pros is high and that they are well-compensated.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that job opportunities for help desk technicians will increase faster than the average growth expected for all occupations. Consistent advancement of technology is cited as the reason for the rapid employment rise.
The report states that the best targets for aspiring help desk technicians are industries that rely most heavily on new technologies, including the following:
- Computer systems design
- Technical, management and scientific consulting
- Software publishing
- Data processing and hosting
- Health care and related services
Although some help desk technician positions that communicate with the customer base of certain products and services are sourced offshore, the domestic computer support industry is still strong. Businesses continue to employ on-site support specialists and help desk technicians, and domestically sourced technical support call centers are growing ever more popular with consumers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that job opportunities for technical support specialists will increase due to a reliance on complex technology as the main driver of employment growth in the field.
|Job Title||Projected 2012-2022 Growth|
|Computer User Support Specialists - U.S.||20%|
Industries that rely the most heavily on technology are expected to see the largest employment increases for technical support specialists. Here's a short list:
- Data processing
- Software publishing
- Computer systems design
- Hosting and related services
- Technical consulting
As record-keeping and delivery of medical services becomes more computerized, health care and related industries are also expected to experience higher demand for technical support specialists.
What kind of salary can technical support specialists expect?
Region and industry also have an effect on technical support specialist salaries, according to the BLS.
Investment pools and funds provided the highest mean annual salary by industry to technical support specialists. Investment companies can lose millions of dollars of business if their computers aren't in top form at all times. In contrast, the yearly mean salary for technical support specialists at elementary and secondary schools reflects the relatively relaxed IT environment in the primary education industry.
Like most careers, the earnings of computer repair techs depend on a number of factors including everything from employer to experience and region. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that a majority of computer techs are hourly employees
What does the job outlook look like for computer repair techs?
A quick search of Dice.com, a job search information source for those in IT careers, recently produced more than 20,000 nationwide job opportunities for those specializing in computer repair. Results for both part- and full- time positions came up, so it's likely that those who wish to become computer repair technicians will find a lot of flexibility in the field. Though many of these opportunities are scattered throughout the country, a higher concentration of jobs seem to be available in the following areas:
|Job Title||Projected 2012-2022 Growth|
|Helpers--Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Workers - U.S.||13%|
BLS data suggests that the best job candidates in this sector are those who are certified by vendors, and indicates those with formal training -- including two- or four-year degrees -- and repair experience will likely find the best prospects.
In order to augment traditional education accreditation from universities, colleges, and technical schools, candidates are encouraged to pursue and achieve IT certification from an industry-recognized association or vendor. In the field of IT support, one of the most highly acknowledged certifying bodies is the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). CompTIA offers a number of vendor-neutral certifications, including the CompTIA A+ designation which is possibly the most-recognized technical certification in the industry.
"Computer Support Specialists," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-support-specialists.htm
"Computer Repair jobs," Dice.com, April 17, 2015, https://www.dice.com/jobs?q=computer+repair&l=
"11-1199.09 -- Information Technology Project Managers," O*NET OnLine, April 17, 2015, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/15-1199.09
"15-1151.00 -- Computer User Support Specialists," O*NET OnLine, April 17, 2015, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/15-1151.00
"New Programs Aim to Lure Young Into Digital Jobs," The New York Times, December 20, 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/technology/21nerds.html?_r=0