In 1992, when Rebecca Williams began working as a paralegal, she had every intention of becoming a lawyer. But a friend who lauded the growing opportunities in information technology piqued her interest in the field.
Williams began taking on project management assignments with a company client that included shared communication applications, data repository, and database management. She eventually enrolled at the University of Detroit Mercy and completed an undergraduate degree in criminal justice in 2002.
But Williams was now torn between her longtime aspirations of a law career and her growing interest in IT. Researching the compensation in both fields yielded illuminating results: The starting salary one year after law school averaged $40,000 to $50,000. A person with a degree in computer information systems could expect mid-$60,000 to low-$70,000, depending on geographical location, experience, and position. Williams pursued a master’s in computer information systems management, which she completed in 2005.
Since then Williams has specialized in infrastructure and architecture, which encompasses networks and applications, information security, and project management. She is currently the SAP (systems, applications, and products) program manager for Tachi-S Engineering USA, a company based in Farmington Hills, Michigan, that contracts with a Japanese automaker and specializes in seat manufacturing as well as engineering and prototyping. Williams manages all problems and issues dealing with SAP, and communicates the needs of all business departments to Japanese developers (she is studying Japanese).
“I transitioned into IT because I saw opportunities for growth and because of my die-hard interests in business and technology,” says Williams, 40. “The major perks of my job are the travel, since the parent company is headquartered right outside of Tokyo, and the ability to work in teams.”
Even though most IT companies were not immune to budget cuts in last year’s recession, IT is still expected to be a hot area for job growth and innovation in 2010. Companies are increasingly becoming dependent on technology to manage their data, improve communications, and increase revenues. “Our Q1 hiring index indicates there will be more hiring than not,” says Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, a staffing firm for IT professionals. “The year 2010 will be the start of some initiatives such as infrastructure improvements, virtualization, and Web development since technology is more closely tied to revenue than it ever has been and will continue to be. As the economy rebounds, there’s demand for network and systems administration to help companies get up to speed.”
Demand and Job Growth
According to Jayson Noland, senior analyst of IT hardware for Robert W. Baird & Co., a financial services firm, IT is driven by a myriad of factors. “During the last few years there’s been more innovation and passion around consumer electronics. There’s also a lot of innovation in consumer mobility, whether it’s netbooks or smartphones. And in corporate America there are really strong trends around data storage and growth, and knowing what to do with that data.”
The Obama administration is also driving optimism surrounding IT. It has been pushing to install broadband in underserved communities and combine technology with education to prepare the next generation to more ably compete in the 21st century. In July, the broadband technology opportunities program, or BTOP, was created to support deployment of broadband infrastructure and to assist in the American Recovery Reinvestment Act’s objective of creating jobs. At press time, BTOP had already offered 66 awards worth about $300 million and planned to complete the first round of grants in March. Also, through the Department of Education’s Enhancing Education through Technology Recovery Plan, the Recovery Act is providing up to $650 million to enhance student academic achievement through the use of technology.
The Hot Areas
Though the IT field is broad, job growth will be focused in select areas. At least 943,000 jobs are projected between 2008 and 2018 just between the computer systems design sector and the computer network, systems, and database administrators sector. Under the computer systems design sector, wage and salary employment is expected to grow 45% between 2008 and 2018, placing it among the top five industries with the greatest job growth. Employment of network and computer systems administrators is expected to increase by 23%, and employment of database administrators is expected to grow by 20%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Other areas driving job growth include information security (because of an increasing number of sophisticated cyber attacks), networking (because of investments in new technologies), virtualization (reducing the number of physical computer servers and using “virtual” systems instead), database management (organizing, analyzing, and storing increasing quantities of data), Web development, network engineering, and project management.
Although many IT jobs require specialized skills, a good first position is help desk technician, suggests Steven Ostrowski, director of corporate communications for CompTIA, a nonprofit IT trade association. “It’s the best way to get your foot in the door for a technology career, because it gives you a flavor for all kinds of different things and you can grow your career from there.”
Another benefit of IT is that it interlinks with other industries, thereby expanding job opportunities. You can combine your interests in music, finance, government, or education with IT and develop a career that works for you. Pairing IT with experience from disciplines such as marketing, engineering, finance, or sales can make you more marketable and increase your job prospects.
“Technology skills are highly transferable across various businesses and industries,” notes Noland. This includes other growth industries such as healthcare (for e-prescriptions and electronic health records) and biotechnology. “All industries, inside and outside the U.S, have an IT department and a need for tech-savvy staff. This includes large enterprise, small businesses, even federal, state, and local government,” he says.
Aside from technical skills, Ostrowski comments that it is critical to have good verbal communication skills, because “it’s no longer enough to know how to fix computers and walk away. You have to communicate in layman’s terms what you did to avoid the problem.” Understanding how the business functions and uses technology to service customers and increase revenue is also vital.
Education, Training, Skills
Though some employers will still accept a candidate with an associate degree, having a bachelor’s degree in either computer science or engineering will mean greater job security and a higher salary. Working in IT, however, is a “lifelong learning process,” Ostrowski stresses. Because technology evolves rapidly, the skills in demand today may not be relevant tomorrow, so keeping your skills up to date with certifications in your respective area is critical. “Don’t think if you take one class, get one degree, or pass one industry certification that that’s going to be enough for the long haul,” he says. “To keep current, take noncredit courses at community colleges, participate in organizations, and attend industry events.”
If you’re looking to transition into IT, the best route is to get your degree and apply for an internship. IT employees wear many hats, so regardless of the area you pursue, be sure to acquire a general understanding of how the network keeps the business running smoothly.
To begin your job search, visit www.indeed.com, www.ITjobs.net, www.techcareers.com, and www.dice.com. The last three sites are specific to IT and also offer career advice. Salaries will, of course, vary depending on job title, location, education, and certification, and whether you work in the public or private sector, but according to Willmer, IT salaries are slightly down overall.
For an entry-level position such as help desk technician, the national average salary is $51,624.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual wages for network and computer systems administrators as of May 2008 were in the mid-$60,000s. Salaries for specialized or management positions range between $63,000 and $117,000.