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Almost everyone has thrown up their hands in frustration after what feels like a million failed attempts to log onto their computer or more than an hour wrestling with a router to set up a home network. When you reach for the phone or keyboard to seek assistance, and maybe a little peace of mind, the person who answers on the other end is typically a computer support specialist. These tech savants work in a variety of settings – from traditional offices to universities to call centers – but the primary goal of the men and women who field often frantic pleas for help from users with computer issues is always the same: to provide the assistance they need in a friendly and effective manner. "We need to make sure we know how to diagnose their issues and do it quickly," says Guido Diaz, senior technical support specialist at Florida International University. "Customer relations and troubleshooting are very important." Considering the number of phone calls, face-to-face meetings, emails and, in some cases, chats they engage in on a daily basis, people in this line of work must exhibit excellent communication skills. They need to ask users the right questions to pinpoint the issue, find a solution and then guide them step by step through the fix. Computer support specialists help with log-in difficulties, operating system and software malfunctions and some even need to pull out a screwdriver to open up a laptop or PC.
Instead of responding to general requests for assistance, another segment of computer support specialists hone in on network matters. Referred to as computer network support specialists, these professionals receive their fair share of distressed phone calls and emails, but they often revolve around network problems and come from employees within their workplace rather than customers or the public. Aside from responding to and solving issues in a timely manner, network support specialists troubleshoot an organization's network computer system to ferret out potential problems and provide regular maintenance to ensure all its components function properly.
As organizations upgrade outdated hardware, software and network equipment and require more experienced, knowledgeable professionals to respond to questions from users, computer support specialists will remain an in-demand job. The one blemish on this industry's otherwise stellar job outlook: The recent rise in cloud computing could increase computer specialists' productivity, therefore reducing the number that organizations need to employ. Even so, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 17 percent employment growth for computer support specialists between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than the average of all occupations. The BLS projects that 123,000 new jobs will be created during this period in an industry that already boasts approximately 722,400 professionals.
The BLS reports that computer support specialists earned a median salary of $59,090 in 2012. The highest-paid 10 percent in the profession earned $96,850 that year, while the lowest-paid earned $34,930. The most highly compensated computer support specialists worked the following industries: mining and oil and gas extraction, pooled investments and funds, and satellite telecommunications. Look to the northeast and the San Francisco Bay Area for the highest-paying jobs, with Lowell, Mass., San Jose, Calif., and Salinas, Calif., topping the list.
While some employers may require a postsecondary degree or certification, Diaz says computer support specialists are typically assessed on their overall level of competency, technical acumen and customer service skills. "Proving that you can do the job" is most important, says Diaz, who has a degree in network engineering but considers himself self-taught in the nuances of his current job. He recommends being well-versed in operating systems and hardware components, having Microsoft Office training and pursuing an CompTIA A+ certification, which is earned by taking two exams that determine your general competency as a computer technician. For computer network support specialists, the requirements may be more stringent, and employers are likely to hire only applicants who possess at least a bachelor's degree.
This probably goes without saying, but technical skills are an absolute must to compete in the job market for this occupation. You must know computer hardware and software (including operating systems), understand login systems and email applications and have a solid grasp of network logistics, which is especially important for those seeking a career as a computer network support specialist. But merely possessing technical skills is not sufficient. Aspiring computer support specialists should also have a knack for problem-solving, and being an effective communicator – both written and verbal – is essential because Diaz says the onus is on you to ask the right questions to find out what is wrong. Successful computer support specialists can also juggle several issues at a time and tackle the various problems that might crop up.
Last updated by Nathan Hellman.