Pros and Cons of Becoming a Computer Networking Specialist
Computer networking specialists often work in the information technology (IT) department of an organization alongside other IT staff members to maintain and troubleshoot computer networks and assist users who encounter network-related issues. To help you determine if becoming a computer networking specialist is the right career for you, consider the following pros and cons.
|Pros of a Computer Networking Specialist Career|
|Solid earning potential (median salary of about $62,000 in 2014)*|
|High employment growth for support specialists in computer systems design firms (49% from 2012-2022)*|
|Multiple education levels could prepare you for the job (associate's degree, bachelor's degree, postsecondary courses)*|
|Variety of advancement opportunities (network administrator, computer support manager)*|
|On-the-job training often provided*|
|Cons of a Computer Networking Specialist Career|
|Unpredictable hours (may have to be 'on call' around the clock)*|
|Possibility of high stress situations (network specialists may have to get networks repaired very quickly)*|
|Need for continuing education, possibly at your own expense*|
|May have to sit at a computer for extended periods of time, which can increase the risk of back strains, wrist injuries and eye strains**|
Sources: * U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET Online.
A computer networking specialist makes sure that an organization's computer network runs smoothly and works quickly to solve any issues that threaten to bring the network down. They may also work one-on-one with network users to troubleshoot their computers or to train them in using the network. Many organizations are deeply dependent on their network to keep employees connected with clients and with each other, which makes network specialists vital to keep everything running. Because of this, you may find yourself being called in to work at odd hours to fix the network if it goes down. Depending on the severity of the break, these situations may be high in stress since the organization is relying on you to get the network up and running again as soon as possible.
Much of your work is done at a computer, meaning you'll probably be sitting for extended periods of time. Working with people can be demanding, too, especially when they're frustrated with the state of the network.
Salary and Job Outlook
In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median salary for computer networking specialists was approximately $62,000. The BLS projected that computer network specialists would experience an 7% increase in jobs between 2012 and 2022, which was slower than the average for all occupations. However, the BLS projected a 49% increase in employment for support specialists who work for computer systems design firms.
What Are the Requirements?
Education and Skills
You can obtain computer network training from certificate programs, associate's degree programs or bachelor's degree programs. An associate's program in networking may include courses on local area networks, configuring routers and network security. Some schools may allow you to start with a certificate program and give you the option to continue in an associate's degree program if you want. A bachelor's degree program in networking can allow you to gain specialized knowledge in a particular area of networking; some concentrations you may be able to choose from include network management, security and systems integration. No matter which education path you choose, you'll probably need to continue your education (through courses, conferences, seminars and training programs) during your career to keep up with the rapid changes that happen in the IT field.
Computer networking specialists need to be able to think quickly and respond appropriately under pressure. The ability to clearly convey technical information to people who have no IT background is also important, since you may be working with users fairly often. Solid writing skills may also be necessary if you need to respond to people through e-mail or submit written reports to your superiors.
What Employees Are Looking For
Job postings show that employers are looking for organized, experienced employees who have industry certifications and would be able to work with machines and end-users. While there are some employers who are happy with field experience and don't care whether you have a degree or not, most are looking for applicants with a postsecondary degree of some kind. Below are some job postings that were live on the Internet in April 2012.
- A healthcare company in Minnesota is looking for a network specialist to maintain network servers and equipment, monitor the network's performance and troubleshoot problems. Applicants should have either an associate's degree in computer science or a technical certification and have experience working with network troubleshooting.
- An international company is looking for a network specialist to install hardware and software, troubleshoot PCs and act as a contact person for all computer-related issues. Candidates may be asked to travel to assist with projects at remote locations. No particular education or experience requirements were listed.
- A company in New York was seeking a network specialist with CISCO product experience and at least four years of experience with IP router/switches networks. This specialist would be responsible for evaluating and reviewing network architecture, determining migration solutions and implementing new processes on switches and routers. Applicants with a bachelor's degree in an IT field and advanced CISCO certification were preferred.
- An IT service provider in Missouri advertised for a friendly and motivated network specialist. Applicants are required to have a security, CISCO or Microsoft certification. Candidates who have experience with TCP/IP routing, Microsoft Server and Microsoft Exchange would be preferred.
- A university in Indiana was seeking a network specialist to install and maintain servers and operating systems. Applicants need a bachelor's degree in IT, computer science or a related field, as well as two years of experience with server maintenance. All candidates need to have Linux/UNIX administration experience to be considered for the position.
Standing Out in the Field
You'll want to gain some experience while you're pursuing postsecondary education in networking. In addition to pursuing an internship, you could contact your school's IT department to see if you can volunteer or even shadow one of its staff members. Consider contacting local IT providers or PC repair businesses to see if they would be willing to take you on as an unpaid intern. You might also contact small local businesses to see if you can contract with them on an as-needed basis or advertise your services to individuals who want to set up a network for their home office.
Joining the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) may also give you an edge; not only would you have access to additional learning resources, but ACM also has a career and job center you could use. Usenix is another association that offers learning conferences throughout the year, student programs, a job board and other benefits. Professional associations and organizations usually don't cost a whole lot to join (typically under $200 per year) and may give you an advantage in the job market.
Many hardware and software companies offer certifications that can give you an edge over the competition. Degree programs will often provide the training you need to be prepared to take a handful of certification exams, but it depends on the program. Many community colleges offer certification preparation courses, but you can visit a vendor's website to find local and online classes as well as exam locations and dates. As a network specialist, some of the certifications that you may want to check out include Network+, Cisco Certified Network Associate, Linux Professional Institute Certification and Cisco Certified Network Professional.
Other Careers to Consider
Help Desk Technician
If you want to work with people and computers, but you're not sure if you want to work with networks all of the time, then consider becoming a help desk technician. These technicians troubleshoot the problems a user is having with a machine and train users how to use software programs. Education requirements are similar to network specialists; you'll usually need to complete some postsecondary courses or get an associate's degree for this job. The pay is also similar to network specialists, as Salary.com reported that help desk support workers earned a median salary of approximately $46,000 in 2012.
If you like the thought of working with networks, but you're looking for a job with a higher salary, you may be interested in a network administration career. Network administrators determine the networking needs of a business and monitor the network system to figure out what can be done better. You'll still spend time installing and fixing networks, but much of your focus is on the overall operation of the network, rather than solving the minor problems that may cause a network to crash. The BLS found that network and computer systems administrators earned a yearly median income of about $71,000 in 2011. However, although network administrators earn significantly more than network specialists, you'll need to be prepared to obtain at least a bachelor's degree. Network administrators were expected to see a 28% increase in jobs between 2010 and 2020, which was much faster than the average for all occupations.