By Kaitlin Louie
Computer support specialists and technicians assist individuals and organizations in their use of computer hardware and software. They work in a variety of industries, including information technology, finance, health care, education, and telecommunications. Computer support specialists are generally divided into two different roles—tech support specialists and help-desk technicians. Technical support specialists support an organization’s information technology (IT) department by helping other IT staff members address computer and system network problems. Help-desk technicians assist customers and/or non-IT staff in troubleshooting computer hardware and software difficulties. The work of computer support specialists is crucial to the daily function and performance of many different companies, which contributes to their projected national employment growth rate of 18 percent between the years 2010 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012).
Depending on their specialty and employer, computer support specialists interact on a daily basis with fellow IT employees, non-IT staff, and/or customers who need help with their computers. Their work environment varies according to their company and specific role, and can range from a corporate office to a client’s home.
As computer support specialist positions are available at many different companies, the path to this occupation varies according to one’s desired field within computers and/or information science. Some companies require their computer support specialists to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as information technology, while other positions may only require an associate degree, some college coursework, or a certain amount of professional technical experience.
If interested in a career as a computer support specialist, the following questions are helpful to consider and investigate:
- How does one become a computer support specialist?
- What computer support specialist degree programs are available?
- What IT certifications are available to computer support specialists, and how are they helpful?
- What are the key responsibilities for computer support specialists?
- What tools and technology do computer support specialists typically use?
- What skills are essential for computer support specialist jobs?
- What is the typical job environment for computer support specialists?
- What associations are beneficial for computer support specialists to join?
- What continuing education and career advancement opportunities do computer support technicians have?
- What is the employment outlook for computer support specialists?
- What is the average computer support specialist salary nationally?
- What are some related careers?
How does one become a computer support specialist?
While the path to become a computer support specialist varies according to the specific industry, company and other factors, it can generally be summarized by the following steps:
- Research the requirements to enter into one’s desired field within computer information science and/or tech support.
- Enroll in a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree program in computer information science, information technology or another relevant field.
- Apply for an entry-level computer support position in one’s field of interest.
- Advance in one’s career by gaining professional experience, completing on-the-job training, and taking on more complex technical issues.
What computer support specialist degree programs are available?
Computer support specialist associate degrees, certificates, and diplomas are available at community colleges, technical schools, and vocational schools. Individuals who earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in a related field such as computer information science, engineering or information technology (IT) may also qualify for more technical computer support specialist positions. Some computer support specialist programs also have courses that help prepare their students to take professional certification exams from companies like CompTIA, Cisco and Microsoft.
Due to the wide variety of computer support specialist positions, educational requirements vary by employer. For example, while some companies may require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree with a few years of professional experience, other employers might only require some computer knowledge and experience for less advanced computer support positions. IT and computer technology certifications may also add to candidates’ educational qualifications.
Bachelor’s degrees typically take four years to complete, while associate degrees generally take two years. Candidates who are interested in computer support should generally take computer technician courses or classes in a relevant field such as information technology, computer science, network security and operating systems. Examples of coursework incorporated in these degree programs include:
- Introduction to Computers—the principles and operations that are essential to using computers both as solo devices and as part of a larger system network. The fundamentals of computer hardware and software and the basics of data backup, software downloads and updates, computer system configuration, virus protection and more.
- Operating Systems—an introduction to different computer operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and UNIX. How to install, manage, update and troubleshoot different operating systems.
- Computer Network Fundamentals—structure, function, and elements of computer networks, including the Internet, local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs). How to reduce errors and congestion in these networks, establish secure connections and manage network addresses.
- Information Security—the principles and methods of securing important company information. How to create and maintain security systems and respond to security threats or breaches. Downloading, implementing and updating various computer and network security measures.
- Computer Applications—how to use common computer applications, including Microsoft Office, email applications, database management applications and more.
In addition to candidates’ academic preparation, most computer support technicians must undergo training with their employer, which typically lasts several months. Once employed, computer support specialists should stay up-to-date with the latest computer systems and technologies, and thus continuing education courses may be helpful for them.
What IT certifications are available to computer support specialists, and how are they helpful?
Professional certifications can enhance one’s credentials and may qualify one for employment or career advancement. Organizations such as CompTIA, Microsoft, Cisco, and Red Hat offer certifications for IT employees so that they can show their competency in certain technological fields. Examples of some popular IT certifications include:
- The CompTIA A+ certification confirms entry-level IT employees’ competence in basic network communications, installations and maintenance of computer hardware.
- Microsoft’s Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) and Technology Associate (MTA) certifications are for entry-level IT professionals, and indicates that an individual possesses fundamental knowledge of specific Microsoft products. In addition, individuals may pursue Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certifications in one or more Microsoft Office products.
- Cisco’s Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) and Certified Technician (CCT) certifications, which candidates can receive in routing and switching, design, network security, and wireless, among other fields, validate a candidate’s ability to install, manage, protect and troubleshoot small branch networks.
Recertification is typically required every one to three years, depending on the certifying organization. As IT professionals gain more work experience and/or take more continuing education courses, they may qualify for more advanced certifications, such as the CompTIA Network+ and Microsoft’s MCSE or MCTS certifications. Due to the constantly advancing field of computers and network technology, recertification is typically necessary for individuals who want to keep their certifications relevant. Recertification often requires candidates to take a certain number of continuing education courses, pass a recertification exam, and/or obtain a certain number of years of professional IT experience.
What are the key responsibilities for the computer support specialist?
Technical support specialists generally work in organizations’ IT departments, supporting IT staff in their management of computer and network systems. Technical support specialists help companies efficiently address IT and network communications problems, and usually work under network and computer systems administrators. Computer support specialists may be employed in the IT department of a company, or at a separate company that provides services to other organizations. The typical responsibilities of technical support specialists include the following:
- Monitoring and testing network and computer systems.
- Setting up computer equipment and software installations for employees.
- Completing minor repairs to computer hardware and troubleshooting computer software problems.
- Performing maintenance at intervals to make sure that networks function correctly.
- Maintaining internet systems, local area networks, and wide area networks, and providing support for network problems.
- Keeping records of network communication exchanges, computer system help requests, and installation and troubleshooting activities.
Help-desk technicians provide technical and computer assistance to non-IT staff and customers. They often must respond to phone, email, and chat requests from customers and/or non-technical employees, and generally perform the following duties:
- Responding to calls and email requests for computer assistance within a company or from customers.
- Assisting individuals who have problems with computer hardware, software or networks by asking them to describe the problem and walking customers through potential solutions.
- Train people in the use of computer hardware and software, including how to use printers, email programs, and various software applications.
- Keeping track of pending and completed computer help-desk requests in order to monitor the performance of a company’s product (for example, software or hardware), or the overall health of a company’s computer and network systems.
What tools and technology do computer support specialists typically use?
Computer support specialists routinely use tools and technology that help them set up, maintain, and troubleshoot various computer and network systems. According to O*Net, the equipment and software that computer support specialists use may include:
- Computer hardware—central processing units, monitors, hard drives, printers
- Hard disk arrays—redundant array of independent disks (RAID) systems
- Computer software—backup and data recovery, desktop communications, operating system, and configuration management software
What skills are essential for computer support specialist careers?
Computer support specialists work on a daily basis with technical issues and must also guide other people through solutions to their IT problems. As a result, they should have a combination of technical and interpersonal skills, including but not limited to those listed below:
- Problem Solving—computer support specialists must be able to use information gleaned from help requests in order to diagnose specific computer and network problems and identify optimal solutions
- Interpersonal—computer support specialists must skillfully handle difficult computer problems and walk people patiently through solutions
- Listening—computer support specialists must be able to listen to people’s accounts of different computer and network system problems, diagnose the specific causes, and provide the necessary solutions
- Speaking—computer support specialists must be able to not only understand, but also describe computer problems to non-technical people so they can understand as well
- Writing—computer support specialists must also keep records of the computer issues they have helped to resolve, which often entails writing reports. In addition, some specialists may be asked to write instructional manuals or how-to guides for employees or customers who need guidance in routine technical matters
What is the typical job environment for computer support specialists?
As many different companies across a wide range of industries require IT assistance, the work environment for computer support specialists varies greatly. Some computer support specialists work in the IT departments of larger companies, while others work for organizations that specifically address other companies’ IT problems. Still other support specialists travel to customers’ homes to help them resolve issues with their computers, networks, and/or technological devices. Computer support specialists at certain companies may also have the option of working from a home office.
Many computer support specialists spend a good portion of their day at a desk, taking calls and answering emailed requests for IT assistance. These daily responsibilities may lead to eye strain, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and/or poor posture. Computer support specialists who work with servers or larger pieces of computer equipment may be required to lift 20 to 40 pounds while on the job. While many computer support specialists work full time, many do not work normal business hours, but instead work in shifts so customers can receive assistance when they need it.
What associations are helpful for computer support specialists to join?
Many IT associations exist for computer support specialists and other professionals in related fields. These associations are helpful in that they provide members with continuing education courses, networking opportunities, and access to different technology publications that enable them to stay updated on the latest advancements in the field. Examples of such associations include but are not limited to:
- Help Desk Institute (HDI) is an association that offers its members training and certification resources, an online community of fellow members, access to various industry publications and studies, and online seminars. HDI offers different membership levels for students, individual professionals and entire help desk teams.
- Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) offers various levels of membership, including professional, student and enterprise/corporate. Benefits that this association provides include networking opportunities with individuals in the technology field, resources to learn about developments in business and technology, discounts at certain merchants, scholarships and more.
- Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is one of the largest associations worldwide that serves professionals and students in the computing field. Members enjoy such benefits as access to ACM news and publications, online courses, books, and podcasts to supplement their education, a career and job center, member discounts, and other resources/services.
- IEEE Computer Society offers many educational resources to its members, including e-learning courses, online publications and networking and volunteering opportunities that increase one’s exposure to and potential engagement with the fields of technology and computing. Professionals can choose their type of membership based on their field, including software and software systems, computer engineering, information and communications technologies, and security and privacy.
What continuing education and career advancement opportunities do computer support technicians have?
Continuing education courses for IT professionals including computer support specialists are available at career colleges, computer training schools, technical schools, community colleges and some state universities. Some IT associations and technology companies such as Microsoft and Cisco also provide online seminars and/or continuing education courses. Individuals should research the different educational institutions and professional associations that best fit their career and professional goals.
Computer support specialists may be able to work towards more advanced IT careers by improving their technical skills in areas such as software development or network and computer systems administration. Another option is to advance to a managerial role within computer support. To make these advancements, candidates typically need to have several years of professional experience, pursue additional education, and/or gain relevant certifications.
What is the employment outlook for computer support specialists?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the employment of computer support specialists in the U.S. is expected to increase by 18 percent between the years 2010 and 2020. As computer hardware and software advance, more companies will need support in transitioning to new technologies and establishing a stronger online presence.
One field that should see strong employment growth is the healthcare industry. Hospitals and other medical facilities are transitioning from paper to electronic records and using more online communications. Because of this, they may require additional assistance from IT professionals to successfully make this transition.
States with the highest employment level for computer support specialists as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
What is the average computer support specialist salary nationally?
According to bls.gov (2012), the mean compensation for computer support specialists in 2011 was $51,820, or $24.91 per hour in the U.S. Salaries vary according to support specialists’ place of employment, professional experience, and certifications.
Percentile wage estimates for computer support specialists as of May 2011:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Top-paying states for computer support specialists as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
District of Columbia
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
- Network and Computer Systems Administrators organize, install, monitor and support the overall function of an organization’s network and computer systems. They routinely work with network systems such as local area networks, wide area networks and intranets.
- Computer and Information Systems Managers, also known as IT managers, direct and oversee technology companies’ information technology efforts. They plan, organize, and monitor the computer and technology-related projects and activities within an organization.
- Customer Service Representatives work with customers in need of assistance on behalf of a company. They resolve customer complaints and other issues, such as product shipments, returns and basic troubleshooting.
- Computer Programmers write code for software programs. They translate computer program designs into a set of instructions a computer can understand and execute.
- Computer Systems Analysts evaluate the health and efficiency of a company’s computer systems and procedures. They advise company leaders on how to structure their computer systems to optimize efficiency and effectiveness.
- Database Administrators organize, store and secure important company data using various software programs.
- Information Security Analysts make sure that companies adequately secure their sensitive information.
- Web Developers are responsible for designing the creative elements of websites, as well as their underlying structure, with the goal of reflecting a company’s identity and objectives online.
Sources and Additional Information:
"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-support-specialists.htm#tab-1" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook: Computer Support Specialists
"http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes151150.htm" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Employment Statistics: Computer Support Specialists
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/15-1151.00" | O*Net Online: Computer User Support Specialists
"http://www.thinkhdi.com/" | Help Desk Institute
"http://www.aitp.org/" | Association of Information Technology Professionals
"http://www.acm.org/" | Association for Computing Machinery
"http://www.computer.org/portal/web/guest/home" | IEEE Computer Society
Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.