This feature first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
As with a lot of other things that are still hanging around from the '80s and '90s, it can be difficult to fully convey how cool it was to be a tech support professional back in the day. Maybe not cool like being the only kid at your high school with a Members Only jacket. But definitely cool in the sense of having an almost godlike level of knowledge that few others could match and everyone else depended on.
In 2023, computers are as unremarkable as a refrigerator or toaster oven, and having the ability to fix or upgrade them isn't revered in quite the same way that it once was. In the software-dependent cloud computing era, computers are less complicated than they used to be and generally operate much more reliably. A lot of personal computing happens on handheld devices that are easier to replace than repair.
Most people are far more familiar with computers and technology than what used to be commonplace. When an IT mishap does occur, there are innumerable walkthroughs and product guides available online and many people are capable of sorting out a problem on their own. All of which is to say that the role of the modern IT support professional is still important, but also somewhat diminished.
On top of it all, there are machines waiting in the wings to maybe, possibly, someday step in and take over — automated processes and AI-driven replacement technology are casting a long shadow across the help desk of the present. It hasn't happened yet and may not happen soon, however, so businesses and other organizations are still reliant on humans for support.
How reliant? As of 2021 — the most recent headcount — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that there are 875,700 “computer support specialists” in the United States alone. Somewhat worrisomely, on the other hand, only “average” growth — 6 percent — is predicted in the field from 2021 through 2031. Fewer than 57,000 jobs are projected to be added over the next 10 years.
Computer and IT support may no longer be a career unto itself. For the time being, however, there are still quite a few jobs available. And support remains an excellent proving ground for career IT professionals to enter the tech industry and build a strong foundation for future success in cybersecurity, cloud computing, computer networking, and any number of other specializations.
Who's got next?
When ChatGPT reared its loveable head at the end of 2022, the steadily simmering interest in AI and machine learning hit a rolling boil seemingly overnight. The possibilities are limitless! They were limitless before as well, and that didn't get us much closer to realizing them. Still, since many believe the era of human-driven computer support is waning, we referred that question to those already in the field.
There may not be panic in the streets — yet — but the idea is certainly on people's minds: 14.5 percent of those surveyed are very concerned about the possibility of being replaced in some or all of their job responsibilities by automated processes or AI, with a further 18.4 percent who are concerned, and 22.4 percent who are somewhat concerned.
That leaves roughly 45 percent of respondents who essentially shrugged off the possibility entirely, declaring themselves to be not concerned.
And though many companies already use remote call centers to handle IT support, there’s only a moderately higher level of concern among certified support professionals about being replaced in some or all of their job responsibilities by outsourcing or contractors. A fair-sized 17.1 percent of respondents are very concerned, with 19.7 percent who are concerned, and 30 percent who are somewhat concerned.
Despite the fact that replacement by other human workers is a here-and-now possibility, however, the “color me not concerned” slice of the pie accounts for almost exactly one-third of those surveyed.
Getting the job done
The job of an actual computer support specialist requires cordial and effective communication, as well as the ability to address a wide variety of both hardware and software issues. Popular culture, on the other hand, often depicts support specialists as being surly grouches whose work is rarely more complicated than instructing some poor cubicle dweller to either hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete, or turn their computer off and then turn it on again.
Actual certified computer technicians, however, report that their work is rarely listless and dull. Indeed, 72 percent of those surveyed either agree (51.3 percent) or strongly agree (21.1 percent) that the work they do is challenging.
Given that 21.1 percent of those surveyed are on the fence, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, we’re left with only a tiny segment of certified support specialists who are at least a little bored with the work. All told, 5.3 percent of respondents disagree that the work they do is challenging, while 1.3 percent strongly disagree.
There’s less of a consensus regarding how much work there is to be done than whether or not the work is complex and engaging. Roughly 42 percent of respondents either agree (26.3 percent) or strongly agree (15.8 percent) that they are overworked, while 40.8 percent neither agree nor disagree. That leaves 17 percent who either disagree (14.5 percent) or strongly disagree (2.6 percent) that they are overworked.
Certification = employment
Help desk and IT support jobs generally have been a bastion of IT certification for years. And though it’s not exactly what you’d call a stranglehold, certification does have a firm grip on the support industry: A significant 42.3 percent of those surveyed say they were required to hold one or more support credentials in order to accept their current job.
Even in cases where certification is not required, it’s likely to be a factor in any hiring decision that gets made. Asked to estimate the impact of certification on being hired at their current job, 54 percent of certified support specialists said it was either influential (28.2 percent) or very influential (25.6 percent), with an additional 23 percent reporting that certification was at least somewhat influential.
It’s also true that many choose to get certified with an eye on future employment. Setting aside the popular rationales of gaining skills and increasing compensation, we asked those surveyed to name the two most important benefits of getting a certification.
Three of the top four responses are directly employment-related, including the top two. The most popular choice is “Improve or confirm my qualifications for my current job,” followed by the self-affirming desire to “Gain greater confidence in my own skills.” “Gain qualifications for a future job” is next, followed by “Become eligible for positions of greater responsibility with my current employer.”
Workplace and education
Every business needs some degree of IT support in 2023. According to our survey audience, however, a great deal of the computer support jobs available are focused in three workplace sectors: computer or network consulting (20.5 percent of those surveyed), government (19.2 percent), and education (14.1 percent). Other popular employment sectors include manufacturing, finance, telecommunications, and health or medical services.
For teens and young adults who are considering computer support as a potential career, definitely don’t rule out higher education. Among survey respondents, more than 65 percent pursued their formal education far enough to hold some level of university degree, including 40 percent who topped out with a bachelor’s degree, and 24 percent who went one step further and claimed a master’s degree. A valuable middle ground to consider is community colleges: 15 percent of respondents completed their education with an associate's degree.
There’s more information to come from our survey. Over the coming months, we’ll be posting additional findings online at CertMag.com, where you can also find ongoing dispatches from our 2023 Salary Survey.