In today's tough IT job market, experience is more important than ever. There's stiff competition, and a lot of the lower level jobs that are most friendly to entry-level people are prime targets for offshore outsourcing. Even if you are a one-person encyclopedia of technical knowledge, companies won't be calling you for interviews if your resume is blank. Yet, everyone has to start somewhere. So what are the keys to getting a job in IT when you don't have much real-world experience? Here are some things to keep in mind.
A little is better than nothing
The first thing you need to do is to get something down on that resume to pique potential employers' interest. Even having a few weeks of actual time on the job is better than having none, and one way to get a respectable chunk of that time is to take an internship. "People are doing internships these days even if they're not in college," says Allan Hoffman, technology jobs expert at Monster, a leading Internet career site. "Internships can definitely help demonstrate experience."
Internships are frequently unpaid, but most last for a set period of weeks, so it's possible to take one on while you are searching for a job. It may even help in your job search to point out that you are working on an internship, and it's not unheard of that some companies hire interns on a permanent basis when the interning time period is up. To locate an opportunity, check with your educational institution. Most colleges and universities have some sort of referral database with local organizations looking for interns.
If you are not interested in interning, volunteering for your favorite nonprofit group or charitable organization could be another way to earn some flight time, suggests Peter Childers, vice president of Global Learning Services at Raleigh, NC-based Red Hat. "Many organizations need some computing expertise, even to manage membership lists," he points out. "They are often very cash strapped and need people who are cheap. There's a happy marriage of opportunity there."
Hoffman agrees. "I had contact with someone who was volunteering as CTO for a nonprofit while between jobs," he recalls. "Volunteer work will show that you did something meaningful, and you can really make a difference."
Aim high, but be realistic
It can sometimes be hard for new jobseekers to find the most appropriate job openings for which to apply. If you apply for something too far above your experience level, prospective employers will not take you seriously.
"We're not in 1999 anymore," says Hoffman. The days of being able to start at a company and be a CTO in five years have passed. "At this time, and really at any time, you have to start at the bottom of the totem pole."
What are some titles that are most open to entry-level applicants? Randy Russell, director of certification and curriculum at Red Hat, has some suggestions. "Look for titles like Help Desk Technician, Junior System Administrator, Tech Support Level I and PC Technician" for an entry into the IT field.
Sometimes, entry into the IT field may not even come as a job officially in IT. Hoffman advises not taking a rigid stance on the jobs you will consider. "The key is to aim high, but be very flexible and get in market any way you can. This may mean working at a job when only a portion of what you're doing is IT work," he says.
Degrees, certifications and other credentials are also a great way to get paper proof of your knowledge. Even if you have been playing with computer systems on your own and know how to configure a spiffy network, companies like to see a third-party voucher of your knowledge. Certifications appropriate to your field of interest can be one way in the door, especially performance-based certifications such as the Red Hat Certified Technician and Engineer programs.
"Performance-based certifications give you an edge in the absence of on-the-job experience," Childers points out. "People know you had to prove your skills on live systems rather than just take a multiple choice test."
Certifications may be more useful in some fields than others, however, as Hoffman cautions. "I would say that if you're looking to work on help desk or network engineer that's an area where certifications can be important, but consider your field," he says. "In most cases, I think it's best if you can start to gain experience before going for a certification."
Beyond certifications, having a four-year college degree can also give your job marketability a boost. "We're not in 1999 when companies didn't really care about your degree," Hoffman says. "There's no good reason that if you have an opportunity to get a college degree that you should not do it."
Job seekers hoping to work in any field serve themselves well by being enthusiastic. Not surprisingly, this holds true for IT. Hoffman suggests finding ways to demonstrate your initiative in the job interview. "Think of things make an employer say, 'this is someone who is really eager about the field, is enthusiastic and is willing to go the extra mile,'" he says. If you have contributed to open source projects, volunteered, created Web sites for organizations or attended IT forums, you should plan to find a way to talk about those things in a job interview.
The IT field is always developing and even now there is a lot of opportunity for exciting careers. By following these guidelines -- getting some experience on paper, seeking credentials, being flexible and demonstrating enthusiasm -- new IT job seekers can look forward to a fascinating career in the years to come.
Krissi Danielsson is a freelance writer and former TechTarget editor. You can reach her at kdd at danielssonarts dot com.