Computer support specialists provide help and advice to people and organizations using computer software or equipment. Some, called computer network support specialists, support information technology (IT) employees within their organization. Others, called computer user support specialists, assist non-IT users who are having computer problems.

Duties

Computer network support specialists typically do the following:

  • Test and evaluate existing network systems
  • Perform regular maintenance to ensure that networks operate correctly
  • Troubleshoot local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), and Internet systems

Computer network support specialists, also called technical support specialists, usually work in their organization’s IT department. They help IT staff analyze, troubleshoot, and evaluate computer network problems. They play an important role in the daily upkeep of their organization’s networks by finding solutions to problems as they occur. Solving an IT problem in a timely manner is important because organizations depend on their computer systems. Technical support specialists may provide assistance to the organization’s computer users through phone, email, or in-person visits. They often work under network and computer systems administrators, who handle more complex tasks.

Computer user support specialists typically do the following:

  • Pay attention to customers when they describe their computer problems
  • Ask customers questions to properly diagnose the problem
  • Walk customers through the recommended problem-solving steps
  • Set up or repair computer equipment and related devices
  • Train users to work with new computer hardware or software, such as printers, word-processing software, and email
  • Assist users in installing software
  • Provide others in the organization with information about what gives customers the most trouble and about other concerns customers have

Computer user support specialists, also called help-desk technicians, usually provide technical help to non-IT computer users. They respond to phone and email requests for help. Sometimes they make site visits so that they can solve a problem in person.

Help-desk technicians may solve a range of problems that vary with the industry and the particular firm. Some technicians work for large software companies or for support service firms and must give instructions to business customers on how to use complex programs. Sometimes they work with other technicians to resolve a problem.

Others work in call centers, answering simpler questions from consumers. Some technicians work for organizations and help non-IT workers with their computer problems.

Work Environment

Computer support specialists held about 722,400 jobs in 2012. They work in many different industries, including information technology (IT), education, finance, healthcare, and telecommunication. Many help-desk technicians work for outside support service firms on a contract basis and provide help to a range of businesses and consumers. 

The industries that employed the most computer network support specialists in 2012 were as follows:

Computer systems design and related services 20%
Telecommunications 10
Finance and insurance 8
Educational services; state, local, and private 8

The industries that employed the most computer user support specialists in 2012 were as follows:

Computer systems design and related services 19%
Educational services; state, local, and private 14
Information 11
Wholesale trade 8

Faster computer networks are making it possible for some support specialists, particularly help-desk technicians, to work from a home office. However, a few specialized help-desk technicians may have to travel to a client’s location to solve a problem.

Work Schedules

Most computer support specialists have full-time work schedules; however, many do not work typical 9-to-5 jobs. Because computer support is important for businesses, support specialists must be available 24 hours a day. As a result, many support specialists must work nights or weekends.

Education and Training

Because of the wide range of skills used in different computer support jobs, there are many paths into the occupation. A bachelor’s degree is required for some computer support specialist positions, but an associate’s degree or postsecondary classes may be enough for others.

Education

Education requirements for computer support specialists vary. Computer user support specialist jobs require some computer knowledge, but not necessarily a postsecondary degree. Applicants who have taken some computer-related classes are often qualified. For computer network support specialists, many employers accept applicants with an associate’s degree, although some prefer applicants to have a bachelor’s degree.

Large software companies that provide support to business users who buy their products or services often require a bachelor’s degree. More technical positions are likely to require a degree in a field such as computer science, engineering, or information science, but for others, the applicant’s field of study is less important.

To keep up with changes in technology, many computer support specialists continue their education throughout their careers.

Training

When they start out, computer user support specialists often work on simple problems. Over time, they learn more about the software or equipment they support and advance to positions that handle complex questions. Advancement can take anywhere from several months to a year, depending on how complicated a position is and how fast the specialist learns.

Advancement

Many of these workers advance to other information technology positions, such as network and computer systems administrators and software developers. Some become managers in the computer support services department. Some organizations provide paths for support specialists to move into other parts of the organization, such as sales. For more information, see the profiles on network and computer systems administrators and software developers.

Important Qualities

Customer service skills. Computer support specialists must be patient and sympathetic. They must often help people who are frustrated with the software or hardware they are trying to use.

Listening skills. Support workers must be able to understand the problem that their customer is describing and know when to ask questions to clarify the situation.

Problem-solving skills. Support workers must identify both simple and complex computer problems, analyze them, and solve them.

Speaking skills. Support workers must describe the solution to a computer problem in a way that a nontechnical person can understand.

Writing skills. Strong writing skills are useful for preparing instructions and email responses for employees and customers, as well as real-time web chat interactions.

Pay

The median annual wage for computer network support specialists was $59,090 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than the amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $34,930, and the top 10 percent earned more than $96,850.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for computer network support specialists in the top four industries in which these specialists worked were as follows:

Telecommunications  $64,780
Finance and insurance 62,750
Computer systems design and related services 60,050
Educational services; state, local, and private 51,920

The median annual wage for computer user support specialists was $46,420 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,620, and the top 10 percent earned more than $77,430.

In May 2012, median annual wages for computer user support specialists in the top four industries in which these specialists worked were as follows:

Wholesale trade  $49,150
Information 47,950
Computer systems design and related services 46,690
Educational services; state, local, and private 43,620

Most computer support specialists have full-time work schedules; however, many do not work typical 9-to-5 jobs. Because computer support is important for businesses, support specialists must be available 24 hours a day. As a result, many support specialists must work nights or weekends.

Job Outlook

Employment of computer support specialists is projected to grow 17 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. More support services will be needed as organizations upgrade their computer equipment and software. Computer support staff will be needed to respond to the installation and repair requirements of increasingly complex computer equipment and software. However, a rise in cloud computing could increase the productivity of computer support specialists, slowing their growth at many firms. Growth will be highest at firms that provide cloud-computing technology. Employment of support specialists in computer systems design and related firms is projected to grow 49 percent from 2012 to 2022.

Employment growth also should be strong in healthcare industries. This field is expected to greatly increase its use of information technology (IT), and support services will be crucial to keep everything running properly.

Some lower level tech support jobs, commonly found in call centers, may be sent to countries that have lower wage rates. However, a recent trend to move jobs to lower cost regions of the United States may offset some loss of jobs to other countries.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be favorable. There are usually clear advancement possibilities for computer support specialists, creating new job openings. Applicants with a bachelor’s degree and a strong technical background should have the best job opportunities.

For More Information

For more information about computer support specialists, visit

Technology Services Industry Association

Help Desk Institute (HDI)

Association of Support Professionals

For more information about computer careers, visit

Association for Computing Machinery

IEEE

Computing Research Association

For information about opportunities for women pursuing information technology careers, visit

National Center for Women and Information Technology

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.