Industries across the career spectrum and around the world depend on computer networking to keep employees connected and business flowing. And these networks need administrators - hard-working men and women who know their way around a computer and aren't afraid to take a hands-on approach to troubleshooting.
Though network administration isn't for everyone, it offers plenty of rewarding - and profitable - challenges for those who can soak up technical knowledge and put it to practical use. Here are five of the biggest reasons why it could be just the career path you're looking for.
1. You'll learn as you go
Job descriptions in fields like network administration and network engineering tend to lean heavily on buzzwords and phrases like "high-level management," "hardware evaluation," and "network configuration." In truth, though, no two corporate networks are quite alike, and most of a company's network procedures will have been ironed out through a long-term tailoring process. This means that most of a particular job's specifics will be covered in on-site training, as one company's qualifications - elaborate though they may be - aren't likely to translate directly to another company's networking needs.
"A lot of today's networking technology is packaged under a nice user interface," says Misha Hanin, a senior solutions architect at Compugen in Winnipeg, Canada; "but if you really want to become an expert, you have to know what's going on under the hood - and that's where the real fun starts." In other words, the learning curve at a new job will be steep at first - but in the end, the most valuable traits for a network administrator are a head for analytical problem-solving and a drive to dig into the details.
2. You'll be in demand, and demand keeps growing
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the 2012 median annual wage for network administrators at $74,270. But network administrators don't just pull in a wage well above the national median - they're a necessary part of any large company, which means their hiring rate is on an upward curve, even throughout the global recession. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 96,600 new network administration posts will open up between 2010 and 2020, in addition to more than 300,000 such jobs already out there. In short, if you're looking to break into an industry with long-term growth potential, network administration is a solid bet.
3. It's an inroad to nearly any industry
Networks are integral to the functioning of almost any large business, from manufacturing to food service to science and nonprofit activism. Once you've proven yourself as a dependable administrator, you'll be able to market yourself as a useful asset in any form of business that sparks your curiosity. In fact, developing nations are also expressing more interest than ever at building up their technological infrastructure - which means network administration could be your ticket to visit exotic lands across the globe, contributing real-world impact everywhere you go.
4. It opens up new career branches
With a few years of network administration experience under your belt, you'll be better equipped than ever to consider becoming a freelance field technician, a systems analyst, or a network engineer. If you like the security of regular paychecks and health benefits, there will be plenty of needs to fill - but you may also be in a position to consider working from home, setting your own hours, and maybe even charging a consultation fee just for providing your technological expertise. As more businesses come to depend on networks, your options will continue to broaden.
5. It's a challenge worthy of your skill
Though years of computer-science training aren't necessary for an entry-level network administration position, each day offers new opportunities to bring out-of-the-box thinking to tough problems. As you earn the right to be trusted with more responsibility, your technical skills will continue to grow, increasing your confidence - and your value as an intellectual worker. Besides, Hanin says, "our users are sometimes even smarter than we are - they come up with all kinds of funny tricks we'd never have thought of."
Network administration may not be the most glamorous job on the planet - but it offers you a chance to prove to the world how smart you really are, in a way that brings practical benefits to yourself and your co-workers. It's not just any field that can make that claim and back it up.
Ben Thomas writes about careers in network administration, as well as other computer science fields, for The Riley Guide.