Does a job on the help desk really require a bachelor’s degree?

While it’s about credentials, this isn’t an academic question for either job seekers or employers. Help desk jobs—formally known as Computer User Support Specialists—often serve as the first step in an IT career. And framing the requirements correctly can make the difference between an employer who fills a job quickly and one who both suffers delays and overpays.

However, there’s a lot to unpack in this large job category, which ranges from positions supporting desktop users to upper-level application specialists requiring advanced programming skills such as Java or SQL. By digging into the specific skills employers request in job ads, we can not only identify the jobs accessible to those with less than a bachelor’s degree, we can also pinpoint the positions which request a B.A. degree, but require only sub-baccalaureate level skills.

Using our Labor Insight analytics tool, Burning Glass has found a robust market for ”middle skill” job seekers on the help desk, identifying more than 126,000 postings in 2015. Some 70% percent of the jobs require less than a B.A., and are strong targets for training programs helping job seekers move into middle skilled roles.[1]

In the remaining 30% of positions, however, employers appear to be acting counterproductively, asking for a bachelor’s degree even when there is no difference in the specific skills cited, and consequently raising the cost of employees and time to hire.

Findings:

Help desk roles typically require candidates to setup and configure personal computers, troubleshoot computing and systems issues, and have a strong service orientation towards the users they support. An A+ certification is the most commonly requested industry credential for these roles. Our analysis found:

  • Help desk roles are large and growing: employers posted over 126,000 jobs, placing them in the top 5% of all occupations by growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects these jobs to grow by more than 20% over the next decade, placing them in top 15% of jobs by growth.
  • Help desk roles are in demand everywhere: Help desk roles in demand across a broad range of industries and geographies. More than half (56%) of roles are outside of the technology sector. Leading employers include banks, hospitals, and all kinds of small and mid-sized employers. As a result of the diverse sources of demand, help desk roles are fairly evenly distributed around the country, with a geographic distribution broader than any other IT role.[2] These roles aren’t just concentrated in technology hubs.
  • Help desk roles require more than just technical skills: Help desk and computer support roles are the interface between IT and the rest of a firm. As such, the role required a mix of skills that goes beyond the technical skills, such as installing software and configuring systems. Customer service and communication, including writing, are also among the most commonly requested skills for these roles. It’s important that training programs place as much emphasis on the human aspects of this role as the technical ones.

While help desk roles offer important opportunity for job seekers, we see examples of dysfunction in the market and the ways the employers are seeking talent for these roles.

  • Do these jobs require a bachelor’s degree? A third of postings (31%) for help desk roles request a bachelor’s degree, but the jobs which do and do not request a B.A .specify exactly the same technical skill requirements.

 

Rank Top Skills Requested in Sub-BA Postings Top Skills Requested in BA Level Postings
1 Technical Support Technical Support
2 Computer Repair Help Desk Support
3 Help Desk Support Software Installation
4 Software Installation Printers
5 Printers Computer Repair
6 Computer Installation and Setup IT Support
7 IT Support Computer Installation and Setup
8 Troubleshooting Technical Issues System and Network Configuration
9 System and Network Configuration Troubleshooting Technical Issues
10 Microsoft Operating Systems Virtual Private Networking (VPN)

 

  • A. help desk jobs cost employers time and money: When employers request a B.A., they appear to disadvantage themselves in the hiring process. When requesting a B.A., employers post at a higher salary, $51,622 vs $40,859, and the roles take 15% longer to fill.

What’s going on? Since the technical skills are the same for B.A. and sub-B.A. help desk roles, employers appear to be using the bachelor’s degree as a proxy for social fit, “soft skills,” or other implicit skill requirements. However, this is likely a crude and ineffective approach. B.A. programs in computer science rarely teach the kinds of basic technical skills (e.g. setting up laptops, troubleshooting printers, etc) required for these roles, particularly when compared with technical training and certification programs which target them directly. Employers hiring for help desk roles with a B.A. requirement are likely to incur higher training costs and may face higher levels of churn as overqualified candidate elect to leave and pursue other opportunities.

Implications:

  • Employers can challenge their assumptions about whether a bachelor’s degree is necessary for each role, by evaluating their technical skill requirements and matching them to the degree or certificate program which best aligns with their specific needs.
  • Training programs and providers, especially those offering sub-B.A. credentials, can challenge employer demand by building relationships with employers in order to demonstrate that their graduates come with the full package skills employers demand, whether they have possess a bachelor’s degree or not.

 

[1] This analysis is conducted by selecting the Computer User Support Specialist Occupation and excluding job the meet the following conditions: require Java, SQL, Linux or UNIX, have a title of Application Analyst or similar, or which require a BA in Computer Science.

[2] We measure this using a Gini coefficient, which assesses the level of inequality for the location quotient of each occupation in each MSAs. Computer Support Specialists have a Gini coefficient of 0.3, making it in the 10% most evenly distributed occupations in our dictionary.

Dan Restuccia is Chief Analytics Officer at Burning Glass Technologies.
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