Boost your chances of securing an IT job by training for an industry standard qualification or certification

A degree in IT or computer science will get your foot in the door as you start your career. However, gaining additional expertise through postgraduate study, a short course or online learning is a great way to show that you have the technical knowledge employers are looking for, especially as professional certifications are very highly valued in the IT sector. Here are some of the areas you can focus on...

Cloud computing

In a survey by the consultancy firm Gartner in June 2016, IT professionals were asked to identify key skills gaps that their organisations faced. They highlighted cloud computing as one of the top shortage areas and identified it as the technology that will have the biggest impact on IT jobs in the next 18 months - making it an attractive field for new entrants.

One route is postgraduate study, with several universities offering courses in cloud computing. You will need to have studied computer science or a related subject at undergraduate level, although applicants with relevant professional experience may also be considered. Masters programmes typically take one year to complete when studied full time, and course fees are generally between £5,000 and £10,000 for UK and European Union (EU) students.

While this will give you a strong grounding in the topic, recruiters tend to look for candidates with an understanding of the specific cloud platform that their company uses. Therefore, working towards professional qualifications may be the best way to develop your skills, especially if you aren't interested in the research element of postgraduate study or are put off by the cost. Online or short courses lasting one to three days usually cost hundreds (rather than thousands) of pounds; to see what's available visit the training websites of major cloud providers, such as:

Cyber security

Governments and companies are increasingly aware of the need to protect their data from deliberate hacks and accidental loss. As a result, the demand for IT professionals who specialise in cyber security is extremely high in both the public and private sectors.

Postgraduate study in cyber security is widely available at UK universities. In most cases these courses take one year to complete if studied full time, with fees for UK and EU students typically between £5,000 and £12,000. Entry requirements typically include a degree in a computing-related subject, but your application may be considered if you can demonstrate your interest in cyber security through work experience. Masters-level study will prepare you for a career in the industry or further study in the form of a PhD.

To help you decide where to study, the UK intelligence agency GCHQ accredits Masters courses. If you successfully complete one of these programmes you will gain additional recognition to help you stand out when applying for jobs.

Once you begin your career, gaining professional qualifications will enable you to progress. For example the National Cyber Security Centre (part of GCHQ) offers its Certified Professional Scheme at practitioner, senior practitioner and lead practitioner levels. This is the UK government's approved standard for cyber security professionals. There are six pathways for different job roles:

  • IA accreditor
  • Security and information risk advisor (SIRA)
  • IA architect
  • IA auditor
  • IT security officer
  • Communications security officer.

You can find out more - including entry requirements, fees, assessment and how to apply - by visiting BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT), a licensed provider of the certification.

Alternatively, a range of cyber security certifications are available from (ISC)2, an international membership association for industry professionals. Another widely recognised qualification is CompTIA's Security+.

IT project management

To find a job in IT project management, you don't need a postgraduate degree, but it's a good idea to gain professional qualifications in the best practice methodologies used in the industry. The most popular of these in the IT sector is Agile. Courses are available throughout the UK, for example through BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT).

The foundation level certificate is assessed through a one-hour multiple-choice exam, while to achieve practitioner status you'll need to complete a three-hour written scenario-based test. Training towards the exam is offered by BCS-accredited providers. Foundation-level courses typically take two days of classroom-based learning, cost around £1,000 and have no specific entry requirements.

Meanwhile, BCS also offer a range of other project management certifications (including PRINCE2 courses) at foundation, practitioner and higher levels.

IT service management (ITSM)

A career in ITSM is about ensuring that an organisation's IT services are delivered effectively, efficiently and reliably to customers. In addition to a degree in an IT-related subject, employers will typically expect you to have (or be willing to work towards) professional qualifications - most commonly ITIL certifications.

Recognised globally, ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) is the most popular best-practice method for IT service management. Certifications are available at foundation, practitioner, intermediate, expert and master levels. These can be studied in the UK through BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT).

To achieve the foundation level certificate required for most entry level jobs, you will need to pass a one-hour multiple-choice exam. Three-day courses are available through BCS-accredited training providers to get you up to speed with the theory. For example, The Knowledge Academy offers the course at various locations throughout the UK, with prices from £399.

Microsoft certifications

Products made by Microsoft are used by countless organisations around the globe, and official Microsoft certifications demonstrating expertise in one or more of these products are looked on favourably by employers. They are available in five broad areas covering various products:

  • Server (Windows Server, Exchange Server, Skype for Business, SharePoint, Microsoft Azure)
  • Desktop (Windows, devices)
  • Applications (Office, Office 365, Microsoft Dynamics)
  • Database (SQL Server)
  • Developer (Visual Studio, SharePoint Applications, Microsoft Azure).

Within each pathway there a number of levels of certification, from entry level Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) through to higher qualifications such as Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE).

Passing exams above MTA level enables you to become recognised as a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), a highly-regarded status within the IT sector.

To prepare yourself for the exams, you can search for Microsoft training. Individual exam fees are typically around £100, but the full cost of training will vary depending on the provider and whether you choose classroom-based or online options.

Network engineering

As a network engineer you'll be responsible for implementing, maintaining, supporting, developing and - in some cases - designing communication networks within or between organisations. Even if you have a degree in IT, employers will most likely expect you to work towards professional qualifications.

The most popular certifications in network engineering are those offered by the market leading technology firm Cisco. There are several different specialist pathways to choose from, such as Design, Industrial, Routing and Switching, Security and Wireless. Whichever track you choose, there are four main levels of certification:

  • CCENT (entry level)
  • Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)
  • Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
  • Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE).

The CCNET certification has no entry requirements and prepares you for higher level qualifications, for which you'll need more experience. Exams last between one and two hours, and are taken online. You can find information about study materials and training on the relevant web page for each qualification.

If you're looking for a certification that is globally recognised but not provided by a particular IT firm for its own products, then you may want to consider CompTIA's Network+ qualification. It is assessed by a 90-minute exam consisting of multiple-choice, drag and drop and performance-based questions. The exam fee is £171. Search for training providers near you on the CompTIA website.

Oracle certifications

The second biggest software company in the world behind Microsoft, Oracle offers globally-recognised certifications in the use of its technologies through its Oracle University portal.

Oracle is best known for its database software and for owning the Java programming language. Covering a huge range of individual products, its certification programme is divided into ten main areas:

  • Applications
  • Database
  • Enterprise Management
  • Foundation
  • Industries
  • Java and Middleware
  • Operating Systems
  • Oracle Cloud
  • Systems
  • Virtualisation.

Well respected in the industry, Oracle certifications are available at five levels: associate, professional, master, expert and specialist. To prepare for the exams, training is offered in a variety of formats including classroom-based, online on-demand and self-study.

Software and mobile app development

There is a shortage of software developers in the UK, as shown by a July 2016 report by the sector skills council Tech Partnership, which found that of all the digital specialist jobs advertised, 27% were for developers. Therefore, gaining skills in this area is a great way to begin a career in the IT sector.

Employers look for candidates with at least a Higher National Diploma (HND), foundation degree or degree in IT, computer science or a related subject. The key to becoming a software developer is to learn and practice one of the most in-demand programming languages, such as:

  • C#
  • C++
  • iOS/Swift
  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • PHP
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • SQL.

You can get started using a free learning platform such as Codecademy. Once you have secured an entry-level job you may want to work towards professional qualifications such as Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer or Oracle's Java certifications, for example.

Postgraduate courses are increasingly available, particularly in the rapidly growing field of mobile app development. On these you will learn about programming for Android, iOS and HTML5 for the mobile web, and get hands-on practice at developing your own apps.

Typically you'll require a degree in computer science or a related subject to get a place on a course, and in some cases you will also need to show that you have existing programming skills. Successfully completing one of these courses will set you up for a career in the sector.

Software testing

By finding bugs and other issues through manual and automated tests, software testers ensure that products created by developers are fit for purpose. Postgraduate study is not necessary, as launching your career in this area is usually possible with a diploma or degree in a computing-related subject. However, taking professional qualifications will allow you to make further progress and demonstrate your skills to employers.

Certifications are available from BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT). Its foundation qualifications have no specific entry requirements and are aimed at anyone involved in software testing or just moving into this field. There are three main options at this level:

  • ISTQB-BCS Certified Tester
  • User Experience (UX)
  • ASTQB Certified Mobile Tester.

Classroom-based training is offered by BCS-accredited providers (for example, QA runs three-day courses costing £1,249 including the examination fee) while online learning is also available in some cases. Assessment is through a one-hour multiple-choice exam. Once you have completed the foundation-level course and gained some professional experience, you will be able to work towards intermediate and higher level certifications.